Consider a few of the business scandals that have plagued our time: Wells Fargo, Volkswagen, the financial crisis of 2008 — and consider the resulting horrific loss of shareholder value. How did these missteps happen? The communities served by these organizations (customers, consumers and citizens) judged these as scandals as much on lack of “good” character as lack of competence.
Yet, good character continues to elude us as a capability by which we judge leaders. Gerard Seijts is on a mission to change that. He and his colleagues’ research into character and leadership resulted in an evidence-based conclusion that good character is as important a part of effectiveness as competency and commitment (the traditional “skill and will”). Seijts calls upon us to “make sure we elevate the importance of leader character to the same level.”
What do we do with this insight? How do we, as citizens, consumers and human capital professionals, create a new gold standard of performance where hitting the financial goals and demonstrating good character become the measure of an effective leader? The means to do so must come from society, from our organizations and from us.
Societally, we need to advance the conversation by socializing the topic using, for example, Seijts’ vocabulary of character dimensions.
Collectively, we must make it explicit that strong financial results do not forgive bad character. Specifically, as shareholders, we must agree on the perspective that value be linked to higher pursuits than purely short-term financial gains. This not only implies greater transparency, but also vigilance in order to hold to account the generators of this new gold standard.
Organizationally, “values” can no longer be perceived as words on the wall of the reception area. The diverse drivers of culture must be explicit about how organizational values intersect the values of shareholders and the communities served. Staff must be clear on the “non-negotiables” and the consequences of crossing the line.
Individually, what can we as human capital professionals do to put leader character into action? We can integrate tools and processes that measure and develop character alongside competencies, meaning we provide objective feedback mechanisms for leaders to gain self-awareness, strengthen character dimensions and leadership accountability.
But let us not fall into the trap of being the ethics police — the job of line managers who will do so using their own good character. Let us play the long game by bringing up character at every opportunity during recruitment, retention and development discussions, and leading by example.
Michael Clark is director of business development at Forrest & Company, an organizational transformation firm with 30 years of experience developing capacity in organizations. Deborah Jann is an independent consultant specializing in learning experience design and the facilitation of active learning programs with 20 years’ experience in elevating organizational performance.
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