A recent HBR article drew attention to a study that revealed organizations with highly principled leaders performed significant notches better. Specifically, their average return on assets was five times over companies whose leadership did not enjoy confidence in their character.
Now that we have dispensed with the need to prove the obvious, let us turn to the trait we call character. The study identified four moral principles—integrity, responsibility, forgiveness, and compassion—as the cornerstones of character. Interesting aren’t they? Especially as we use the first two more as jargonized parlance, and look down on the next two as the very antithesis of strength and aggression to achieve results for shareholders.
Character. We are in awe of it when we feel it, and when the leader radiates it. Yet precision eludes us as we grapple to define or describe it.
A bulb tellingly flashes in my mind. Is my character where my head and heart joins? Where my thoughts, feelings and actions seamlessly move in total harmony into my behavior? A behavior that I do not hide in my self, but bring to life through my relationships with others?
Each of us constantly makes signature decisions about how we interact with others. When our behavior enhances the well being of others, character springs to life. It is the discovery and sustained practice of promoting the most good for the most people.
I hear the impatience. Sounds great, but can we be realistic please?
So here goes the realist’s argument. In a bottom-line-driven economy what role can character possibly play in organizational success? Honesty, compassion, forgiveness – don’t tell me these can help deliver the top-line and bottom-line goods.
But the HBR survey did just that, didn’t it? It found a strong and robust relationship between strength of character and business performance.
So, back to the annoying idealist.
Meet goals, crank profits? Hmmm…not enough. Use both head and heart to orchestrate an inclusive high-performance? Now we are talking!
For starters, let us look at the leadership competencies we spout, and tweak them to infuse ‘character’.
“Pursuit of Excellence” – going above and beyond the ordinary to achieve goals, is that what they say?
Character adds transcendence as a vital dimension – to display courage, creativity and positivity to do what is right rather than pursuing the expedient.
“Drive” – the vigor that achieves stretch goals through execution excellence, say the pundits.
Character weaves positive humility into it – self-awareness, the ability to reflect and motivate, and gratitude to colleagueship that makes success possible.
“Accountability” – we look at this as a broad umbrella of ownership.
Character threads humanity through empathy and magnanimity to forge followership as its fundamental strength.
“Results-driven decisiveness” – we define it as the ability to make sound, timely and defensible decisions, especially in crises.
Character percolates integrity, temperance and justice – and lends authenticity to success in today’s profit-maximizing context of business.
The good news is that it is not important to ascertain if we are born with character. We just need to develop it and keep honing it as we act and lead. As the HBR study reveals, it is neither a subjective construct nor a ‘soft’ and non-quantifiable strength in a world that looks for hard data.
As we move up the ladder, we sometimes become unaware of the repercussions of the outward display of our character. Self-awareness is the key, especially to the nuances that infuse character to critical leadership competencies. Importantly, we do not have to wait for a destination for such awareness to kick in. Frontline and middle-level managers will do well to focus on social intelligence and integrity; senior leaders will do better to be open to honest feedback. For character is as much a winning differentiator by its presence as it is a crippling blind spot by its absence.