When Mary Crossan, Gerard Seijts, and Bill Furlong considered what was needed for leaders, employees, and corporations to thrive in the current global environment, every road they explored led back to character. In particular, they saw the need to prioritize character at the same level as competencies within organizations to achieve results.

”There are multiple crises facing the world right now, and it seems clear that we are struggling to navigate our way through them. A lot of smart people are working hard to try to find solutions but there seems to be something missing, and we think that something is character,” said Furlong, Executive-in-Residence at the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership at Ivey Business School.

“Given the complex, ambiguous, uncertain, high-pressure nature of the workplace in which Ivey graduates are heading into, and the struggles people are having with well-being, it would be irresponsible, frankly, to send anyone into that environment without the strength of character to be able to navigate it,” he said.

Furlong, along with Ivey professors Crossan, MBA ’85, PhD ’91, and Seijts, combined their decades of experience into their new book, The Character Compass: Transforming Leadership for the 21st Century. The book is a practical, evidence-based guide for practitioners to take stock of – and reshape – their character and that of their organizations to create sustained excellence and improve personal well-being.

Elevating character elevates performance

The book also dispels several myths around character and looks to shift the way we talk about it as “good” or “bad,” since this minimizes how crucial character and judgment are for organizations to achieve or surpass goals. The dimension of judgment is at the core of the leadership character framework.

“Our aim was to elevate character alongside competence in organizations (because) we have these big blind spots that have continued to fuel, in organizations and individuals, the overweighting of some dimensions of character and the underweighting of others,” said Crossan, Distinguished University Professor, whose work focuses on organizational learning, strategy, leadership character, and improvisation.

As an example, Crossan said every organization values integrity but there is little understanding of what it is, beyond a sense that people are truthful and ethical, and little attention to developing it. She likened it to telling people to run a marathon and not train for it. Instead, she said organizations need to consider how are they developing integrity (being authentic, candid, transparent, principled and consistent) and how can they ensure that what could be a character strength is not operating as a vice?  For instance, strong integrity not supported by strength in humility and humanity leads to the kind of toxic behaviour prevalent in many organizations where people stand on integrity, but are simply rigid and uncompromising.

“Character has been neglected in discussions of culture or risk management or equity, diversity, and inclusion, so, for all our big processes and practices, we’re flying blind on character,” Crossan said. “Part of our course correction in the book is to help people begin to see how we could adjust those systems to enable the individual to flourish within them.”

And when it comes to strong character and high-performance, she adds, there is no trade-off.

“I don't actually know of anything else that has a quality of hitting these two high points of well-being and sustained excellence,” Crossan said, noting that character is, in fact, what can help deliver the type of performance individuals and companies are after.

Developing character

Among the key takeaways the authors hope readers will adopt are the ideas that people have an opportunity to lead regardless of where they sit in an organization, and that character can be developed and changed at any time. There is no subjective “X factor” that makes someone a great leader; but rather an objective, measurable framework people can use to develop the qualities that will help them grow into the type of person and leader they want to be.

The Character Compass also emphasizes that it’s never too late to improve on this, because character isn’t predetermined. It’s a set of habits that build over time, for better or worse, based on what they call “micro-moments,” or choices, that add up to determine a person’s character. With clear understanding about what character is and how it can be developed, we can intentionally work to develop character, the authors point out.

“You can always change a bad habit, and once we think about it in that fashion, as opposed to perhaps trying to change your DNA, (you realize) that it’s really keeping it at the forefront of your mind for five to 10 minutes a day. And those micro-moments can transform your day enormously and surprisingly,” Furlong said.

He shares his own character journey in the book, where the authors propose three key questions readers should also ask themselves as they begin theirs:

  • Who have I become while I’ve been busy doing?
  • Who am I becoming while I’m busy doing?
  • Who do I want to become while I’m busy doing?

“You start with yourself; you need to have an honest understanding of what character is and of your own character, and how it can be changed. Then you start to change it. That's where the world starts to change, literally one person's character at a time,” he said.

Character as a competitive advantage

Ivey has been a world leader in finding practical ways to elevate leader character alongside competence since 2008 when the book Leadership on Trial was published in the aftermath of the economic crisis. The School has since built on its character research, which is arguably one of the most ancient areas of study, to forge connections to management practice, and develop a leader character framework. The leader character framework is a foundation to assess and develop character and is a key tenet of the School’s teaching. This provides a structure for students to think about character, which gives them, and anyone willing to apply the learnings from The Character Compass, a competitive edge, Crossan and Furlong said.

The authors note that most organizations still haven’t come to grips with the importance of hiring or promoting based on character as well as competence, and are finding it increasingly difficult to hire the right people, and keep external stakeholders happy. The book provides insight into how organizations are selecting on character as well as competence.

“Culture is a reflection of the character of the individuals within the organization, and because there hasn’t been a focus on understanding how character operates, (we’ve seen) some really toxic cultures,” Crossan said. 

The book also provides insights into how organizations are working to cultivate character-based cultures, based on the authors’ work in the field.  

“I have been working in the strategy field for close to four decades and have seen many organizations struggle with culture,” said Crossan. “What has become apparent is that 90 per cent of what every organization seeks around culture is a character-based culture. In the book, we describe what that is and how to cultivate it.”

In fact, the book includes several examples, from Theranos and Volkswagen to Enron and Boeing – all corporate misfortunes which, the authors argue, came down to “a failure of character.” With these examples, they draw links between character, risk management, and economic value and point to ways in which leaders can look to character to understand how decision-making can go off the rails.

“Those were examples where competency ruled, quantitative targets were sought to be achieved, character was repressed, and catastrophes ensued,” said Crossan. “Character has the capacity to leverage everything and enrich it. Absence of character has the capacity to actually make things significantly worse.”

For Furlong, this also means there’s still a first-mover competitive advantage to those who take on the challenges laid out in the book’s roadmap – both personally and professionally.

“We truly believe that the work around leader character has the capacity to transform lives – we’ve seen it in ourselves, we’ve seen it in others, we’ve watched organizations start to change,” he said.  “The power of the work and the capacity to transform individuals, teams, groups, organizations, and the communities in which they all live and work is, we think, remarkable.”

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  • Evolution of work
  • Mary Crossan
  • Gerard Seijts
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