Enduring, purposeful careers have more to do with character development than anything else
“When executives win with character, not only will they build a leadership legacy that lasts, they will experience enduring feelings of fulfilment and satisfaction,” said Jim Loehr.
In his book, The Only Way to Win, Loehr wrote that building character is key for individuals at all levels of the organisation to deal effectively with the “relentless” competitive demands of the business world.
The author, performance psychologist, and co-founder of the Human Performance Institute, has worked with hundreds of world-class performers from various fields like sports, medicine and business, including Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 executives.
Through his experience, he has found that happier, more fulfilled people are able to bounce back and perform better under high-stress conditions, compared with those who aren’t.
He demonstrated that more than anything, fulfilment begins with repurposing ‘external achievements’ and aligning them with values, while building character strength.
Impact of moral leaders
An unwavering character is crucial for an impactful leadership – whether in managing others or yourself.
Personal leadership skills like effective communication, motivation, trustworthiness and responsibility are vital not just for promotions anymore. They’re relevant for anyone wanting an enduring and successful career.
Yet, as Loehr found out, not enough training is conducted in those areas. This, even as organisations scramble to equip employees with ‘future-ready’, digital skills to ride out the unpredictable waves of disruption.
“With all the leadership training executives typically receive, wouldn’t it be logical to expect that the moral character of leaders would improve?” he wrote. “Tragically, very little training is devoted to developing strengths of character like humility, respect for others, integrity, compassion, truthfulness, loyalty, or generosity.
“Leaders are clearly expected to possess such ethical strengths, but they are pretty much on their own to fill any deficiencies.”
When leaders are lacking in those areas, the consequences can get ugly. See examples in:
- Amnesty International’s ‘toxic’ workplace and allegedly abusive management
- Volkswagen’s emissions scandal and claimed ‘dictatorial’ culture
- Snapchat’s sexist culture and former CHRO’s involvement
To avoid creating such environments and build an engaged and resilient organisation, he said that leaders need to stay committed to continuous character training, for themselves as well as their team.
12 steps to build character strength
Character training is no mean feat. Loehr acknowledged that ‘character issues’ are highly personal – particularly when they involve moral conduct – and especially when others are involved. There are hence several questions that need addressing first.
- How do you get people to confront their deficiencies without becoming defensive?
- Even if people accept the affront, what could you practically do to help them convert their weaknesses into strengths?
Even Loehr shared that his team have struggled with those questions for years. However, leaders can engage in the following 12-step exercise, for their team and themselves, to build character strength.
Step 1: Read the company’s mission statement. Loehr said the statement should speak not only to what the company aims to do, such as be profitable, but how it aims to do it – example, with integrity and fairness. Discuss with your team what values are apparent or implied, and how it helps them fulfil their job responsibilities.
Step 2: Discuss how the mission statement aligns with their moral values. “This is an excellent time to make the distinction between moral/ethical strengths of character and performance strengths,” he said.
Step 3: Craft a ‘life mission statement’. This should be as accurate as possible and define exactly how you must conduct your life to be truly successful. Everyone should then be encouraged to identify the moral and performance strengths embedded in their statement.
Step 4: Discuss any alignment between the company’s and personal mission statement. If they overlap, it means who you need to be to succeed in life and at work are one and the same – “a true win/win”.
Step 5: Write for 10 mins about your “best self”. What are you most proud of? What character strengths do you most embody? Compare the three – your “best self”, life mission statement and company statement. “To what extent are you at your best for the company when you embody your ‘best self’?”
Step 6: Build your own character scorecards. This should have the top character strengths necessary to fulfil the life mission statement. Loehr wrote that some companies are even linking such character assessments to performance reviews and compensation – practical next step.
Step 7: Design a character-based weekly training log. This helps to track progress of any improvements and efforts made. “As every successful businessperson knows, what gets measured gets done,” he wrote.
Step 8: Encourage feedback sharing on character flaws from teammates. “Soliciting ‘face the truth’ feedback, as hard as it might be to digest, is critical to sustained growth,” he wrote.
Step 9: Keep a constant reminder that moral character is most obvious in interactions. Encourage the writing of scripts for critical conversations with clients or colleagues to ensure alignment with values. Better yet, share the scripts anonymously to accelerate learning.
Step 10: Model every character lesson you want your team to learn. As a leader, you need to ‘walk the talk’ and constantly demonstrate a genuine commitment to both your personal and company missions.
Step 11: Make ethical character the gold standard of your leadership. Acknowledge exemplary ethical behaviour whenever and wherever you can.
Step 12: If someone refuses to grow, let that person go. If not addressed, the lack of moral strength can jeopardise the entire business. It’s not just a ‘nice-to-have’.
“Unfortunately, moral deficits do exist among employees, and those deficits can have devastating consequences for the businesses that employ them, as time has repeatedly shown,” Loehr wrote.
“Ethical deficits can and must be addressed by leaders in the same way they address all business imperatives.”