Dealing with Workplace Conflict
Fraud in the Workplace: Building an Ethical Organization Environment

Character and Leadership in the Workplace

Individual Character and Organization Culture is the Basis for Ethical Behavior

I recently read about a “Character is Destiny” program at Pepperdine University. The mantra for the program is “For individuals, character is destiny. For organizations, culture is destiny.”  How true it is that the character of top leaders of an organization establishes the culture of the firm and is the key to ethical behavior. Workplace ethics depends on leaders with strong character who are not afraid to make an unpopular but ethical decision when conflicts exist.

The sum of virtues, values and traits equals good character, which, in addition to competence and commitment, is one of the three ingredients that make a leader effective and respected. Honesty, trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, accountability, fair treatment, and integrity are the cornerstones of good character. Wisdom, knowledge, and ethical reasoning are the tools that enable these traits of good character to flourish in an organization.

In an article I recently read to prepare for my ethics class, the authors point out that when it comes to leadership, competencies determine what a person can do. Commitment determines what they want to do, and character determines what they will do.

The authors believe character is foundational for effective decision-making.  Clearly, mistakes are made because of a leader’s shortcomings in his or her competencies.  More often, the root cause is a failing of character.  For example, not recognizing or not willing to admit that you don’t have the requisite competencies to succeed in the leadership role is rooted in character.  Not willing to listen to those who can do well because of the perception that it would undermine your leadership is a problem rooted in character.  Challenging decisions being made by others but which you feel are wrong requires character.  Dealing with discriminatory behaviors by others requires character.  Creating a culture of constructive dissent so that others may challenge your decisions without fear of consequences requires character.  

Character is not something that you have or don’t have.  All of us have character, but the key is the extent of development of each element of character that enables us to lead in a holistic way.  Character is not a light switch that can be turned on and off.  There are degrees, and every situation presents a different experience and opportunity to learn and deepen character.  In particular, and for better or for worse, character becomes critical when managing a crisis.  No one is perfect when it comes to character, and given that its development is a lifelong journey, a person will rise to the occasion in some situations and disappoint themselves and those around them in others. 

As the authors so rightly point out, good people may miss the mark because they stop listening; they become overconfident in their decision-making skills; they become blind to important contextual variables; their emotions hijack their self-control, and so on.  Even good people are fallible.  But since we tend to judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior it is easy to become jaded about character.  How could someone preach one thing and do another?   The point is that in this lifelong journey, we need to appreciate what it takes to develop the habits around character, and to enable the conversations within ourselves and with others that strengthen rather than undermine character.

There is a famous saying that I always use in teaching leadership ethics– “Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny” (author unknown).

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 11, 2013