Leading Blog


Society Needs a Leadership Paradigm Shift

Leadership Paradigm Shift

THE contemplation of character has engaged great minds reaching back to Confucius, Aristotle, and Plato. Building on the shoulders of such philosophical giants and the subsequent research over millennia, science has further defined, assessed, and developed the concept of character to apply findings to organizational leadership.

But what has become abundantly clear is that disregarding the science of leaders’ character has led to incredible dysfunction for organizations and society as a whole. In countless cases, leaders have missed opportunities to tap into the enormous potential associated with the development of character to create innovation and excellence.

What the Science of Leadership Character Reveals

In Fred Kiel’s groundbreaking book, Return on Character, he discussed the seven-year study of 84 CEOS, their executive staffs, and their employees, which found that CEOs with strength of character brought in nearly five times greater return on assets and enjoyed a 26 percent higher level of workforce engagement.

Further research at the Ivey Business School has revealed the following benefits of leaders moving from weak to strong character:

  • 14% increase in leader effectiveness
  • 10% increase in leader resilience
  • 8% increase in leader well-being
  • 6% increase in promotion potential
  • 18% increase in employee voice
  • 16% improvement in psychological safety
  • 8% increase in organizational commitment
  • 8% increase in work engagement
  • 4% increase in subjective well-being
  • 10% increase in job-related well-being
  • 10% improvement in job satisfaction

Taking into consideration two of these benefits — employee voice (18%) and psychological safety (16%) — alone gives all the evidence needed to show that you can’t turn a blind eye to the development of character. These metrics relate to judgment and decision-making in organizations, and it’s easy to see that if the leader doesn’t allow employees to feel psychologically safe, they won’t voice their concerns, nor will they engage in risk-taking needed for innovation for fear of reprisal.

Let’s take a look at the anatomy of character, how it establishes itself, and what leaders can do about it.

Our research reveals a consistent overweighting of the character dimensions of drive, accountability, and integrity and an associated under-weighting of temperance, transcendence, humility, and humanity. However, when the traits associated with integrity — being authentic, candid, transparent, principled, and consistent — are overweighted without being counterbalanced by the under-weighted dimensions — self-awareness, vulnerability, empathy, compassion, patience, and calm, a person can end up being a bully, abrasive, dogmatic, and toxic.

In terms of psychological safety, how safe do employees feel when their leaders are bullies, abrasive, dogmatic, and toxic? How likely are employees going to speak up under these conditions? The anatomy of character explains the persistence of toxicity in organizations — and these are matters of character, not matters of competence.

Now consider what enables high performance in organizations. The space for innovation and growth relies on dimensions of character that are often in short supply, like transcendence — being appreciative, inspired, purposive, optimistic, creative, and future-oriented.

The beauty associated with the science of character development is that investments made to develop character underpin all key metrics of the organization.

The Underlying Problem

Among thousands of leaders with whom we’ve worked, few would describe themselves as ineffective or toxic leaders until they see themselves through others’ eyes. We tend to judge ourselves on our intentions and others on their behavior, and the gap between them is significant. This is compounded by the fact that self-awareness — a behavior associated with humility — is exceptionally weak. Research reveals that although 85 percent of people believe they’re self-aware, only 10 percent actually are.

We’ve constructed an “anatomy of leader character” based on a set of 11 dimensions and associated behaviors. This is only the starting point, but that starting point provides an exceptionally solid research base to support the paradigm shift to elevate character alongside competence. A key part of the science shows that character and competence are like apples and oranges in terms of what they are, how they need to be developed, and how they can be applied. Too often in organizations, the notion of competency drifts into that of character, missing the fundamental tenet that character is a habit of being that permeates a person’s personal and professional life, and, importantly, that the dimensions of character are interconnected. The conditions that we thought of as a strength are actually operating like a vice.

Making the Necessary Course Correction

Although it won’t happen overnight, these key steps will promote the needed paradigm shift to develop positive dimensions of character:

1. Cultivate awareness: The paradigm shift starts with a clear understanding of what character is and how it operates. Extensive research and analysis concerning this can equip leaders with the necessary means to scale it in their own organizations. It is critical to understand that character is not just about morals and ethics but, in its fullest form, about human flourishing through better judgments and well-being. It’s this more complete formulation and habit of character that we look to import into leaders’ lives. This step is straightforward and quite doable.

2. Attend to your character development: Again, many resources are available to start this journey, including an app to develop character. The more you apply yourself toward character development, the better able you are to observe it in yourself and in others. It tends to snowball; it’s contagious. You begin to understand the ways in which your organization enables or inhibits the development of character and where the overweighting and underweighting are occurring.

3. Work on the organization: Organizations are hard-wired around competence. Simply put, wherever competence resides, character belongs. This is a more difficult part of the journey, and for leaders to take on an organizational paradigm shift, it needs to course correct throughout. For example, all facets of selection, promotion, and rewards must be undertaken through the lens of character.

This may sound daunting, but many organizations are embarking on the journey — from nonprofits, to professional sports teams, to healthcare organizations, to financial institutions, and more. The science surrounding character provides the critical compass for the path forward.

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Leading Forum
Mary Crossan is Professor of Strategic Leadership at the Ivey Business School, Western University. Her research on leader character, organizational learning, and strategic renewal is widely published. Bill Furlong is an executive in residence at the Ivey Business School, a co-founder with Mary Crossan of Leader Character Associates Inc., and founder and co-host with Mary Crossan of the “Question of Character” podcast. He is director of the CAA Group of Companies, an adjudicator with the Capital Markets Tribunal, and from 2015 to 2019 was a commissioner with the Ontario Securities Commission. Furlong held senior global leadership roles at TD Securities, retiring in 2012 as vice chair. Their new book, with co-author Gerald Seijts, is The Character Compass: Transforming Leadership for the 21st Century (Routledge, Oct. 30, 2023). Learn more at leadercharacterassociates.com.

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 06:48 AM
| Comments (0) | This post is about Leadership Development



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