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Character is a critical element of leadership, but it does not get the attention afforded to competency. Research by Ivey Professors Mary Crossan and Gerard Seijts is changing the nature of the conversation about good leadership by elevating the value of a leader’s character.
The origins of the work on leader character really can be traced back to the financial crisis of 2008. At that time, a group of Ivey faculty got together and really explored the role of leadership before, during, and after the crisis. We conducted many interviews, focus groups with business executives, individuals from the C-suite across Canada, New York, Hong Kong, and London England. And we published this book, Leadership on Trial: A Manifesto for Leadership Development. Many conclusions, but a key sentence, a key lesson, a key insight from that work was competencies count, character matters, and commitment to the role of leadership is critical to individual and to organizational success.
The shortcomings of a lot of the theories and approaches to leadership are the fact that they’ve really overweighted on competency and they’ve underweighted on areas that we’ve determined to be incredibly important. Areas around character, leader character and the commitment to lead. Even if we take character as a really key piece. It’s who is the leader, not simply about what is it that they can do. Our leadership theories have been really focusing on the position to lead as opposed to the disposition to lead, and leadership then needs to exist everywhere in the organization in terms of being able to exercise leadership. And I think finally even in areas where we’ve looked at aspects about character, we’ve overweighted things like courage and drive, and underweighted really important dimensions of character like things like humility of the leader, and humanity of a leader for example.
One of the things we realized early on was that it was very important to go from talking about leader character to actually doing something about it. One of the things our work has revealed is that there are 11 character dimensions, things like integrity, collaboration, judgment, transcendence, and then of course, the question is how would you develop this.
Character can most definitely be developed. There is a belief that you are either born with character or develop it by the time you’re five, whereas our research reveals that it’s a lifelong journey actually – the development of character. And the opportunity to develop character exists in daily living. Character is a habit of being and everything that we do actually has an opportunity to either deepen or undermine character. We’re developing character in many different ways. In some cases, we’re using classroom settings and some cases, using simulations. And, we have a diagnostic actually that looks at self assessment around character and 360 assessment. And these prove to be quite pivotal in helping people to develop character.
We connected with business leaders on our work on leader character in at least three distinct ways. It is through research — much of what we have done, in the area of leader character, was co-created with senior executives in organizations. We connected with leaders and practitioners from our teaching, obviously we need cases in this very important area. And in many ways, what we’ve seen in courses, is that leaders played a critical role as mentors, as teachers. Very important also is the outreach piece, people like Jeffrey Gandz, Mary Crossan, myself have been very active in writing practitioner-oriented pieces. We have been invited for many presentations in the public, private, and not-for-profit sector, and also now on the books is a conference on character where we bring both scholars and practitioners together to discuss this important topic, and see what else needs to be done to move it forward.