Post: Putting character to the test

November 4, 2016

Trump and Clinton: Putting character to the test

Originally published in Western News.

Whoever gets elected President of the United States Nov. 6 will face a myriad of challenges to bring a divided country together and achieve prosperity. To do this will require competencies and commitment. But it will also require leader character.

This does not bode well for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump – not to mention American citizens or the world.

As the financial crisis of 2008-09 demonstrated, good leadership consists of competencies, character and commitment to do the hard work of leadership. If any of these three pillars are deficient, the shortfall will undermine the other pillars and, ultimately, lead to performance problems for leaders, organizations and related stakeholders. Of these three, character has traditionally received the least attention, even though it has long been thought to be foundational to good leadership.

In research with fellow Ivey Business School professor Mary Crossan, professor emeritus Jeffrey Gandz and postdoctoral scholars, we treat character as an amalgam of virtues, personality traits and values that enable excellence. Virtues refer to situationally appropriate behaviours widely seen as representative of good leadership, such as courage and temperance. Virtues encompass personality traits such as resiliency and openness, two relatively stable dispositional variables. Virtues can also be seen in an individual’s values, such as behaving equitably.

Research on character is currently bourgeoning and has begun to be incorporated in mainstream leadership research. Character has also attracted the attention of boards in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. This development is, in part, the result of recent crises and scandals in business, sports and government. Notably, the election for the next president has been reduced to a contest of character and fitness to serve. The headlines are telling:

  • ‘Election will put American character to the test’;
  • ‘Trump, Clinton accuse each other of flawed character, judgment’;
  • ‘If character matters, electing either Clinton or Trump would be a moral disaster’; or
  • ‘Why character matters in this election.’

There is a great deal of ambiguity about what is meant by the word character; it appears to be an overly subjective concept. Furthermore, a vocabulary or contemporary language that helps employees, managers and leaders in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors to address character issues in their organizations is largely lacking. This begs the important question – what exactly do we mean when we talk about leader character?

Our qualitative and quantitative research involving more than 2,500 leaders has identified 11 character dimensions: accountability, collaboration, courage, drive, humanity, humility, integrity, judgment, justice, temperance and transcendence. We also identified a set of behaviours associated with each of these character dimensions. Our objective is to help organizations embed character into their processes and systems.

Of course, organizational leaders themselves play a key role in promoting the development of character through such processes as behavioural modeling and coaching the next generation of leaders.

Given the importance of character, and the cavalier use of the word character in our day-to-day conversations, we commissioned a survey of 513 U.S. residents to determine how Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton measure up to the character dimensions. The survey was conducted from Oct. 10-14.

Leadership excellence in the White House was tied for second, with health care influencing the vote for the presidency. Economy and jobs and terrorism and national security were widely regarded as the main issues (tied out of 11 issues) in influencing the vote. Thirty-six percent of the respondents ranked character ahead of competencies and commitment in their vote for the presidency.

In sum, people care about the quality of leadership and appreciate the importance of character.

Four dimensions of character were generally seen as the most essential: accountability, integrity, justice and judgment. Generally, though, the respondents agreed, or strongly agreed, that all 11 dimensions are an essential element for the presidency.

What was most disappointing in the findings is that neither Trump nor Clinton live up to the dimensions seen as most essential. Both score highest on drive and courage. This result, of course, is quite predictable if you are running for the highest office. What is damaging for Trump is his very low score on temperance. In the absence of temperance, drive and courage may result in reckless behaviour. This is something we learned the hard way from the financial crisis. In contrast, temperance is among the highest scores for Clinton. She also outscores Trump on judgment.

What was also remarkable is neither Trump nor Clinton measures up against their own parties’ ratings of the dimensions seen as essential for the role of president. They truly are seen as imperfect, if not flawed candidates.

Lastly, there was a strong gender effect. Women rated Clinton higher than Trump on all character dimensions. This is an important finding since women are an essential group to whomever wins. In 2012, women represented 53 per cent of the voter block. There was no systematic pattern for males.

Predictably, the results showed a strong political affiliation bias.

Trump was rated highest on all dimensions by respondents who identified themselves as Republican or leaning Republican; followed by individuals who identified themselves as Independents or leaning Independents; and, Democrats or leaning Democrats.

The reverse pattern was true for Clinton: She was rated highest on all dimensions by respondents who identified themselves as Democrat or leaning Democrat; followed by individuals who identified themselves as Independent or leaning Independent; and, Republican or leaning Republican. These results reflect a strong rater bias and suggest whoever wins will face significant challenges in terms of establishing credibility and trust with the electorate.

A 2015 Gallup poll showed individuals rated the honesty and ethical standards of business executives as very low. Politicians scored even lower. This trend is reflected in our data. We asked respondents which character dimensions they wished political leaders, as well as business leaders, had more or less of. Respondents indicated they wish both political and business leaders exercise all character dimensions more or much more of. For the most part, respondents expect more from their political leaders than business leaders. This, too, speaks to the deep dissatisfaction with the candidates running for the presidency.

As too many recent examples in business, sports and government have shown, there is a cost associated with bad leader character. And as things stand, both Clinton and Trump would enter the White House with a huge disadvantage in that people are widely suspicious of their character. In other words, the next U.S. president will truly have their character put to the test.

Ivey School of Business professor Gerard Seijts is the executive director of the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership. Brenda Nguyen is an Ivey postdoctoral scholar.

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