Character is having a full-circle moment. For centuries, it was the foundation of leadership development, going back to the teachings of Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. In recent decades, leadership development shifted to an emphasis on competency. We stopped developing who good leaders are and focused primarily on what they do.
High-profile leadership failures such as Enron, WorldCom, Boeing 737 MAX, the Volkswagen emissions scandal, and the downfall of Theranos and FTX clearly demonstrate that technical and business competencies are not enough to ensure success.
As we face more global crises and grand challenges like the rise of artificial intelligence, enthusiasm for authoritarianism, multiple wars, and an inability to engage in meaningful dialogue, it’s increasingly clear we must return to a focus on character if we are to create the citizens, leaders, and organizations the world needs.
The purpose of this two-part Amplify issue on character leadership is to highlight the many ways character matters at the individual, group, organization, and societal level. We go beyond an understanding of character and its importance to demonstrate how we can all develop character and apply it in our organizations.
There is a rising interest in understanding the pivotal role of character in leadership: what it is, how to develop it, and how it affects organizations. Character has been linked to better performance and well-being, as well as excellence and flourishing. In a study by John Sosik, William Gentry, and Jae Chun, four character strengths (integrity, bravery, perspective, and social intelligence) explained 67% of the variance in executive performance.1 In Return on Character, Fred Kiel reported that CEOs who scored high on four character strengths (integrity, responsibility, forgiveness, and compassion) had an average return on assets (ROA) of 9.35% over a two-year period, while CEOs with low ratings had an ROA of 1.93%.2
Research at the Ivey Business School, Western University, Canada, shows that strength of character (11 dimensions: drive, collaboration, humanity, humility, integrity, temperance, justice, accountability, courage, transcendence, and judgment) produces improvements in leaders’ effectiveness (14%), resilience (10%), well-being (8%), promotion potential (6%), employee voice (18%), psychological safety (16%), organizational commitment (8%), work engagement (8%), subjective well-being (4%), job-related well-being (10%), and job satisfaction (10%).3-5
Notably, character’s role in leadership has implications for addressing the grand challenges described by the United Nations (UN) Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs). Solving problems like climate change, social inequalities, poverty, and hunger requires:
The courage to have difficult conversations, speak truth to power, and balance difficult trade-offs
Deep collaboration and dialogue, including trisector collaboration
The temperance to calmly hear people out
The humility to be a continuous learner, knowing that one does not have all the answers
The activation of our common humanity, including compassion toward those suffering inequalities and lack of inclusion
A sense of justice, especially social and environmental justice
Accountability to ourselves and future generations for the planet and the society we have built
The transcendence to look at solutions to the problems we have created and the ability to envision a future where human beings flourish
The drive to not become overwhelmed when pursuing the goal of prosperity for all
The integrity to walk the talk and act on commitments
The ability to exercise (1) complex thinking and (2) “both-and” thinking while optimizing the interests of many stakeholders
Universities are currently hardwired around competences, but this is changing. In 2023, the US’s Wake Forest University’s Program for Leadership and Character received a US $30.7 million grant to create a national network devoted to educating higher-ed students about character. In Canada, Ivey Business School’s Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership seeks to develop global citizens who have strength of character, strive to make a difference, and contribute to the flourishing of teams, organizations, communities, and societies.
In the UK, Oxford University’s Character Project champions good character and responsible leadership through research and programs. Also in the UK, the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, based in the School of Education at the University of Birmingham, has positively impacted education policy in the UK and internationally. Based out of Temasek Polytechnic in Singapore, the Centre for Character & Leadership Education (CCLE) integrates character and leadership development into its curriculum, focusing on students’ holistic growth. The Civic Humanism Center at the University of Navarra, Spain, emphasizes character and professional ethics development through research and collaboration with international networks of researchers. The Center for Leadership at the Ukrainian Catholic University is dedicated to developing socially responsible and character-based leaders by fostering societal development across business, public administration, politics, military, nonprofit, and religious sectors.
These are just a few of the educational institutions around the world striving to transform individuals and society through a focus on character and virtues. The challenge for character-based leaders is to both engage in a character development journey for themselves and embed character in their organizations. This issue of Amplify contains examples from many sectors and a variety of perspectives to show how this can be done.
In This Issue
There are three main themes in this issue. The first is the importance of embedding character dimensions within leadership processes and frameworks, whether through paradigm shifts, Sufi traditions, ethical decision-making, historical perspectives, or education. The second theme is the interconnectedness of individual and organizational systems. Several articles stress the need for alignment between personal character development and broader organizational goals. Effective leadership involves a harmonious relationship between the virtues of leaders and the overarching mission and purpose of the organizations they lead. The third theme is recognizing that leadership responsibility extends beyond traditional performance metrics. Leaders need to recognize their accountability to communities, the broader world, and long-term societal and environmental considerations.
Our first article, by Corey Crossan, Mary Crossan, and Bill Furlong, covers the strategic impact of character development in the public and private sectors. The authors advocate a shift from mere awareness to integrating character development into organizational practices, with an emphasis on the interconnected nature of character dimensions. Introducing the Virtuosity mobile app as a practical tool for character development, the authors propose a strategic embedding process model for sustained change. They highlight the crucial relationship between individual and organizational systems and emphasize the need for alignment. The article concludes with a call to action, asserting that the tools and understanding necessary for achieving lasting impact are readily available.
Next, Muhammed Shaahid Cassim and Fatima Hamdulay explore the concept of heartfelt leadership through the lens of the Islamic Sufi tradition, focusing on tasawwuf, the science of character excellence. Grounded in the belief that the heart is the seat of emotion, spirit, and morality, the authors delve into the Sufi perspective on good character and its role in leadership. They emphasize three considerations (intentionality, entrustment, and sincerity) that govern the heart and its decision-making. Drawing on the Sufi practice of muhasabah (reflexivity), the article argues that heartfelt leadership involves continuous self-examination and alignment with a higher purpose. The authors assert that genuine care, humility, and sincerity are essential for leaders to foster trust and bring about positive impact in their organizations and communities.
In our third piece, Barbara A. Carlin connects character and ethics by delving into sneaky problems commonly faced by managers. Carlin uses two cases to illustrate the often-obscured moral dimensions of business choices and explains how nonmonetary transactions, framing effects, and ill-conceived goals can contribute to ethical lapses. Carlin proposes remedies such as awareness, collaboration, and fostering an ethical organizational culture. She notes that virtues like humility, collaboration, integrity, and courage can help managers recognize and address the ethical nuances of strategic decisions, ultimately fostering a culture of ethical decision-making within organizations.
Next, Karen E. Linkletter explores contemporary and historical perspectives on assessing and developing leadership character. She delves into the question of whether or not character can be learned by examining the viewpoints of philosophers and management gurus. She also explores the liberal arts ideal, which emphasizes education and self-development, contrasting it with modern frameworks such as the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS) and the Ivey Leader Character Framework (ILCF). Linkletter highlights the shift in focus from virtues like integrity and prudence to decision-making capabilities in contemporary character models.
Kimberley Young Milani then explores the intersection of leadership, business, purpose, and sustainability in the contemporary world. She emphasizes the need for leaders to embody both competence and character. The article also looks at the intersection of character and organizational purpose, warning that without character, an organization’s purpose might become a hollow slogan or facade. Examples from Alan Jope, Unilever’s recently retired CEO, and Julia Hoggett, CEO of the London Stock Exchange, richly illustrate how character can shape purpose and leadership in real-world contexts. Ultimately, the article contends that character-infused, purpose-driven leadership can create a better world.
Our final article, by Kanina Blanchard, draws on the findings from a graduate education course that takes a curated approach to self-exploration. Blanchard emphasizes the need for leaders to move beyond traditional metrics and recognize their accountability to communities and the broader world. She reframes responsible decision-making as a journey, highlighting reflection, emotional exploration, and learning from experiences. The article stresses the importance of individual transformation and tangible choices, encouraging continuous learning, humility, and resilience in the pursuit of responsible decision-making.
We hope the articles in the first of this two-part Amplify series inspire your character development journey and help you understand the importance of elevating character alongside competence in individuals, groups, and organizations. As Henry David Thoreau stated, “You cannot dream yourself into a character; you must hammer and forge yourself one.”
1 Sosik, John, William Gentry, and Jae Chun. “The Value of Virtue in the Upper Echelons: A Multisource Examination of Executive Character Strengths and Performance.” The Leadership Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 3, June 2012.
2 Kiel, Fred. Return on Character: The Real Reason Leaders and Their Companies Win. Harvard Business Review Press, 2015.
3 Crossan, Mary, Gerard Seijts, and Bill Furlong. The Character Compass: Transforming Leadership for the 21st Century. Routledge, 2023.
4 Crossan, Mary, Gerard Seijts, and Jeffrey Gandz. Developing Leadership Character. Routledge, 2015.
5 Crossan, Mary, and Bill Furlong. “Society Needs a Leadership Paradigm Shift.” LeadingBlog, LeadershipNow, 4 December 2023.