Embedding Character Leadership into Organizational DNA — Opening Statement

Posted January 29, 2024 | Leadership | Amplify
Embedding Character Leadership into Organizational DNA


In the first issue of our two-part Amplify series on character leadership, we highlighted the many ways character matters at the individual, group, organizational, and societal level, and we positioned character as a differentiating factor in terms of the quality of judgment it supports.1 In this second issue, we bring you examples of how character leadership goes beyond the individual to become part of organizational DNA. In this sense, we can talk about groups and organizations as having strong or weak character.

Think about the implosions at Enron, Wells Fargo, Boeing, and Volkswagen: their falls were not the product of one person (a “bad apple”) but of negative character contagion from individuals to groups, leading to corrupted cultures that ended up collapsing.2 Character, for better or for worse, can reside in groups such as boards of directors, top management teams, high-performance teams, and any group of people working together. Furthermore, character can become embedded in an organization’s non-human repositories, including culture; systems such as HR recruitment, selection, promotion, and performance management;3 practices such as diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI); and training on things like employee well-being and stress management.

The idea is to embed character in culture (i.e., “how we do things around here”) and strategy (i.e., “where do we want to go and how do we get there”) such that character becomes a foundational pillar that supports quality decision-making and sustains broad initiatives.

DEI is a key theme in this issue. Character supports DEI, and DEI tests and builds character.4,5 Eliminating unconscious bias, eradicating racial and gender inequality, and embracing neurodiversity (among the many social justice challenges of our times) require organizational cultures rooted in humanity, justice, courage, humility, drive, collaboration, temperance, transcendence, accountability, integrity, and judgment.6 Importantly, striving for strength of character in different character dimensions does not negate the uniqueness of our character development journeys and the distinctive ways character is expressed, given differences in gender, age, background, culture, country of origin, etc.

Character can also be embedded in strategic leadership groups, such as the board of directors. Character is seldom explicitly addressed or used in board processes or functions like hiring the right CEO or selecting/renewing board members.7 Selection processes at this level often consider only a vague sense of “Is this person a good fit?” or “Does this candidate have a good reputation?” Imagine the benefits of boards formed of members with (1) a highly developed self-awareness of their character strengths and weaknesses and (2) board systems and processes that contribute to character-based organizations.8

A common problem in organizations is that they “hire for competence and fire for character.” Nevertheless, some organizations like the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA) are already relying on character-based interviews (in addition to competence interviews) for recruitment, selection, performance management, and promotion.9 Typical competence questions/requests, such as “Provide an example of when you did something” or “What would you do in a particular scenario,” are not geared toward understanding one’s character. These questions get at what someone will do, not at who they are. Character-based interviews are about “peeling an onion” and can be described as basic life conversations in which the interviewer keeps probing to better understand the essence of who someone is and why they are that way.10 

This Amplify issue portrays the various levels in which character resides — individuals, groups, and organizations — and the processes that show how character manifests in organizations. Individuals develop and activate character when they have the awareness and intentionality to exercise character on a daily basis. Character contagion means that character activation in one person can lead to character activation in others (for better or worse). Finally, character embedding means that character can be institutionalized in organizational repositories when practices reflect the set of character-related behaviors (e.g., the CRA example above).11

While it is crucial to first acknowledge the importance of character at the individual level, the articles in this issue illuminate the transformative power of embedding character, shaping a future in which character is not just an individual goal but an organizational imperative, intricately woven into the DNA of a character-based organization.

In This Issue

This issue of Amplify crosses through three themes. The first is well-being and stress management, proposing that character leadership development and mindfulness training help individuals navigate complex organizational environments more effectively. The second theme is the strategic embedding of character to advance DEI initiatives and foster a culture of inclusivity. Finally, the third theme recognizes that character resides in strategic leadership teams and high-performance teams, which has important implications for decision-making, the pursuit of excellence, and performance.

Multiple strategic leaders and teams are covered in this issue. Some articles highlight the importance of embedding character at the board level, where character enhances the board’s ability to fulfill its duty to stakeholders. Additionally, high-performance teams rely on embedding humanity and collaboration in their cultures. Lastly, CEOs are the ultimate strategic leaders because organizations are often a reflection of their CEOs. Thus, it is important to examine the virtues and vices of CEOs, including the interplay between CEO humility and CEO narcissism and how it impacts CEOs’ behavior and firms’ outcomes.

Our first article, by Cassandra Ellis, Lucas Monzani, and Sonja Bruschetto, argues that exercising leader character alongside mindfulness techniques has the potential to enhance leaders’ ability to reduce stress and burnout and to motivate individuals, groups, and organizations toward the pursuit of collective objectives and goals. Emphasizing the importance of workplace well-being initiatives, the authors advocate for a tailored mindfulness-based strengths practice (MBSP) that is rooted in character development, offers insights on enhancing decision-making, protects well-being, and helps companies gain a competitive edge.

Next, Tiffany Maldonado, Tanny Carmona, Jordan Jessup, and Montserrat Sanz Mondragon explore the role of CEO humility in shaping inclusive environments within organizations. Acknowledging the progress made by organizations in embracing inclusivity, the article discusses the concept of an inclusive environment, emphasizing the importance of valuing uniqueness, promoting belonginess, and integrating differences in decision-making. The authors suggest that humility is a key character dimension of inclusive leaders, impacting the development of an inclusive environment both internally and externally.

Continuing the topic of DEI, Natacha Prudent and Mary Crossan propose embedding leader character into organizations, asserting that the sustainability of DEI efforts depends on leaders reaffirming their commitment to character, suggesting it as a foundational element for both organizations and DEI initiatives: “corporate DNA.” The authors underscore the financial benefits of gender and ethnic diversity in leadership roles and use the Ivey Leader Character Framework (ILCF) as a tool aimed to guide leaders in introspection and development, emphasizing the role of character in driving comprehensive, sustainable change in DEI.

Next, James R. Rychard explores the essence of high-performance teams, emphasizing the role of collaboration and how it is rooted in social intelligence as part of the character dimension of humanity. After examining the threat of “dark triad” personalities to team dynamics, the article presents an exemplary case of socially intelligent leader Kazuo Inamori, former CEO of Japan Airlines, and extracts important lessons for the public sector. Rychard underscores the importance of investing in leadership development and fostering a culture of character to support collaboration in the public sector.

Following that piece, Karen Fryday-Field and Marlene Janzen Le Ber acknowledge systemic challenges impacting governance and highlight the influence of board culture on interactions and decisions, emphasizing the role of implicit rules, values, and past stories. They propose redefining effective governance through collective board character. The article adapts ILCF from the individual to the board level and presents a case study involving a breakdown in communication and trust that underscores the transformative power of board leader character.

Next, Trevor Hunter continues the topic of board governance to argue for the importance of leader character and instrumental skills in nonprofit organization (NPO) boards. The article explores distinctive duty-of-care expectations for NPO boards, emphasizing their role in protecting the organization’s mission and the quality of judgment required to navigate nuanced decisions. Hunter asks, “What are the implications for NPO performance if the board is not demonstrating leader character?” Examples illustrate how each of the ILCF dimensions can manifest in NPO board behaviors to safeguard the mission.

In our final article, William Spangler delves into how CEOs’ humility and narcissism influence their behavior, focusing on dysfunctional behavior like fraud, crime, corruption, and bribery. With a sample of 190 CEOs and data collected from interviews and public sources, Spangler introduces a set of diverse CEO archetypes. The article differentiates between professional CEOs and entrepreneurial CEOs. Spangler describes how humility and narcissism can coexist in CEOs and shows how humility moderates narcissistic tendencies, reducing the propensity to engage in dysfunctional and negative leader behaviors.

Our aim is to bring character to the forefront of what it takes for organizations to be prosperous and sustainable, by elevating character alongside competence and commitment in the practice of leadership.12 Echoing the sentiments of longtime football coach Bill Belichick, “Talent sets the floor; character sets the ceiling.” As you navigate the insights offered in this issue of Amplify, we hope they encourage your character development journey and guide you in embedding character into the fabric of your organizational initiatives, strategy, culture, systems, and processes.


Vera, Dusya, and Ana Ruiz Pardo (eds). “Character Leadership as a Competitive Advantage.” Amplify, Vol. 36, No. 12, 2023.

Crossan, Mary, Gerard Seijts, and Bill Furlong. The Character Compass: Transforming Leadership for the 21st Century. Routledge, 2023.

Seijts, Gerard, Mary Crossan, and Erica Carleton. “Embedding Leader Character into HR Practices to Achieve Sustained Excellence.” Organizational Dynamics, Vol. 46, No. 1, February 2017.

Crossan, Mary, Bill Furlong, and Natacha Prudent. “Getting to the Heart of DEI Through Character: Part 1.” Training Industry, 26 December 2023.

Crossan, Mary, Bill Furlong, and Natacha Prudent. “Getting to the Heart of DEI Through Character: Part 2.” Training Industry, 4 January 2024.

Seijts, Gerard H., and Kimberly Young Milani. “The Application of Leader Character to Building Cultures of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.” Business Horizons, Vol. 65, No. 5, September–October 2022.

Bhardwaj, Rahul, and Gerard Seijts. “Leader Character in the Boardroom.” Organizational Dynamics, Vol. 50, No. 3, July–September 2021.

Seijts, Gerard, et al. “Leader Character in Board Governance.” Journal of Management and Governance, Vol. 23, July 2018.

Crossan, Mary, Sonia Côté, and Stephen Virgin. “Elevating Leader Character Alongside Competence in Selection: A Case Study of Canada Revenue Agency.” Organizational Dynamics, Vol. 50, No. 3, July–September 2021.

10 Crossan et al. (see 2).

11 Crossan, Mary M., et al. “Leader Character in Engineering Projects: A Case Study of Character Activation, Contagion, and Embeddedness.” IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management, 29 June 2023.

12 Seijts, Gerard H., and Kimberly Young Milani. Character: What Contemporary Leaders Can Teach Us About Building a More Just, Prosperous, and Sustainable Future. ECW Press, forthcoming 2024.

About The Author
Dusya Vera
Dusya Vera is Professor of Strategy, Ian O. Ihnatowycz Chair in Leadership, and Executive Director of the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership at the Ivey Business School, Western University, Canada. Dr. Vera’s expertise spans the areas of strategic leadership, leader character, improvisation, and organizational learning. She has been published in top academic publications, including Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management… Read More
Ana Ruiz Pardo
Ana Ruiz Pardo is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership at Ivey Business School, Western University, Canada. She explores topics such as the concept of character-competence entanglement and how the strength of individual character can enhance organizational learning. Additionally, Dr. Ruiz Pardo collaborates with researchers in both the public and private sectors to embed character leadership into… Read More