Infusing Leader Character into Workplace DEI Practices

Posted January 29, 2024 | Leadership | Amplify
Infusing Leader Character into Workplace DEI Practices

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.


I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

The business case for gender and ethnic diversity in leadership roles is stronger than ever, as evidenced by the substantial number of diversity programs being implemented in organizations globally.1 

Companies with more diverse workforces with higher percentages of women managers perform better financially.2 Organizations with more women on their boards outperform those without by a significant margin and report better effectiveness.3,4 Companies with greater gender diversity among senior leaders are more profitable.5

Women from diverse backgrounds are rising to positions never previously held by a woman.6 They include Jillian Broadbent, retired board Chair of Swiss Re Life & Health Australia and former Director of Woolworths Group after an extensive career in banking in Australia and overseas; Roya Mahboob, founder and CEO of Afghan Citadel Software; and Yvonne Chia, who made history as the first female CEO of a commercial bank in Malaysia.

In Canada, Mary Simon became the first Indigenous person to be appointed to the governor general role in 2021.7 In the US, Ketanji Brown Jackson became the first Black woman to sit on the US Supreme Court. The number of women leading Fortune 500 businesses hit a record in 2021: 41.8 However, only three Black women have headed a Fortune 500 company on a non-interim basis. In Canada, although the proportion of women and visible minorities on boards of publicly traded corporations has increased, among Indigenous peoples and persons with a disability, there has been little to no progress.9

Additional work is required to create a level playing field for all women — staying the course is unlikely to result in substantial progress.10 We offer a new path based on instilling leader character as the bedrock for organizations, generally, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts, specifically. We believe that for DEI efforts to be sustainable, leaders must continuously reaffirm their commitment to leader character and its embedment in corporate DNA.11

Character Supports Diversity

The complexity of today’s social justice movements makes leader character essential, but it is often overshadowed by leader competence.12 Competence is the ability to do something, based on natural talent or developed skill (often both). In contrast, character results from habitual behaviors anchored in virtues. Character influences not only how competence is exercised, but whether it is exercised at all.13

Organizational training programs meet the baseline DEI competency-development needs of managers by defining the knowledge skills and abilities needed to create an inclusive workplace with a focus on compliance. Consideration for character runs deeper, looking at who we are as individuals as it affects character development.

Leader character frameworks, like the one from Ivey Business School explored in detail in the previous issue of Amplify, provide an excellent tool for leader introspection and individual development while providing a way to examine how an organization may be privileging some dimensions of character while underweighting others.14

Leader character has been shown to influence individual well-being and sustained excellence, as well as key performance metrics in organizations.15 In the Ivey Leader Character Framework, it is composed of 10 interrelated dimensions that are dependent on the 11th: judgment. All 11 character dimensions contribute to strength of character and, ultimately, the quality of the decisions leaders make. Character dimensions and elements operate in concert to promote effective leadership.16

Each dimension has a set of observable behaviors that satisfies a set of criteria establishing them as being universally virtuous.17 Note that the behaviors can either be deficient or operating in an excess “vice state” when they are unsupported by the other behaviors. For example, courage can operate as a vice when not supported by the other dimensions. It manifests in reckless behavior when not supported by temperance or as lacking consideration of others when not supported by humanity, humility, and collaboration.

Character develops over a lifetime; individuals can enhance it through deliberate practice. The essence of character is found in individuals who have developed strengths across the 11 dimensions and exercise superior judgment. Judgment enables individuals to navigate complex, challenging situations.18 As psychologist Benjamin Schneider puts it, the people make the organization; therefore, we must attend to people first to address the root causes of gender and racial inequalities in our organizations to lead comprehensive and sustainable change.19

Diversity Tests Character

Character’s focus on who the individual is involves constant examination of how the person can overcome situational forces and navigate the complexities of DEI. With this said, developing strength of character enables individuals to learn in ways that challenge, rather than maintain, the status quo. The questions in this section are a tool for self-reflection, serving as a starting point for inspiration and a guide to activate various character dimensions in the practice of DEI.

Am I Equipped with Transcendence That Provides a Sense of Purpose in Leading DEI Efforts?

DEI has evolved from “nice to have” to a mission-critical component ensuring an organization’s progress and competitiveness in the global market. Diageo, a global leader in beverage alcohol, developed a motto to promote a message of valuing everyone, irrespective of background, religion, sexuality, or ethnicity: “Celebrating life, every day, everywhere and for everyone.”20

A command-and-control approach to diversity that boils expected behaviors down to dos and don’ts can create a “checkbox” culture that doesn’t support the achievement of diversity outcomes. Leaders with transcendence have a deep sense of purpose and link DEI efforts to specific organizational mission, values, and goals to enact change. For example, in 2019, Meta announced the goal of increasing the number of its US-based leaders who are people of color by 30%. In 2021, the company reported that in just one year, it achieved a 38.2% increase in Black leaders.21

Do I Have the Drive to Lead DEI Through Meaningful Action?

Representation of minority groups is important, and their treatment once they enter organizations is equally so. It’s imperative to address processes like performance management, which can disadvantage the way minority employees progress within organizations.

Research shows a far-reaching tendency in organizations to evaluate the performance of minority ethnic employees much lower than that of white colleagues.22 Because performance management underpins most other career-progression decisions, it can be seen as the root cause of much of the disadvantage that minority ethnic employees experience. The Jeffersonian idea of “the cream rises to the top” (also known as meritocracy) is ironic because the color of the “cream” that usually “rises” is white.

Addressing persistent gaps and increasing representation of all women in leadership positions require systematic approaches and bold actions. Leaders with drive have a wellspring of energy to achieve excellence in leading their organization’s DEI agenda. They challenge inaction and make the advancement of all women a top business priority. GSK, a global pharmaceutical company with a woman at its helm, delivers new inclusion training on an annual basis with specific content aimed at recognizing and acting on discriminatory behaviors.23

Am I Using Collaboration to Uncover & Address Key Areas of Bias & Discrimination?

Individuals with a strong collaboration dimension ensure their organization’s inclusion agenda contains a grassroots movement fostered by employees who want to make their workplace a diverse and inclusive environment. Employee councils create helpful feedback loops that enable positive change. GSK’s DEI efforts are supported by global ethnicity, gender, 2SLGBTQIA+ (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning, intersex, asexual), and disability councils chaired by a member of the leadership team.24

Character leaders develop strategic partnerships with interested parties like unions. Recognizing that it’s an employer’s duty to prevent and/or deal with any forms of harassment and discrimination and that unions negotiate terms and conditions of employment, they are keen to work with unions on these issues and to help infuse the principles of DEI into all aspects of the work to promote sustainable change.

Is My Humanity Strong Enough to Let Me See Underneath Surface Differences & Identify Common Elements?

The essence of DEI is a deep desire to promote respect and dignity for all. Humanity creates the aspiration that underpins our collective and continuous pursuit of respect for human rights. The American Psychological Association (APA) has incorporated humanity in its vision: “APA strives for an accessible, equitable, and inclusive psychology that promotes human rights, fairness, and dignity for all.”25

Humanity is not a soft or weak dimension of leader character. Rather, its a fundamental strength often at the core of fostering quality, candid conversations and is essential in supporting other dimensions of character. Individuals exercising humanity show empathy, which allows them to deepen their interactions with others. Although no one can fully capture the harm and barriers experienced in the workplace by members of underrepresented communities, as Brené Brown puts it, “empathy fuels connection” and deepens the interaction.26 For leadership expert Annie McKee, being empathetic “allows us to influence, inspire, and help people achieve their dreams and goals.”27

Humanity also makes leaders more inclined to understand what is important to interested parties and to focus on what unites them versus the differences that divide. This can generate unique perspectives that are a catalyst for making the case that diversity matters.

Do I Demonstrate Integrity & Invite Others to Bring Their Whole Selves to the Workplace?

Individuals who exercise integrity have cultivated being authentic, candid, transparent, principled, and consistent. They ensure the organization fosters that in others by championing policies and programs supporting the building of a respectful workplace free of barriers (e.g., harassment, discrimination, racism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia) and ensuring all individuals have equitable access to opportunities.

They understand that authenticity is critical for effective leadership and continually seek new experiences to test their perceived beliefs, values, and principles. They evolve because of the culmination of personal experiences throughout their lifetime that informs their individual moral development. They make others feel a sense of belonging by inviting them to be their authentic selves at work. Strengthening character helps women resist the tendency to shift their identities to mitigate the negative outcomes associated with microaggressions.

Do I Cultivate Temperance to Exhibit Leadership Stamina for Sustained Excellence in Delivering on the DEI Agenda?

DEI champions and professionals bring sustained high levels of energy and tenacity to their work. However, research finds unique features of DEI work are related to burnout.28 Cultivating temperance can help leaders and marginalized individuals take care of themselves. It can also help them to be patient with their development and that of others.

Cultivating temperance allows managers to successfully leverage frequent interventions to ensure workforce diversity and workplace inclusion. For example, to guarantee progress is being made, British broadcaster Sky established six key checkpoints at which the company expects a production to report on its current commitment to targets and the support it will provide the talent brought into its teams.29

Do I Exercise Justice & Access the Full Potential of All Talent?

Women in entry-level positions are promoted to managerial positions at much lower rates than men due to the “broken rung.” For every 100 men promoted from entry-level roles to manager positions, only 87 women are promoted, and only 82 women of color are promoted.30 The effect from this ripples across organizational levels, resulting in disproportionately fewer women in higher levels of the organization.

Women looking to climb to the top of the corporate ladder also face a “glass ceiling.” They find themselves having to face stereotypes, including being viewed as too emotional to be in positions of power. There is also evidence that East Asians hit a “bamboo ceiling” due to low assertiveness (i.e., failing to match the American norms on how leaders should communicate).31

Justice allows leaders to understand the differences among cultural groups and diversify their leadership prototype. The concept of leadership in Western theory and practice do not necessarily apply in Indigenous cultures and traditions and may have negative connotations for Indigenous people.32

Do I Show Enough Humility to Increase Self-Awareness & Pursue Ongoing Learning About Others?

The growth mindset pioneered by psychologist Carol Dweck is a relevant framework for individual and organizational culture change. Applied to DEI, this framework provides an opportunity for learning and improvement. Following the murder of George Floyd, Tony Bates, chairman and CEO of Genesys, a call center technology solutions company, wanted to reach out to the company’s 5,500 employees around the world. He was seized by feelings of anxiety about the right words to use as he sat down to write the email: “Am I going to offend someone? Am I pushing my own agenda?”

Humility helps us to be self-aware, to acknowledge our own deficiencies, and to understand that there is room for growth. Bates’s message was followed by a town hall that he called a watershed moment for the company.33

Do I Have a Sense of Personal Accountability for DEI & Is It Instilled in Leaders Across the Organization?

Although everyone should be treated with respect and have an opportunity to succeed, history has shown the limits of moral conviction around DEI.34 A heartfelt buy-in of leaders who may never have experienced discrimination is required to walk in solidarity with underrepresented groups of employees and relinquish power and work through tensions.

Leaders drive organizational culture change. Moreover, their actions and language model accepted behaviors and have broad influence. As such, it is important to ensure their behavior aligns with the mission, vision, and direction. Otherwise, the organization will fail to “walk the talk” in delivering on long-held promises to further diversity and inclusion.

Do I Have the Courage to Confront the Backlash Against DEI?

Johnny Taylor, CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, says: “Diversity’s really hard — and inclusion is harder.”35 Many DEI initiatives face backlash, such as when United Airlines announced its goal to train 50% more pilots who are women or people of color in the next 10 years. Author and activist Brigitte Gabriel tweeted her opposition: “United Airlines is now prioritizing race and gender over qualifications for hiring future pilots. They are literally putting the lives of their customers at risk in the name of being woke.”36 With courage, individuals are able to do what they believe to be the right thing even in the face of adversity, navigate through social pressures, and stay committed to see things through.

Over time, employees may experience diversity fatigue, and some may not believe their organization is committed to advancing diversity and inclusion. To overcome these challenges, leaders must invest time in educating employees and managers on ingrained workplace inequalities, with the goal of removing barriers and tying all DEI initiatives to measurable outcomes. Ultimately, character activated in individuals will spread throughout the group, creating character contagion. Leaders’ and marginalized groups’ courage, determination, and resilience can influence employees and managers who will display resolve and stay committed to DEI priorities.

Do I Challenge Beliefs & Let Go of Assumptions & Stereotypes Using Strength of Judgment?

Our modern society perceives itself as having achieved gender equality, and this makes it challenging to address sexism and discrimination in the workplace. The denial of everyday sexism makes it impossible to solve and difficult for women who speak up.37 There is a hidden problem in our workplaces, evidenced by the 100,000 worldwide everyday sexist experiences captured by Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project.38 Most entries relate everyday run-ins with discrimination and sexual harassment.

Situationally aware, analytical leaders collect and interpret talent data, identify pain points, analyze gaps or opportunity areas, and go beyond representation data. They explore the root causes of unconscious biases and sexist and racist beliefs and how they are ingrained in the culture and systems of their organization. They seek meaningful insights from qualitative and quantitative data to develop a deep diagnostic that informs their action plan.


The status quo is not an option — companies risk losing not only the current leaders of their marginalized groups, but also the next generation of leaders. The younger generation is much more ambitious and places a higher value on working in an equitable, supportive, and inclusive workplace.39

In summary, the interconnectivity of the character dimensions supports DEI practices. For example, courage to tackle systemic discriminations needs to be balanced by temperance to avoid recklessness but must be supported by justice and accountability. It is only then that we may be able to reach Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. Our organizations can be the instrument for societal change in diversity, equity, and inclusion.


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Tunney, Catharine, and John Paul Tasker. “Inuk Leader Mary Simon Named Canada’s 1st Indigenous Governor General.” CBC News, 6 July 2021.

Hinchliffe, Emma. “The Female CEOs on This Year’s Fortune 500 Just Broke Three All-Time Records.” Fortune, 2 June 2021.

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10 Leslie, Lisa M. “Diversity Initiative Effectiveness: A Typological Theory of Unintended Consequences.” Academy of Management Review, Vol. 44, No. 3, July 2019.

11 Washington, Ella F. “The Five Stages of DEI Maturity.” Harvard Business Review, 1 November 2022.

12 Sturm, Rachel E., Dusya Vera, and Mary Crossan. “The Entanglement of Leader Character and Leader Competence and Its Impact on Performance.” The Leadership Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 3, June 2017.

13 Sturm et al. (see 12).

14 Crossan, Mary M., et al. “Toward a Framework of Leader Character in Organizations.” Journal of Management Studies, Vol. 54, No. 7, December 2016.

15 Crossan, Mary, William Furlong, and Robert D. Austin. “Make Leader Character Your Competitive Edge.” MIT Sloan Management Review, 19 October 2022.

16 Crossan et al. (see 14).

17 Peterson, Christopher, and Martin E.P. Seligman. Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. American Psychological Association (APA), 2004.

18 Crossan, Mary, Gerard Seijts, and Jeffrey Gandz. Developing Leadership Character. Routledge, 2016.

19 Schneider, Benjamin. “The People Make the Place.” Personnel Psychology, Vol. 40, No. 3, September 1987.

20 Celebrating Life, Every Day, Everywhere.” Diageo, accessed January 2024.

21 Williams, Maxine. “Facebook Diversity Update: Increasing Representation in Our Workforce and Supporting Minority-Owned Businesses.” Meta, 15 July 2021.

22 Tackey, N.D., P. Tamkin, and E. Sheppard. “The Problem of Minority Performance in Organisations.” IES Report 375, Institute for Employment Studies (IES), 2001.

23 Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.” GSK, accessed January 2024.

24 GSK (see 23).

25 Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.” American Psychological Association (APA), accessed January 2024.

26 Brown, Brené. ”The Power of Vulnerability.” RSA, YouTube, 15 August 2013.

27 McKee, Annie. “If You Can’t Empathize with Your Employees, You’d Better Learn To.” Harvard Business Review, 16 November 2016.

28 Pemberton, Andrea, and Jennifer Kisamore. “Assessing Burnout in Diversity and Inclusion Professionals.” Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, Vol. 42, No. 1, August 2022.

29 Diversity and Inclusion Manifesto.” Sky, accessed January 2024.

30 Elsesser, Kim. “Women Are More Ambitious Now Than Before the Pandemic, New Survey Says.” Forbes, 5 October 2023.

31 Lu, Jackson G., Richard E. Nisbett, and Michael W. Morris. “Why East Asians But Not South Asians Are Underrepresented in Leadership Positions in the United States.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Vol. 117, No. 9, March 2020.

32 Evans, Michelle M., and Amanda Sinclair. “Navigating the Territories of Indigenous Leadership: Exploring the Experiences and Practices of Australian Indigenous Arts Leaders.” Leadership, Vol. 12, No. 4, August 2016.

33 Prince, C.J. “How Eight CEOs Are Making Diversity Happen (Really).” Chief Executive, accessed January 2024.

34 Washington (see 11).

35 Prince (see 33).

36 Gabriel, Brigitte. “United Airlines Is Now Prioritizing Race and Gender over Qualifications for Hiring Future Pilots.” X (formerly Twitter), 7 April 2021.

37 King, Michelle Penelope. “How to Disrupt the Denial of Everyday Sexism.” Forbes, 1 February 2021.

38 The Everyday Sexism Project website, accessed January 2024.

39 Elsesser (see 30).

About The Author
Natacha Prudent
Natacha Prudent is Executive-in-Residence at the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership at Ivey Business School, Western University, Canada. She is a recognized trusted leader and change agent. With an impressive career that spans both the private and public sectors, Ms. Prudent has a solid track record in the leadership development and talent management spheres. She has led the integration of leader character into a Pan-Canadian… Read More
Mary Crossan
Mary Crossan is a Distinguished University Professor and Professor of Strategic Leadership at the Ivey Business School, Western University, Canada. Her recent research focuses on the development of leader character as a critical foundation to support and elevate leader competencies. In 2021, Dr. Crossan earned recognition on a global list representing the top 2% of the most cited scientists in her field. Additionally, she has been honored with… Read More