So what’s the secret to success? If
you ask the guy in the doctor’s office he’ll
tell you unequivocally that it is intelligence and education.
He wants the smartest, best-trained doctors tending to his
medical needs, and nothing less. For the fans watching their
favorite sporting event the answer is performing right before
their eyes. It is talent and they want as much of it as possible
on their team. For yet others, success accompanies the mesmerizing
charisma and vision of the great statesman or organizational
leader. And for the many of us consigned to the happenstance
of birth, success is a constant roulette wheel of serendipity
But what about in the long run? Does
talent alone make a great athlete, or intellect and education
the finest doctor or businessperson? And how far can luck
or charisma really take you? To a great many people throughout
history, long term success requires something else. That
something is the Greek word which means to ‘mark or engrave’.
It is character, the combined traits and values which define
individuals, illuminates the paths they take and ultimately
enriches or impoverishes their lives. Character is the sum
of the choices a person makes, or fails to make, each and
every day in public and in the privacy of their own homes.
Character buttresses, sustains, and even realizes a person’s
natural gifts. For many, character not only matters, it is
Though the word itself seems less
used today, character remains the ground to life’s
volatile live wire. Our children are taught in school that
trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring,
and citizenship are the six pillars upon which their lives
should be built. Most adults would agree that in the end,
character is everything in husbands, fathers, wives, mothers
and friends. With few exceptions, politicians will tell
you that while vision and charisma help, political leadership
is all about character. The best Hollywood movies almost
always tug at character themes of integrity, humility,
courage, loyalty, honor, and love. And in business, character
is always an assumed quality of leadership. We simply expect
good leaders to be strong in character with a consistent
upright moral compass and integrity underwriting their
Regrettably, one need only look around
to see that character has been under siege of late. Headlines
scream of the deplorable manner in which our citizens act and
treat each other. Guns and gangs roam the corridors of our
schools. In trial after trial, the character of many of the
best known executives have been found to be sorely wanting.
The politics of politics continues to tarnish many of those
who practice it. Professional and amateur sports face countless
controversies of cheating and gambling not to mention criminal
activity. And on and on and on…Whether you believe that
these are irrelevant, transient, clear evidence of moral decay
or a harbinger of things to come, they all irrefutably speak
to the critical importance of individual, corporate and societal
What is character?
“Watch your thoughts; they become words.
Watch your words; they become actions Watch your actions,
they become habits. Watch your habits; they become character.
Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.” – Frank
The dictionary defines character as
a set of habits, qualities or attitudes that define a person.
It is alternatively defined as moral and ethical strength,
or the quality of ‘goodness’ in
a person. A person ‘of good character’ is said
to boast moral or ethical excellence which serves as a true
north compass and bulwark in the journey of life.
Character has been the focus of philosophical
and religious discussion throughout history. Aristotle devoted
considerable attention to the importance of what he called
the ‘virtues of excellence’. He listed eight
such virtues: courage, temperance, liberality, proper pride,
good temper, ready wit, modesty and justice. Aristotle viewed
virtues as means between extremes in how humans can act.
For example, in the matter of fear, courage is the mean between
too much fear (which is to be cowardly) and too little fear
(which is to be foolhardy). Similarly, too little selflessness
is the singular pursuit of personal interest while too much
selflessness impairs the ability to lead and make decisions.
To Aristotle, it is at the mean between such extremes in
behavior that the individual lives best.
While individuals may be born with certain predispositions,
good character is not given to us. It largely develops block
by block through instruction, behavior modeling and practice.
One becomes virtuous by performing virtuous acts until doing
so becomes habit. For children, character development begins
as rules of behavior taught by parents, religious institutions
and schools. Behaviors are modeled and children practice
acting in certain ways until such behavior is internalized
and becomes habit. Leadership performs a similar role in
organizations by exhibiting and reinforcing the behaviors
valued in its membership. Adults bring character traits to
the workplace, some more alterable than others, and thus
character in the workplace is both a matter of indoctrination
Why is Character Important?
“Somebody once said that in looking
for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity,
intelligence and energy. And if you don’t have the first, the other two will
kill you. You think about it; it’s true. If you hire
somebody without integrity, you really want them to be dumb
and lazy.” – Warren Buffett
Organizations require individuals
to commit themselves to collective goals and objectives
which are larger than themselves. Though management theories
abound on how to accomplish this, it is always easier said
than done. An organization cannot order a nurse or doctor
to care about their jobs or to be compassionate with their
patients. It cannot ‘six sigma’ people
into providing excellent service, or to be nice to others,
to be committed or to apply their best effort. A company
cannot issue a policy requiring that groups act as teams,
trust and respect each other, and collaborate. And it cannot
demand passion any more than it can demand loyalty. Furthermore,
happiness, contentment, and self-respect are character traits
as much as they are the rewards of one’s efforts, and
organizations err if they believe these do not make a difference.
While productivity may be the aggregate scorecard of choice
for many it is inextricably tied to whether the collection
of individuals are enthusiastic, passionate, crushed by setbacks
or spurred by them, sociable or solitary, restless or settled,
and capable or incapable of intimacy.
It must be acknowledged that character
alone can never be the only consideration in choosing doctors,
searching for new employees, or deciding on whom to vote. There are
morally good people who know little about running a company,
a city or a province. They may be as honest as the
day is long, but as ignorant as sin about the job itself.
Some schoolteachers are model citizens, but lack the knowledge
and the ability to teach our children. So while character
is of vital importance in every job, in every profession
and in all other phases of life, it alone is inadequate in
many situations. But that is not the point when it comes
to character. Rather, as Peter Drucker so elegantly stated, “while
character by itself accomplishes nothing, its absence faults
everything”. Thus, while a person or organization lacking
character may still be ‘successful’ it will exact
a cost with usurious terms of payment. Character is the only
foundation upon which high value sustainability is built.
“Leadership is a potent
combination of character and strategy. But if you must
be without one, be without strategy” – Norman
In his book Good to Great,
Jim Collins reported that outstanding companies, “place greater weight on
character attributes than on specific educational background,
practical skills, specialized knowledge, or work experience.
Not that specific knowledge or skills are unimportant, but
they view these traits as more teachable (or at least learnable),
whereas dimensions like character, work ethic, dedication
to fulfilling commitments, and values are more ingrained”. To
these organizations, before you can be great you have to
So how does an organization hire for ‘good’? It
starts by describing those character traits it values for
job and organizational success. Academic James Sorros recently
published a list of character attributes applicable to business
- Respectfulness: Respect for others
- Fairness: The equitable and just treatment of people
- Cooperation: The ability to work as part of a team
- Compassion: Showing concern for the welfare of others;
- Spiritual Respect: Respect for individual beliefs and
- Humility: The capacity to keep
yourself from putting the self before others. Understanding
your value relative to that of others…not putting
oneself down but not holding oneself more highly than
- Courage: Strong convictions and the willingness to act
- Passion: Energy and deeply committed enthusiasm to producing
the best one can
- Wisdom: the ability to draw on
and experience to make well formed judgments
- Competence: a rounded and comprehensive knowledge of
the subject matter in which you are dealing and about which
you want others to act in a particular way
- Self-Discipline: appropriate self-control over your thoughts
and actions and the ability to express emotions in a constructive
- Loyalty: a deep commitment to building organizational
sustainability; commitment to the idea and ideals of the
- Selflessness: not putting your interests above others
- Integrity: the perceived degree
of congruence between the values expressed by words and
those expressed through action; honest representation
of a company’s values
and operating protocols
- Honesty: open, truthful and trustworthy
While a case can be made for the importance
of each virtue, they cannot all be assumed to go well into
every situation or organization. An industrial manufacturer
may need a different mix of character attributes than an
airline, a retailer or a critical care hospital. A collection
agency will likely place less value on attributes such
as caring and compassion than an organization such as ‘Doctors without Borders’.
In addition, uniformity is not always desirable. An organization
of exclusively highly passionate, courageous individuals
may bring with it management challenges which outweigh the
benefits. Thus, while certain core character traits are central
to all organizations, some must be mixed and matched based
on the needs of the specific organization and the situation
Selecting for character can be done in several
ways. Character is a reflection of the choices made by an
individual and thus it lends itself well to chronological
interviewing. The interviewer starts at the beginning of
resume, and explores the choices made throughout the individual’s
academic and business life. The interviewer seeks to understand
what guided the choices, how the outcomes were evaluated
and what, if anything, the candidate might have done differently.
When probing the candidate’s
work history, the interviewer can ask;
- What was the candidate hired to do in that position?
- What were the challenges inherited and how did the candidate
go about addressing them. Why were they approached in that
- What are they proudest of in that role, what would they
have done differently?
- What was the low point in that role? Why and how did
the candidate deal with it?
- What were the people issues and what decisions did the
candidate make in dealing with these issues?
- Did the candidate hire anyone, fire anyone? What do they
look for in people when they hire and why?
- What would the candidate’s
immediate supervisor say about them?
- What did the candidate learn about their development
needs during that position and what did he or she do to
- Why did the candidate leave?
The interviewer is looking for themes
which have cut across and guided the candidate’s choices in the past. Such
questions also shed valuable light on ‘how’ the
candidate has been successful thus far (eg. working with,
over, without or through people). The interviewer can also
probe specifically into character attributes by using behavioral
questions that start with, ‘Give me an example of a
time when you were faced with, or you had to deal with...”.
Answers to these, along with the accompanying answers to ‘why’ provide
insight into what is important to the candidate and how they
are likely to act in the future.
Evidence of character traits can also
be sought in a number of less formal ways. One of our clients
always asks his administrative assistant to comment on
the experience of greeting and escorting a candidate to
his office. To him, one judges character not by how someone
deals with their supervisors but how that person deals
with subordinates, and others who cannot do them any harm.
The administrative assistant’s comments
are always influential in the hiring decision.
Another client insists on a dinner meeting with the final
candidate and spouse prior to extending an offer. He wants
to shift the candidate into a more social setting in order
to observe how he or she behaves and interacts. Considerable
insight can be gained in a two to three hour casual conversation
covering a wide range of issues and topics.
Following the interview, references
should be canvassed including those selected specifically
to comment on the candidate’s
character. Character references have largely faded from our
vernacular as it has become popular to believe that they
are somehow sullied by familiarity and a lack of impartiality.
This is shortsighted for it is exactly familiarity that one
wants. Done well, character references leverage questions
of ‘how’ and ‘why’ to probe far beyond
the perfunctory ‘he’s a good guy’ answers
to gain a deeper understanding of the fabric of the candidate.
In a recent poll, Canadians ranked the trustworthiness of
a wide range of professions. At the top, over 90% of Canadians
rated firefighters trustworthy followed closely by nurses
and pharmacists. At the bottom, only 7% of Canadians appear
to trust either automobile sales staff or national politicians.
Corporate CEOs also ranked low with a rating of 20% trustworthiness.
When asked to list the criteria they used in making their
assessments, Canadians ranked character traits such as integrity,
reliability, commitment to promises and fairness as most
Yet character struggles to assert itself
in a changing world where intellect, charisma, credentials,
and productivity have become most valued. Headlines scream
of a ‘War for Talent’.
But the spoils of long term success will not go to the victors
of that war. Only Aristotle’s virtues of excellence hold
that promise, and for those contrarians who see, or remember
this, theirs will be an uncontested victory.
Character matters. It is the yardstick by which we judge
and are judged, the key in unlocking our natural gifts and
the compass by which our destinies are set. And character
is the cultural DNA of all great companies.
About The Author
Robert Hebert, Ph.D., is the Managing Partner of Toronto-based
StoneWood Group Inc, a leading human resources consulting
firm. He has spent the past 25 years assisting firms in the
technology sector address their senior recruiting, assessment
and leadership development requirements.
Mr. Hebert holds a Masters Degree in Industrial Relations
as well as a Doctorate in Adult Education, both from the
University of Toronto.