A Caution in the Search for Character

Tom GibbonsChange, Leadership, Learning, Organization Development, Social ConstructionLeave a Comment

This post was originally published in the TMS Learning Exchange.  It’s a bit longer than our normal posts….

canyonIn the aftermath of the 2008 semi collapse of investment capitalism and the ensuing and continuing global recession there is a growing trend calling on the need for ‘more character’ from those who we see as leaders in our organizations.  Business schools around the globe have picked up on the need for character by emphasizing and expanding curriculum in ethics, sustainable growth, stakeholder value, community responsibility and such.  And as would be expected when something is seen as necessary to lead successful organizations, research and metrics are being developed to measure character.  Indeed there is already a growing body of work that ties measurements of character to measures of financial return.

Think for a moment what this may mean as this spreads out into a more general understanding of how we see organizations, success and leadership.  It used to be if your organization did not produce the results expected of it, leadership was simply incompetent.  Now leadership will be both incompetent and of questionable character.  How would you like to carry that judgment around with you?

Think for a moment further about what this may mean generally, not just to leadership.  There is a virtual maelstrom of blame being thrown around now to avoid the judgment of incompetence in organizations.  Add in the variable of questionable character and it will get worse.  Few of us will escape the onslaught of avoidance techniques (including our own) and we can also expect greater levels of the consequences; higher turnover, lower engagement, greater stress and pressure, and perhaps worst of all, a turning away from accountability in its most basic form.

I am not at all against a focus on character in our organizations.  What I am against is how this focus on character is beginning to play out in our organizational lives.  There are 3 critical areas that I see as highly problematic:

  1. Character in the service of certainty.
  2. Character being defined as owned by the individual.
  3. The dumbing down of the concept of character by metrics.


1.     Character in the service of certainty:

How have we got to this point, this growing trend?  The primary, fundamental and mostly unquestioned assumption regarding how we understand organizations is that those who lead can plan the future they want for their organizations.  Leadership can create a future that is highly predictable/certain to happen; if they are competent enough.  So how can the economic events leading up to 2008 and ongoing be explained within the framework of this assumption?  If you landed on a lack of competence as the reason for this widespread compromise of the assumption noted above you would be saying there were an awful lot of incompetent people running large and important organizations.  Many of these leaders were educated and trained in Western business schools.  Many had the latest management guru’s books on their office shelves.  Many were coached or counseled by leading consulting companies.  And prior to the 2008 economic crash, many were doing exactly what we wanted of our leaders, making a lot of money for their organizations and their shareholders.

If you land on incompetence as the reason for the economic mess that most of us have been effected by, then there is a lot of incompetence in the entire realm of organizational life, likely including you and me.

So we tucked away the incompetence reason and landed on ‘character’ as the reason.

Interestingly this is a very typical shifting of accountability in trying to explain why things don’t go as planned when the assumption of the ability to create certainty is unquestioned.  This shift is one from perceived objective metrics to subjective ones.  If, for example as a leader of an organization you make an investment decision that doesn’t succeed as planned someone can accuse you of not analyzing well enough and look at objective reasons why this was so.  If objectivity doesn’t produce a sufficient reason for failure then the move is to something subjective, like character. No objectivity is needed here, no hard proof.  If someone, especially someone with power, accuses you of a character flaw it is very, very hard to refute this since the definition of character is subjective.  You DO have a character flaw from the perspective of their definition, and their definition is right if they have enough power.

Character in the service of certainty is painfully uncreative, simply another ‘thing’ we can hang our hopes of a certain future on.  Unfortunately, as noted above, the consequences when character does not produce certainty are even more painfully personal and destructive.

If we want to have productive discussions about the need for a different kind of character in organizations we need, at the very least to decouple it from our assumption that certainty can be created.  More effective would be to do away with this assumption in the first place.  Then we could talk about character as the highly subjective and context dependent thing it really is.  We could talk about character and power, character and the requirement of profit, character and personal compromise.

Are these not the discussions we should be asking our leaders to have?  That we should be having ourselves?

2.     Character being defined as owned by the individual:

Character as something owned by the individual is simply another example of the cult of individualism so prevalent today.  This assumes that character is created by an individual, solely owned by them and open to change by individual, personal choice.  Context is irrelevant.  Relationships are irrelevant. Power is simply something to be consciously dealt with.

The idea that character emerges through interaction with others and is only relevant within the context we find ourselves in is an inconvenience best ignored.  Otherwise the assignment of blame becomes too challenging; we might find ourselves in the mix, since we are part of the context.

Keep in mind that many of those now blamed for being so crucial to the economic collapse in 2008 were deemed exemplary contributors to their organizations only months earlier.  As the tide of public opinion turned on them, including that of their very own shareholders, their character, as if by magic turned as well, from beacons of light to demons of greed.

If we want to understand how character can impact our organizations we must acknowledge that character, to a very large part emerges in a socially constructed way.  That any valuation of character cannot be separated from the context in which it exists.  While this may edge us toward the chasm of relativism, where character means nothing and context means everything, we will be better served by nearing this edge than ignoring it altogether.  Only by considering context can we really seek to understand the impact our character may have or the impact that context is having on our character.  We are faced with much greater clarity of the choices we are making.

Is this not what we want from our leaders?  Is this not what we should expect of ourselves?

3.     The dumbing down of the concept of character by metrics:

As soon as you link a measurement of character to a measurement of financial return you are falling into the trap of assuming someone or some group in power can produce a certain future.  Character simply becomes another metric propping up the false belief in the capacity of leaders to create certainty.  It is no different than return on investment, cost benefit analysis, sales projections and all the other much more ‘objective’ things we measure and assume if done right will get us what we want.

When we apply metrics to highly subjective concepts, eventually the concept, and challenges associated with it get ‘dumbed down’.  By this I mean something that is very complex, and which should remain very complex, gets thought about in very simple ways because what looks like a simple measurement now defines the concept.

We are quite close now to having numbers measure character.  If you hit 8 out of 10 you will be of good character; a 5 and you get thrown on the trash heap.  No discussion needed on character at all, just the numbers please; I’ve got recruiting to do here!

Another example; I have asked a number of financial services people what they think caused the 2008 crash.  Every one of them said the same thing with different examples used.  It was a relatively few greedy, powerful people that caused it all.  And when asked what might prevent such a thing from happening again?  More or less find a way to get rid of the greed or the greedy people.

Simple reason, simple solution, and no personal accountability at all.

And all the while their own jobs are to do exactly what those greedy people were doing so effectively just prior to the crash; make lots of money on investments.

It becomes so simple when you attach a metric to character.  Simple to determine good character from bad, simple to assign blame when things go wrong, simple to say “I had nothing to do with it’.  And you never really have to talk about character at all, you just need the number.

What is interesting here is that some very good work is being done leading to finding metrics related to character.  Serious and important conversations and considerations.  True caring about what is needed in organizations to make them better across a broad spectrum.  There is real hope that the work will make a difference.  The dumbing down occurs when all this good work becomes a measurement.

We would be far better served to forget the metric and push for conversations and considerations in organizations that uphold the complexity of character.  That asks people to grapple with that complexity and keep the conversations going.  To realize there will never be a definitive answer, just more conversation, just more moving forward as best we can.


So what can we do, what can you do?  The don’ts are: don’t let the concept of character be connected to certainty.  Don’t let character be defined as an individual attribute.  Don’t let the concept of character become simple.

And the do’s? Ask yourself what character means to you; what is it for you.  Engage in conversations with others about the same questions.  Keep the conversations going and see what emerges.  Talk about power and context and how it impacts character, yours and others.

And perhaps most importantly let yourself be human with regards to character.  The ideals of what we think our character should be will always be compromised in some way by being in an organization.  Always.  Let that be ok even if it is uncomfortable.  Letting it be ok keeps the conversations about character going.  The discomfort keeps those conversations valuable.

Author – Tom Gibbons

Influencing Resources:

  1. Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth – Margaret Atwood – House Of Anansi Press Inc, October 1, 2008

I found this a good resource on differing perspectives on debt and how these perspectives shape our thinking of personal value, including character.

  1. Complexity and Organizational Reality: Uncertainty And The Need To Rethink Management After The Collapse Of Investment Capitalism – Ralph Stacey – Routledge, February 1, 2010

I like the ideology put forth by Stacey of Complex Responsive Processes and this book applies that ideology to the real world occurrence of the 2008 economic crash.


I realize this article is primarily about character and organizations.  It is hard if not impossible to put a boundary around organizations and not find their influences outside those imagined boundaries.  Organizations leak; everywhere.  I think the issues discussed in this article will leak outside of our organizations as well.  Imagine a scenario not in a formal ‘work’ organization.  Perhaps your daughter in school struggling with grades, your brother facing foreclosure on his house, your mother without enough retirement savings….

Imagine hearing people discuss these situations starting with this statement:

“It was a flaw of character.”

In the light of something not going as planned imagine hearing this statement.  Would you be hurt? Angry?  Shamed?  How will you defend someone against such a statement?  How might the person this statement is aimed at be looked at in the future?  How will you look at them?

That statement and the questions that will be posed in its wake are on the brink of mainstream conversation.  It is frightening.

Author – Tom

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