Know Your Character

May 2, 2018 Andrew Soren

In LRN’s recently released report on the State of Moral Leadership in Business, a clear portrait appears of the kind of leader that will thrive in the context of today’s hyper-transparent and interdependent world: “Today’s business challenges require leaders who are animated by a worthy and noble purpose, connected to human progress or the betterment of the world. These leaders inspire and elevate others. They have the courage to speak out for their defined principles. They ask the tough, uncomfortable questions about right and wrong, and they consistently seek to shape their organizations’ culture so that others do so as well.”

In other words, moral leaders are guided by core values that help them understand what they should say and do. In times of ambiguity, these values make it easier to choose what the right course of action should be. Values form the basis of a moral leader’s character and getting to know them and how they operate in the context of one’s day-to-day life is a critical enabler for moral leadership. And yet as we found in our study on Moral Leadership, only 16% of leaders consistently demonstrate the qualities and behaviors of moral leadership described above. What can we do to help more people find their moral leadership?

As an advisor with LRN’s practice in Governance, Culture and Leadership, I’ve helped many organizations build out sets of values meant to animate behavior and decision-making. I’ve worked with thousands of leaders around the world exploring what these values mean and how they can be brought to life. Through that work, I’ve noticed that the best moral leaders do something special: they take their organizations’ values and make them their own. They have spent the time to get to know their own character and they infuse these deeply significant elements of themselves into how they talk about their organizational values, and perhaps more importantly, into how they put those values into action.

Getting to know our character is something that remarkably few of us ever spend much time doing. It’s not a skill that’s usually taught in schools or in our workplaces. Even though scholars have written about what good character is for millennia, there’s historically been little consensus on what is applicable to all of us or how to go about understanding what that means in a practical way.

Over the past couple decades, social scientists have taken these challenges to heart: What are universal values? How are they brought to life in the context of human character? In the twentieth century, psychologists invested a great deal of time and resources in identifying all the things that could be wrong with us. With the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in hand, practitioners could describe, and hopefully prescribe effective treatment for, most mental illnesses. But there was no such manual at the other end of the spectrum, to describe in an evidence-based way our strengths of character. At the turn of the 21st century, more than 55 scholars, spearheaded by Drs. Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman, set to work, trying to find some answers by combing through the best thinking on virtue and positive human qualities in philosophy, virtue ethics, moral education, psychology, and theology over the past 2500 years (e.g., from the works of Aristotle, Benjamin Franklin, and King Charlemagne to the tenets of all the major world religions).

From their efforts emerged an inventory of 24 strengths of character; stable, universally valid personality traits that manifest through how we think, feel and behave. They hold true across religions, cultures, nations, and belief systems. The inventory is discussed at length in the text, Character Strengths and Virtues (CSV): A Handbook and Classification (2004), published by Oxford University Press and the American Psychological Association. You can also find extensive information at the VIA Institute on Character.

In the years since the publication of the CSV, a tremendous amount of research has been done on the inventory of strengths and virtues, as well as outcomes resulting from the awareness, exploration and application of character strengths in our daily lives. One of the most important research findings is that while all of us exercise all 24 strengths throughout our lives, we each exemplify a unique signature of core strengths that are most important to us in how we think, feel and behave. Your signature strengths are your key to authentic moral leadership. Whether you simply reflect on the inventory; take the free survey; or ask colleagues, friends and family to tell you who you are at your best; spend some time becoming aware of your signature strengths. Explore how they already show up in the ways you choose to act and the ways that you make decisions. Consider the ways you may over or under use each strength and what it looks like when you are using your strengths “just right.” And most importantly, commit to using your character strengths as a leader – find deliberate opportunities every day to inspire those around you with the ways that you walk your talk.

The Moral Leadership report found that people yearn for moral authority in our organizations. Two out of three people say their companies would be more successful in taking on their biggest challenges if leadership had more moral authority. The report found that leaders who take the time to pause and reflect on how values inform their decisions and actions are 11 times more effective. Take the time to get to know your character. Connect the dots between what you believe is important and your organizational values. Put your character to work as a moral leader today and reap the rewards.

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