Character Development

by Anderson, Brian Wednesday, September 20, 2006
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Most of us think that "character" is established by the time we reach adulthood — either you have it or you don't. I believe that character can be developed and strengthened over the course of a lifetime. In fact, one of the key responsibilities of leaders is to establish an effective process of character development — not only for themselves but also for their subordinates.

How can leaders do this? Following the "Five E's" is the path to take: example, education, environment, experience and evaluation.

Example: Leadership by example is the ability to influence others through actions and attitudes. It is a powerful way to develop character because it leverages the natural human tendency to emulate the behavior of individuals held in high esteem. People like to model themselves after those who have power and authority, who are successful and respected. Leaders' behavior sets the standard for the entire organization.

Education: Organizations can set up formal and informal training that focuses on the importance of character, the potential pressures on and challenges to character, and the short- and long-term implications of a lapse of character. Education might include discussions of case studies and scenarios that involve difficult moral or ethical choices. Leaders from various levels in the organization should take part in the training because this gives them a shared frame of reference.

Environment: An organization's environment plays a huge role in determining whether the character development of leaders is encouraged or impeded. The environment is essentially the organization's culture — its collective personality, attitudes and outlook — and the culture is shaped and developed over time by the actions and values of people in the organization. Senior leaders can establish an environment that is open to character development by creating a clear, detailed, practical set of organizational values and by ensuring that everyone in the organization lives those values instead of just going through the motions. If contradictory behaviors are expected and rewarded, the articulated values hold no weight.

Experience: Some jobs and assignments are extremely challenging and carry great responsibility, whereas others are more routine. The former are more likely to enhance character development. In view of this outcome, senior leaders should ensure that, as part of the overall development process, high-potential employees are given "stretch" positions and assignments requiring them to make difficult choices, which can help them better understand and develop character. In addition to challenging high potentials and providing an environment conducive to character development, such assignments provide good indications of the character strengths and weaknesses of those who might become the future leaders of the organization.

Evaluation: Ongoing feedback is a key element of any developmental experience, and character development is no exception. Feedback provides information that lets leaders know how their character measures up and how they are progressing toward their character development goals. For feedback to be effective, however, clear expectations regarding patterns of behavior need to be established and communicated. Leaders can then have quarterly feedback sessions with their bosses to gauge their progress, reviewing specific instances when their character was challenged and either stood fast or cracked. Organizations can also add sections on integrity, ethics, adherence to values and other character-related behaviors to their performance evaluation forms. Leaders can monitor their own behavior, periodically reviewing and reflecting on their character.