The Fabric of Character
“Character is something you can’t perform, so we can separate performance from the assessment of character. Character goes beyond the content of the problem and deeper into the context of ourselves in relationship to ourselves, to the people around us, and to our experience.”
Character must be considered as a complex, yet undeniably practical and relevant, concept in the selection and development of our leaders. Like a fine quilt which is carefully and artfully sewn together by its maker, character includes individual elements similar to joining sections of material which, when sewn together, create an interdependent tapestry of who we are and what we will do. We have selected certain components of character in order to increase our understanding of the complexity, relevance, and interdependent nature of character virtues.
Our review of the current literature on character highlights its complexity as a part of the human experience, and in leadership specifically. This theme is centered on tension — tension between right and wrong, what to do and what not to do, strengths and weaknesses, yourself versus others, and ultimately, person versus organization (Amado & Elsner, 2007; Huxham & Beech, 2003; Manz et al., 2008). It is not just about acting one way vis-à-vis another, but about the process: what is going on inside you that compels you to act a certain way. What are you thinking? What costs and benefits are you weighing? What is pulling you in either direction? For example, when you have your own reputation on the line, how do you sacrifice that for the sake of doing what is right? How do you balance doing what you want to do or even should do for yourself with doing what you want to do or should do for others?
While character certainly includes significant moral components (Hartman, 2006; Hogan & Sinclair, 1997), our purpose here is not to define those components, but to rebuild the foundations upon which character is built. We strongly suggest that the character of a person is deeply connected to the concepts of service, sacrifice, compassion, and the value of others. However, our focus here is on the tensions that have been underplayed in our current definitions of character. Ultimately, character is the awareness of the inherent tensions in the human experience and a willingness to act on that awareness in potentially sacrificial ways. These tensions are present regardless of where you work. They transcend any organization‘s values or mission. The set of inherent contradictions fall between dimensions that are more solid, clear, realistic, and grounded in the strength of a person, and dimensions that are permeable, connected, open, and grounded in the reality of being human, fearful, hopeful, and having made mistakes but not necessarily being defined by them.
To that end, it is our hope to identify several of these character tensions and highlight the strengths of creating a more holistic paradigm for studying, selecting, and developing leaders of character. What makes the three tensions unique is that if the individual characteristics of courage, reluctance, humility, conviction, integrity and vulnerability are considered on their own, they do not reflect good or evil, or right or wrong. They represent characteristics of a person that are desirable and that make persons who they are. We want both sides of these tensions present in the leaders we select. How much of each is preferable is another question. Too much reluctance without courage gives us a leader who will never take a risk. Too little conviction gives us a leader who may take responsibility for mistakes, but lacks a sense of who she is and what she stands for.
How do you look for leaders who are aware of the need to find that balance in the tensions? When situations arise that call for conviction and humility in leaders, are they aware of those tensions of stepping back and stepping forward, taking a risk or being afraid, and when to remain resolute and firm in conviction or be open and vulnerable? These decisions are challenging, but represent the realities of leading well as a person of character. There is little doubt that character is the X factor we are looking for in leaders, yet our understanding of what we are looking for has been oversimplified. Few things in life are so difficult to define and so challenging to systematically identify as character in leaders. Yet, most of us would say we know it when we see it and we want it in our leaders. We are encouraging those searching for leaders with character, to be aware of their own limitations and abilities, and to realize that character may, in fact, be harder to detect than previously thought.
Click here to read more about the Character X Factor. -Dr. Rob McKenna & Victoria Campbell-Slosberg