It All Starts with Character

Jan 24, 2019

“Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” —Abraham Lincoln

Insisting on good character means everyone must model that behavior. Good character may get you hired, but it is what you do with your character that matters. Employees caught up in scandals at corrupt companies may have been wholly innocent; but many paid for the crimes of their superiors either through layoffs, loss of pension, or loss of personal reputation. If a manager cuts corners, for example, fudging an expense report, employees will take note. Pretty soon, a climate of “everyone does it” creeps in, and the organization loses not only integrity, but credibility inside and outside.

Define responsibility. Never assume that people know what their responsibilities are; tell them and then ask them to define such responsibilities in their own words. Responsibility for achieving objectives may be clear, but managers need to check whether employees know the code of conduct that defines civility and rights in the workplace but also they need to insist on behaviors conducive to good order. That means, managers can ask for, and insist upon, courtesy, cooperation, and collaboration as part of the job. Never accept the bad attitude, and never call it that term. When a person is out of line, define the behavior, such as acting surly, being uncooperative, or failing to work with others. Those are not attitudes—they are defined behaviors for which a person is responsible.

Hold the right people accountable. When people do something well, we like to reward them—at least good companies do. But when people slip up, accountability sometimes defers to the low person on the totem pole. For example, at Abu Ghraib prison camp, it was the noncommissioned officers and enlisted personnel who were punished first. Senior officers with line authority for the prison system, with the exception of Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, were not initially held accountable. That sets a bad precedent, not only with our troops but for other nations looking at our military judicial system. It threatens to undermine the exceptional work the army has done in investigating wrongdoing and owning up to the problem. (It must be noted that a few more senior officers were later charged with either tolerating the culture of abuse or covering it up.)

Insist on actions, not words. Every organization professes to be ethical; even organized crime has some rules. But, as the adage goes, it is not what you say that matters, it is what you do. Take, for instance, the superstar performer who always makes the numbers and scores the big wins. If that person behaves as a jerk toward others, all too often managers will turn a blind eye. After all, they say, let’s cut him some slack. What the superstar gets away with would never be tolerated by lesser performers. Eventually, the superstar’s gains become short-lived because the workplace becomes so fouled by his negligent behaviors that good people find a way out, leaving only marginal players behind. Pretty soon the whole department stinks, and eventually sinks. There may be justice in that demise, but at what cost? Good people leave, performance plummets, and the organization suffers losses in reputation, revenue, and investor confidence. It would be better to pull the flagrant superstar aside with a warning to correct negative behavior supported by behavioral coaching or else face termination. When employees see superstars let go because they are abusive, it sends a strong signal that the company values ethics over dollars and cents.

Put people in tough situations. If you want people to grow and develop, you give them tough assignments. An extreme example is the U.S. Navy Seals. Their training is physically and mentally exhausting; candidates who want to qualify are pushed to the breaking point. It is certainly not for everyone, but if you want to develop a cadre of troops who can jump out helicopters at night in hostile territory to chase bad guys, you want people who are steeled to adversity. From a management perspective, grooming people for leadership means giving them opportunities to develop their skills, not in classrooms, but in real work situations. Then watch what they do and how they do. In addition to looking for results, examine how they worked with their team. Did they work with people or in spite of them? You want leaders who can bring people together for common cause. That, again, is character.

Reward good actions. One of the best places to see where good deeds are rewarded is on high school or collegiate sports teams. Look at who the players have elected as their captains. The players are not always the most talented athletes, but they are the most outward-directed. They are the ones who lead by example. Specifically, you will find them first to practice, last to leave. What they are doing at practice is essential to team unity. Often, they are tutoring fellow players in the art of the game, or more often, in the art of getting along with a coach, a teacher, or a fellow player. They are team leaders respected by their teammates. Managers may find such employees on their own teams. When they do, they are wise to put them in positions where their example can influence others. Better yet, good managers promote such people into positions of higher responsibility so their positive actions can have even greater impact.

Send the scoundrels packing. People who make managerial mistakes need education and coaching; folks who knowingly make ethical breeches should be sent packing right away. That sends a clear message that such behavior is never tolerated. If you let it slide—or at least, do not exact consequences in the form of demanding amends, bad things will continue to happen until something really bad occurs.

Why Character Matters
Character is a virtue, however, and if it does not show up on the bottom line, it nonetheless provides the basis for sustainability. If you manage for the short term, how you treat employees or corporate assets is less important. But if you operate for the long term, the caliber of the people you recruit, retain, and reward says much about the character of your organization. These are the men and women who will make the decisions that will develop products and services that offer value to customers who want to buy and shareholders who want to own. Character then does matter. Revealing it is essential to your future.

© 2009 John Baldoni.  All rights reserved.  Excerpted by permission of the publisher, from Lead by Example:  50 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Results by John Baldoni.  Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association,