A few weeks ago, we learned that thousands of Wells Fargo employees had opened fraudulent accounts to meet the bank’s “cross-selling” goals. The story was jaw-dropping.
5 years? 5,000 employees? Over 2 million sham accounts? Really? During that entire stretch of time, no Wells Fargo leader (who still works there!) ever paused to say, “Hey, this isn’t right?” Indeed, “gutless leadership” may be an appropriate description.
For some time now, I have been curious about where the newer generations of leaders are learning good character. Traditionally, character has been taught at home and then reinforced outside the home – at church, synagogue, summer camp, and school. Harvard business professor Clay Christensen poignantly makes the historic tie between religion and character development in this 90-second clip. Where will good character be taught tomorrow?
Good character guides leaders to —
Do the right thing when no one is looking.
Does good character matter? Well, what was your reaction when you learned the truth about Bernie Madoff? Or Lance Armstrong? Or Elizabeth Holmes, former CEO of Theranos? Feeling over-regulated today? You can thank, in part, some of the bad characters who used to lead Enron, Worldcom, Tyco and Arthur Anderson.
People like this remind us why it is vital that leaders purposefully pursue and encourage good character – in ourselves, and in those we lead.
We all have character — the question is whether it is good or bad.
I would contend that, left to our own devices, our natural bent is toward bad character. We are all inclined to act according to our self-interest. Put less gently, we are naturally selfish. What keeps us from acting selfishly all the time? The disciplines of good character.
In his treatise on Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes that “none of the virtues of [good] character arises in us naturally.” Our character is formed out of the habits that we practice daily.
Aristotle continues: “we become builders, for instance, by building, and we become harpists by playing the harp. Similarly, then, we become just by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions.”
Good character doesn’t just happen to leaders. Leaders must intentionally pursue good character daily. It takes effort. Aristotle again: “it is … hard work to be excellent.”
In this age of Fakebook, it is easy to let our character be influenced through what others think of us — outside-in, rather than inside-out. Good character is about leading from within.
When people aren’t internally guided to do the right thing, they must be controlled by external forces. It is true of parents with their kids, employers with their employees, and governments with their citizens.
Perhaps you are a business leader who bemoans the increasing levels of federal regulation. Consider this: while you’re fighting the regulations on the outside, could you also fight to emphasize good character inside your company?
Because what if a senior leader at Wells Fargo had had the courage to speak out? What if someone had had the integrity to say “no” to unethical practices? Or, the compassion to think about the customers being cheated?
In the coming months, I will be writing an occasional series on leaders cultivating good character. It seems like a good time to focus on our internal compass.
Arnold Palmer died on September 25th. What struck me most as I read about his passing is that every article, whether in a sports publication or otherwise, gave equal attention to his character as they did to his athletic accomplishments. He was “a man of the people,” known for his “respectability and humility,” “as gentle on the course as he was bold on it.”
These words describe the core of who he was — his character. When someone dies, people tend to talk as much or more about their character as about their achievements: he was an honest man; she was a generous woman.
Arnie, a leader and influencer in so many ways, leaves behind a legacy of more than athletic prowess — he was a good man. We need leaders like this, talented in their skill-set, but more importantly, grounded in good character. And we need to be intentional about encouraging it in those who follow us.
Let’s give it some attention and intention over the next few months.