Why leadership development is a matter of character

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Business leaders who demonstrate greater character tend to make better decisions.SUPPLIED

Do business leaders have strong enough character?

That’s a critical and often overlooked question as organizations face continuing challenges to compete and excel. Having the right competencies is certainly a must, but beyond those skills and qualifications, leadership character provides a competitive edge, says Sevaun Palvetzian, president and CEO of UNICEF Canada.

“Character is foundational to how we make decisions, and better decisions lead to better outcomes. Life is inherently unpredictable. How a leader is going to show up in a time of crisis reveals character,” says Ms. Palvetzian, who’s also a member of the leadership council at Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership at the Ivey Business School at Western University.

To her, it’s no surprise that over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, some leaders crumbled while those with strong character held their teams together the tightest. She says that the people we tend to gravitate to, and trust the most, share high character. “It’s about how we interact. It’s not an afterthought; it’s the thesis of who we are as people.”

To spur understanding of this foundational aspect of leadership – what it is and how it functions – Ivey Business School’s Ihnatowycz Leadership Institute has generated deep research on character leadership. They’ve developed a leader character framework that includes a set of 11 interconnected dimensions: humanity, humility, integrity, temperance, justice, accountability, courage, transcendence, drive, collaboration, and judgment.

They’re all expressed through someone’s behaviour. When these elements are nurtured and balanced, a leader makes better decisions in critical areas such as sustainability and the future of work, and creates sustained excellence and well-being for their organization.

“People may find the list overwhelming at first glance, but as you dive into the framework and begin to develop each dimension, you realize how each one is vital. You see how they interact and influence one another to inform your judgment,” says Dr. Dusya Vera, professor of Strategy at Ivey Business School and the executive director of Ihnatowycz Leadership. “We are developing our character every day whether we are conscious of it or not. Why leave something so consequential to chance?”

Character can be strengthened

While competence is a table stake, character is a muscle that can be strengthened, says Mona Malone, chief human resources officer and head of People, Culture & Brand at BMO, and the chair of the leadership council at Ihnatowycz Leadership.

“There are few roles where it’s only what you know that moves things forward,” she says.

She notes the broad ROI for fostering character in leaders – more effective judgment, better financial results, higher employee engagement, more positive customer experiences, and more lasting impacts within and outside the organization.

Last year, BMO donated $3.5-million to Ihnatowycz Leadership to advance their programming beyond the business school. This gift will see the creation of a new cross-campus leadership certificate available to all undergraduate students at Western University, and a free digital playbook designed to support the development of character leadership in SMEs and nonprofits.

In the past year, the Institute has published two books featuring its research. The Character Compass is a practical, evidence-based guide to take stock of and reshape your character and that of your organizations. Character: What Contemporary Leaders Can Teach Us about Building a More Just, Prosperous, and Sustainable Future features interviews with 17 global leaders with exemplary character.

Over the years, the Institute’s research has become embedded in the Ivey HBA and MBA programs. For example, Ivey offers an immersive, experiential elective called Leadership Under Fire, where students’ character is stress-tested in live scenarios.

The Ivey character framework has also been captured by external partner organizations, in tools such as the Leadership Character Insight Assessment (LCIA) and the Virtuosity app.

Make character part of culture

Ivey’s emphasis on developing leadership character was set in motion following the 2008 global financial crisis. A group of professors wondered why such crises were recurring. “They put leadership on trial, which also put business schools on trial,” says Dr. Vera.

Through interviews with leaders across Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Hong Kong, the professors found that the financial crisis wasn’t a failure of competence but a failure of character. “While leaders knew about finance and accounting, leadership at that time demonstrated uncontrolled ambition, lack of patience, arrogance and unbridled drive,” Dr. Vera says.

Since then, Ihnatowycz Leadership has launched a Leader Character Practitioner Certification and worked with organizations across the public, private, and non-for-profit sectors to embed character development into their practices.

Character isn’t just a matter of personal behaviour. It’s also about an organizational ethos, says Ms. Malone. Businesses should be looking to cultivate character as part of their workplace culture. That can be evident in everything from how people work with and treat each other, to what they do for the communities they serve.

“We look at philanthropy and volunteer work as an incredible way to build empathy, and it’s key to the impact of an organization more broadly,” Ms. Malone says.

There’s a saying in human resources that you hire for competence and fire for character. The right combination of skills is always needed to navigate looming challenges and opportunities. Yet development programs that focus more on the elements of strong character can nurture more trusted leaders and leadership teams.

“Organizations that create that learning mindset will be more poised for competitive success moving forwards,” says Ms. Malone.


Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with Ivey School of Business. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.