Washington, Robert E. Lee, and
George C. Marshall, are remembered
not only as great leaders but also as
men whose character predominated.
Lee, in particular, is regarded by his-
tory as a military leader of exception-
ally strong character. In the wake of
the Civil War, it was Lee’s leadership
by example that promoted reconcilia-
tion, rebuilding, and national har-
mony and discouraged those who
wanted to resume the fight against
the Union.
The role of character in effective
leadership has also been recognized in
the business world, although perhaps
not on the scale that it has been in the
military realm. Most people know
intuitively that good character helps
people reach their full potential and
achieve success; increases productiv-
ity; enhances self-acceptance, self-
confidence, energy, and enthusiasm;
and improves interpersonal relation-
ships. And the issue of character in
corporate leaders has risen to the fore-
front in recent years as a number of
widely publicized cases of character
meltdown (or of bad character surfac-
ing) among highly visible leaders
resulted in significant damage to their
organizations. It has become evident
that character deficiencies in business
leaders can have dire consequences in
terms of financial losses, litigation,
government scrutiny, employee
morale and retention, company repu-
tation, and public confidence.
Yet even though the importance of
character in leaders is generally
acknowledged in the business world,
the understanding and development
of character have been largely
ignored by business schools and other
institutions that train leaders and by
organizations themselves. There are a
number of reasons for this, but the
principal one is that ideas about char-
acter—and associated concepts such
as morality, ethics, and integrity—are
inherently subjective and thus contro-
versial. Implicit in the notion of char-
acter is that there are right and wrong
standards of behavior. But on what
are those standards based, and who
determines them? Are they based on
some natural order of things, on soci-
etal or cultural norms, on what the
individual alone believes to be right
and wrong, on a set of divine direc-
tives, or on some combination of
these? Also, in Western societies that
emphasize humanism and individual-
ism, there is a natural resistance to
character standards and moral codes
that may be viewed as narrow-
minded, intolerant, and restrictive of
freedom of choice and action. In
addition, some elements of character
may be perceived as mutually exclu-
sive: both boldness and cautiousness
are often described as good character
qualities, for instance, as are action
orientation and patience. Considering
all this, it’s not hard to understand
why most business schools and
organizations have shied away from
programs designed to promote char-
acter development.
Character development in organi-
zations is generally limited to defin-
ing appropriate and inappropriate
behaviors in relation to specific areas
such as sexual harassment, diversity,
and affirmative action and to provid-
ing sensitivity training. Defining and
instilling behaviors and attitudes
relating to broad moral and ethical
choices is largely disregarded. Most
organizations have drawn up a state-
ment of values, but in many cases
this statement is largely for show and
is given little more than lip service.
The fact is that what many companies
and many of their leaders continue to
value most is the bottom line—profit
margins, shareholder value, and the
like. In the consuming drive to climb
the corporate ladder, leaders often
compromise character to reach per-
formance goals, forgetting that endur-
ing, positive influence depends on the
type of people they are, not merely
on power, titles, and personal wealth.
Also, there is a widespread but mis-
taken belief that an individual’s char-
acter is totally and indelibly deter-
mined at an early age, so efforts to
develop character in adults are often
seen as a waste of time.
Despite these barriers, there are
steps that leaders can take to develop
character in themselves and others in
their organizations, using as a basis
for such development the judicious
application of the laws of the land,
the values and standards of the organ-
ization, and the social acceptability of
any given conduct.
What is character? The word is com-
monly used but difficult to define.
Webster’s II New College Dictionary
has nineteen entries under character,
as a noun, adjective, and transitive
verb. Its core meaning as a noun is
“the combination of emotional, intel-
lectual, and moral qualities that distin-
guishes a person.” Derived from the
Greek kharassein (“to inscribe”), the
word can vary in meaning according
Character is an individ-
ual’s pattern of behavior
that indicates his or her
moral strength, forti-
tude, and selflessness.
Gene Klann is a senior
program associate at CCL.
He holds a Ph.D. degree from
the Free University of

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