Saturday, October 27, 2007

On Character

"Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without strategy." - General H. Norman Schwarzkopf

Personally, I am of the "Great Man" (and Woman) theory of leadership - that history is a chronicle of the acts of individuals. Not everyone believes that - there are those who claim that outcomes would happen regardless of who is at the helm. I think that's an interesting view, but my observations lead me to disagree.

So if leaders are so important, let me argue that it is vitally important for us to develop leaders of character. We shouldn't just strive to create good leaders; we must work tirelessly to create and support leaders who are Good.

Because you read my blog, you're getting this several weeks before our press release: some world-class leaders and I are forming a think tank dedicated to developing leaders who will advance social justice in all fields of endeavor, wherever they lead others. Introducing The Naples Institute. I'll flesh it out more in future blog entries.

Back to Schwarzkopf's comment on character.

If you strip down every last aspect of who you are, like peeling layers off an onion, what will you finally be left with? I am a businessman, but that is a surface trait; when I'm at the beach with my girls I'm not playing businessman, but I am still "me." I am a charity organizer, but again that is not who I am, distilled to its essence: that's more an outward manifestation of who I am. I am an author - but I'm still Ted even if I never write again. I'm a resident of Naples; where you live colors your experiences, but it likely doesn't define you as a person.

Residence, race, education, resume, marital status.... all layers that can be peeled away. Ultimately, who are you underneath it all?

If you're really like an onion, then there will be nothing there at the end - you have no core, nothing solid that in the end truly is the essence of You. That is lack of character, and I pity you. The character Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness was such a leader: he was phenomenally charismatic, and he led like few people can. Yet he stood for absolutely nothing, which led to his demise.

What is left within you after all of your outer traits are stripped away? Are you an empty onion, or is there a kernel of bare essence there? What I hope you will find is that deep down inside, after everything else is removed, your answer is that you are a Good person. Chances are if you're reading this blog, then you've found me through your interest in customer service or philanthropy. It's rare to find someone with those interests who is not Good. Thankfully, then, I'm preaching to the choir.

Still, I've found that even Good people today need permission to be Good. I can't tell you the number of business leaders I've met who want to do the right thing - if it's expedient, if "all things are equal" (which they never are); if it doesn't harm the bottom line.

The Naples Institute will give that permission. It is my personal belief that doing the right thing - in business, politics, interpersonal relationships, recreation; at all times - is beneficial to a person and an organization. And not just to one's spiritual sense; I mean that Good actions are rewarded tangibly. Executives at Johnson & Johnson coined the term Enlightened Self-Interest way back in the 1950's, and it's a powerfully compelling axiom. Doing Good is good for you. Your business grows. Your children love you better and obey you more readily. You attract more praise, more positive attention. People cut you breaks when things go badly. For completely selfish reasons, do the right thing. It pays handsome dividends.

Now, here's why we want our leaders to see themselves as fundamentally Good.

Our self-image determines our actions. People who see themselves as devoted parents will lay down their lives if necessary to protect their children. People who see themselves as loyal followers will sometimes do morally questionable acts in service to their leader. Those who see themselves as unredeemed can be relied on to stand for nothing; their own self-loathing will lead them to destructive, and self-destructive, acts again and again.

We want a judge who sees herself as Just, because we know she will guide our trial objectively even if the outcomes goes against her personal preference. We want a boss who sees himself as Supportive because our career is in his hands. We want our teachers and coaches to see themselves as Devoted to our success; their own self-definition will dictate that they do their jobs well.

When a person sees herself as morally Good, that will guide all of her decisions. We humans crave meaning in our lives, and our internal narrative has to make sense to us, or it will nag at us until we get back in alignment with it, or until it drives us to ruin.

The Naples Institute will turn out highly effective leaders - good leaders - who are Good people. We will be able to rely on these people to do the right things. That will benefit us all.