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Personal Character

The Oxford dictionary defines ‘character’ as “the collective qualities or characteristics, especially mental and moral, that distinguish a person or thing; a moral strength; reputation, especially a good reputation.”  I think we’d all agree that character matters significantly in our personal lives as well as in our professional lives.  Indeed, a goal, and perhaps a requirement, is to behave with identical character in both, as it should not be a trait one can turn off and on, else it would be false.

Character came to mind when I read David Brooks‘s column in the New York Times of March 5 entitled ‘The Rediscovery of Character.’  He writes of James Q. Wilson, the eminent social scientist, who died recently.  From Mr. Wilson’s essay on “The Rediscovery of Character,” Mr. Brooks excerpts many essentials of character that I think are directly relevant to how individuals behave and succeed at work and to the sustainability of a corporation.

From Messers. Wilson and Brooks, here are the key extracts we need to consider as individuals who also have roles of important corporate responsibility.

  • ‘The language of morality in discussing problems of mankind should not be shunned.’  Moral businesses treat their employees, each other, their competitors and their customers with respect.  Grant treated Lee morally at Appomattox.  Few argue that Lincoln wasn’t a moral leader.
  • ‘Our nation’s problems cannot be understood by looking at incentives.’  Mr. Wilson was far ahead of his time in understanding, as Daniel Pink writes in “Drive 2.0,” that a new incentive, contrary to economic theory, is driving open sourcing and social networking.  My good friend Jeannette Paladino found this statistic:  “A Cisco survey revealed that more than half of new college graduates and recent graduates could not work for a company that bans social media.”  There are no financial incentives in using social media or in writing open source code.  Communities and friends benefit rather than the individual.  How does that fit with current incentive plans and performance reviews?  What is the impact of corporate hierarchy?
  • ‘Behave in a balanced way.  Think about the long-term consequences of your actions.  Cooperate.  Be decent.’  Better guidance about how to act in a corporate environment cannot be found.  Wouldn’t we all want to work in an organization where we and our colleagues acted this way?

My belief is that absent character, corporations will not be able to retain their best people, that disorganization will follow, that individuals will game the system, and that we’ll lose incalculable productivity and creativity.  Perhaps the best way to think about character is to recognize it lasts forever and affects everything we say and do.  We’d be nowhere without it.

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