Character – Sure and Certain



We’re in trouble. And it is of our own making. It should be no consolation to us (in business) that there is a character crisis everywhere in this country. Right now, the high beams are targeted on corporate America, and we are very ashamed of what we see. It is mostly a product of self-serving executives exploring whatever it takes to “improve their position.” No doubt many positions have been significantly embellished through these shenanigans. Unfortunately, there seems to be little remorse for their actions.

I have been asked often – “Did you see it coming?” My answer is a resounding – Yes. Unfortunately, we weren’t talking loudly enough or being very persuasive. On the other side, people were not actively listening or concerned. I have experienced many unsavory, self-centered vermin, who masquerade as leaders. When they hone in on their prey, no one can interrupt the festivities until the feast is over. The impact is immediate, long-term and far reaching on all except for the vermin. This is where we are today. The vermin are building $10 million homes with funds that could have supported 401Ks or other retirement plans. It is nasty. And it will not change until we regain faith in the character of the people at the helm.

There are two words that aptly describe faith – sure and certain. These two qualities need a secure beginning and ending point. The beginning point is the leader’s character. The leader is who he says he is. Leaders are real people who are devoted to telling the truth and to treating people with respect. It is the foundation for starting a relationship and moving forward with it. We must believe that the leader will operate with pure motives. Self-centered behavior is not at the core of their actions. To start with character is to begin with a competitive advantage. Some executives have strayed from this important principle and have placed their organizations in jeopardy. They seem to be oblivious to their actions.

If the start is character, then the end is believing in the leader and his promises. We know he will do what he says. When we believe that the leader will fulfill his promises even though we don’t see these promises materializing, we demonstrate true faith. FAITH is the ideal that all leaders should strive to achieve in their relationships. Direct reports, peers, vendors, suppliers, customers, etc. can have more confidence and stability when they know the leader is believable. Today’s work environment can best be described as turbulent, or perpetual whitewater. It is perilous even without having to guess each day whether you can believe the leader. To maneuver the “rapids of discourse” and “the waves of travail,” the team must be able to believe their leader. This allows the “people” to forge ahead and concentrate on their work. It takes some of the clutter out of the work environment. People are less stressful because they believe in their leader.

So what must senior executives do to “sustain character” so that “faith” will occur? It will require a very different leadership journey than currently be experienced by most CEOs, Presidents, EVPs, etc. Leadership is not a spectator sport. From the banking center to the retail store to the production line, you must be involved to retain your character with the “heart and soul” of the organization. How can you demonstrate respect if you don’t leave the ivory tower? Great examples are flung across business history where companies have lost their way due to executive’s lack of connection with the mainstream. How can the average CEOs pay reach 500 times the median employee salary? It’s easy when you become disengaged from the business; when you lose contact with the “core of the business,” decisions and become more focused on personal interests. When this happens, character is diminished. It no longer is a competitive advantage.

I could generate a laundry list of hypocritical decisions made by senior executives. It is not necessary to point these out. The issue is the disconnection between the needs of a business’s customers and employees, and the realities of executives in the business world. This will not come back into focus for senior leaders until they step back and understand the work environment and its present anguish more clearly. How can employees have faith in their leaders if they are so out of touch and not concerned with their daily journey?

Former CBS newsman Bernard Goldberg recently penned a best-selling book entitled Bias. In the book, Goldberg contends that the primary problem with the media is not that they are liberal or have Democratic leanings, but that they have the “sameness” of thought, word and deed. This sameness occurs because they view the world from the same lens – socially, educationally, intellectually and professionally. It is their inbreeding. They all attend the same galas, the same award parties, the same alumni events, and the same conferences. They compare notes with each other and develop their thoughts on taxes, war, and the economy with each other. This sounds all too familiar to the employees of Enron, Global Crossing, K-Mart, and Arthur Andersen.

Business leaders must understand that it is only through your character that you will find your way out of the wilderness. While you are accruing stock options, you must first care about the workers who are losing their jobs. They are not stock options, dollar signs or sales. These people are real. They have families and communities. They are trying to make life work for them. If you demonstrate empathy, workers will respond to your caring attitude. They will cling to faith and hope because they see character. But today, many executives are clueless because they have formed their view of the business world through association with roundtables, conferences and summits versus involvement with their company, its customers and employees.

Be clear about this. You are the future of this world we call BUSINESS. It may look somewhat foreboding and dark right now. But, you are in a position to change all this. Simply put, your judgment and your character will be the driving force in returning belief to people and faith to organizations. Outstanding character or the lack of it – both have consequences. I envy those of you who will seize the day, recognize your power, become engaged and build an organization with true character. The world is waiting for you. The best and the brightest want to be involved with you. And we thank you!

Copyright 2002 International Leadership Associates