To write his book Return on Character author Fred Kiel studied the character traits and habits of business leaders from large to small businesses across the country. He spoke with the leaders themselves, their teams, and the employees within the company to get a sense of which leaders truly valued and displayed strong moral character while running their business. What Kiel founds is that those CEOs who had the strongest moral character were more respected by their employees, produced greater value for their companies, and brought people together in powerful ways. One of the cornerstone principles of the leaders with strong character that Kiel spoke with was an idea of self-awareness, and Kiel addresses how that trait can help CEOs have such positive impacts on their companies.
Regarding self-awareness Kiel wrote, “Among our research participants, those CEOs with the strongest character and strongest business results—were self-aware. They spent time reflecting on their life journey. They have some understanding of its milestones, how they’re connected, and where they continue to lead. They know where they are going, in part because they know where they’ve been.”
Kiel shows that self-awareness helps the CEOs make better decisions in the work place which can help guide themselves, the company, and all of the individuals within the company when difficult situations arise. Building a strong sense of self-awareness allows the individual to reflect and learn from their past, helps them stay humble, and allows them to share their experiences with others in meaningful ways. By providing a base line to evaluate our decisions and morals, self-awareness helps us better understand the outcomes of our choices, and helps us stay motivated to make good decisions.
When describing those CEOs who did not have a cohesive grasp on their life story and background Kiel wrote, “The least principled CEOs in the research, on the other hand, those whose behavior demonstrates little in the way of strong character and whose business results tend to be weak, were more likely to be running blind through their life journey.” He suggest that those who have not reflected on themselves and what has shaped them are unable to view the world in a truly profound way to make positive decisions for not just their own life, but for the life of the company and for the lives of those who work as part of the company, from the leadership team all the way down to the interns.”
Reflecting on self-reflection in Return on Character author Fred Kiel talks about the interviews he did with corporate CEOs. Through speaking with executives in companies of all sizes within different industries across multiple states he found multiple similarities in those CEOs that he described as morally and socially responsible and their approach to their lives and roles within a company shared many themes. One of the similarities in their lives, which surprised Kiel, was how well leaders were able to recognize their own life story. He writes,
“Perhaps the most important fact revealed by these interviews was whether the leaders knew their life story … In every case, the CEOs later identified as virtuosos leaders were able to recognize the threads that they had woven together to create their life story, and how their principles and beliefs were reflected in their actions and decisions.”
Currently in my life as I have begun preparing the enter college for a graduate degree, I have been looking over scholarship applications which all seem to focus on this same issue. Building self-awareness and recognizing what pushes us in certain directions or motivates us seems to be a key concept of the scholarship application, and Kiel’s quote above shows it to be a key concept of leadership as well. Shifting my focus on the scholarship applications I can see them as an opportunity for me to apply my practice of self-awareness to my practice of writing to help me grow in the direction of Kiel’s strong moral leaders. Kiel’s writing continues,
“Self focused leaders seem to have had very little opportunity to construct a meaningful platform of beliefs or principles.”
Looking at both of Kiel’s quotes together one can see that it is difficult to build character without self reflection, and without pausing to consider the influences in ones life, it is hard to be aware of our actions, motivations, and the way in which our decisions impact others. Building processes into our lives like journaling can help us build our self-awareness and connect the dots within our lives so that we understand ourselves, others, and how we come together in the world. Scholarship applications for me will be a great opportunity for refined reflection to understand my journey and why I am motivated to head in the direction that I am. Kiel would suggest that this practice will help me better recognize the parts of me which I am proud of and where they came from, as well as the parts of me which are not reaching the highest potential or moral standards that I expect in my life. His research seems to suggest that this is a cornerstone piece of any truly great leader.
Throughout his book Return on Character, author and character researcher Fred Kiel talks about the complexity of human development, the complexity of our interactions with others, and the complexity of creating a model to understand how we grow into the people and decision makers that we become. In the book, social science research is brought in to help describe human behaviors, but for Kiel the studies don’t fully explain who we are. He approaches the science and discoveries accepting that they explain aspects of our decisions, but he seems to have a belief that there often seems to be a disconnect between our experiences and the results of science. Hinting at the multidimensional context of our lives, Kiel suggests that we are too complex for all of our decisions and interactions to be explained by one general theory. Regarding research he writes,
“Ongoing research is helping us more fully understand the nature of who we are as human beings and how our basic human nature supports the genetic predispositions and life experiences that determine who we are as individuals. We can use these new findings to embrace a model of human nature that describes us as capable of becoming mature, complete individuals, not just self-focused rationalists—a model that supports organizational life in all its rich complexity and celebrates the deep and meaningful connection between who we are and what we do.”
Kiel is showing a shift in thinking about people and is looking at us from a perspective of individuals tied to a community with varying degrees of commitment and responsibility. He is showing that our research is beginning to accept human beings as more complex social beings with individual desires and motivations, which is not easily built together with one single model of humanity.
Understanding that there is not one model for how we relate to others and act during our lifetime seems to suggest that we have the power to shape ourselves and who we become by managing our reactions to the world around us and by understanding our social connections. Kiel supports the idea that we can change ourselves in relation to our society while at the same time our society and culture, especially our close relationships, can have an impact in changing our lives. Human behavior is not set in stone, and we have the power to shape our behavior and seek out cultures and environments that support the decisions and behaviors we desire.
Fred Kiel addresses our decision making in his book Return on Character as a way to describe the thoughts, choices, and actions of leaders with strong moral character. Kiel contrasts the idea of a fast brain, or subconscious brain, with a slow brain, or rational brain, and the ways in which we make our decisions. The fast brain is reactionary and always acting to guide our choices without needing energy or attention, but it is our slow brain that guides our moral character and our willpower as Kiel explains,
“Our slow brain is where we do all our conscious and analytic work. It provides us with tools of logic and reflection … Our slow brain can call on a number of beliefs or rules and use them to guide our decisions. It can also override the intuitions of our fast brain, a process we know as willpower. Our slow brain can also learn to identify and ignore erroneous signals from our fast brane, which is how we demonstrate self-awareness and wisdom.”
I really enjoy this quote because it shows how reflection and self awareness-both result from our slow brain, but help to also develop our slow brain and improve the choices we make. What that means to me is that reflection and self-awareness are conscious decisions and tools that can be used to build and improve our decision making and thought process. When we are more aware of our fast brain and the impulses and desires it creates, we can logically think through our impulsive desires to determine whether we are seeking a need or just looking to fulfill a temporary pleasure. Slowing down and applying logic through self-awareness can help us understand not just our choices, but our reactions to the world. We can avoid poor judgements about actions, decisions, and how we treat others. Our slow brain can be trained to help us eat better, treat others with more respect, and drive nicer. Our willpower will grow, our self-awareness will be boosted, and better choices can help us become more productive when we cultivate a strong slow brain and pair it with a well habituated fast brain.
Kiel continues to explain how often we usually engage our slow brain over the course of a day, “Amazingly, most researchers agree that very few of the choices we make in the course of a day — from what to order for lunch to which business alliances we form—are guided by conscious thought or our slow brain.” This means that we are not pausing to reflect and make choices that are as logical and rational as we would like to think. Keeping this in mind can help us understand the importance of using our rational brain at meaningful times so that we in some sense train or set up positive habits for our fast brain. The idea that Kiel lays out about our lack of slow brain thought can also help us understand the importance of how we view others. Judging poor decisions and actions of others can be done in way in which we view which brain, slow brain or fast brain, the other is engaging. This can help us better understand others, and understand that we often do not make decisions that are much better or much more thought out. Thinking about thinking in this way allows us to build more self-awareness to help our slow brain become a better thinking machine which will further drive our self-awareness and understandings of others in a positive feedback cycle.
Return on Character by Fred Kiel is a business book that argues that individuals with high moral character become better leaders in the business world and create more value for the companies they lead. Kiel spends time in his book explaining how leaders with strong moral characters improve the workplace, and he also discusses ideas about where those moral character habits come from. He addresses the idea of the fast brain where our subconscious makes decisions and drives our emotions and behavior, and our slow brain where we rationally think through our ideas and actions. Focusing on the fast brain and its role in our behaviors, habits, and character Kiel writes,
“The fast brain is where all of our subconscious intuitions, cravings, habits, and emotions reside. The fast brain’s primary purpose is to prove the subconscious “spurs” to drive behavior patterns aimed at bringing us safety, security, food, and social connection. … Our Fast brain also spurs behavior through habits — automatic responses such as putting our foot on the brake when we see a stop sign. Those habits that determine how we relate to others, such as a reflexive response to tell the truth or own up to our mistakes, become our character habits.”
What Kiel’s quote shows me is that we will not be able to control, guide, or shape our character if we are not able to recognize the habits that are formed within our fast brain. Increasing our level of self-awareness, focusing on our reactions to others, and being cognizant of our interactions with those around us will allow us to begin to form our fast brain into a tool that guides us along a moral path. We can use practices of self-awareness and perspective to turn our fast brain into a machine that builds our character over time. By focusing on our relationships with others and becoming comfortable with adopting strong character habits we can reach a level where we treat everyone around us better.
I think that an important component within the idea of shaping our fast brain is accepting the reactions and habits we have formed without realizing it. Often these habits can be quite negative, such as looking the other way when a person from a different ethnic background walks by, and it is important that we accept those habits rather than sweep them under a rug and hide them from ourselves. If we cannot accept that we have negative habits formed by our fast brain, then we never give our slow brain a chance to think through them and tumble through a solution to become a better person. During the process of shaping our fast brain we must recognize the behaviors we want to change, but we must do so by accepting that we have those habits and behaviors before we tell ourselves how wrong they are, and before we castigate ourselves for having such thoughts and behaviors. An honest inner dialogue of reflection will help us grow, and give us a chance to help others grow by accepting our flaws, as well as the flaws of others, and finding a way to grow in a positive direction as a group.
In his book Return on Character, author Fred Kiel address ideas of what motivates business leaders, especially during their climb to become CEO, and once they have reached the highest level of a company. He argues that those who do not display a purely self-interested worldview and can become fully integrated with themselves bring greater success to the companies they work for.
Leaders who operate in a self-interested manner, according to Kiel, are five times less effective, meaning the companies return on the CEO’s salary is five times less, than those who Kiel would describe as virtuoso, or as having strong moral character. He explains that those who are motivated purely by self-interest are not acknowledging other people and factors that play into their own lives as they pursue greater salaries, clout, and power. By becoming a fully integrated human, connecting with others, sharing personal passions and drives, understanding and exploring personal motivations outside of salaries and power, and by understanding a full range of human nature, a CEO can bring more to the table and provide more for the company and lives of the employees within the company.
Kiel explains that Adam Smith’s views in The Wealth of Nations are unable to keep up with the complex lives and global economies of the world today. There may be leaders who are able to innovate and create things that better all of humanity, pushing all people forward through their success with an invisible hand, but Kiel believes that the more common result of CEOs and leaders acting in their own self-interest is more often the destruction of the common good as opposed to the elevation of the common good described by Smith.
His explanation as to why we need to be fully connected human beings in the world today lies with the fact that humans are motivated in complex and intertwined ways. CEOs, employees, and consumers are not simply motivated by economic forces. We face a range of emotions that force us to make decisions based on factors beyond price, salary, and the impact our choice will have on our bank account. Kiel’s thesis throughout his book is that leaders who fully accept, explore, and understand not just their own complex set of beliefs and motivations but that of their colleagues, employees, and customers will be more valuable for everyone. Colleagues will benefit from building relationships with an individual they can trust and grow alongside, employees will become more motivated when working for an individual who respects and advocates for them, and consumers will recognize the value of the products, services, and societal position of companies led by globally responsible leadership teams.
Leadership is one of the ideas that Fred Kiel addresses in his business book Return on Character when he focuses on the importance of strong moral character for the CEOs and leadership teams of companies in todays competitive business world. Kiel employs the term virtuoso to describe those leaders who are able to display strong character while organizing a business and supporting meaningful ethical and responsible goals for their employees, communities, and shareholders. He chooses the term because maintaining a strong moral character takes practice and focus, and virtuoso, a term normally reserved for talented musicians and athletes, strongly represents the attention and development of high character leadership over time. Kiel writes, “Not only is leadership based on performance, but it is an art that requires disciplined practice as well as ability.”
I found this quote to be meaningful because Kiel is explaining that we need practice and development to become great leaders. There are certainly people I know who naturally seem to be great leaders, but what Kiel is explaining is that to be a truly virtuoso and impactful leader, one must focus and practice to hone not just their leadership skills, but also their character skills, and their moral judgement skills. Even those with great leadership talent will not be able to become as successful as possible if they are not able to refine their leadership talent and build it to become applicable in various settings. In the view that Kiel adopts in Return on Character, practice and self-awareness are key for any leader, including those who bring great natural talent to their position, because developing meaningful and trustful relationships is a key component of leading with strong character. A talented leader who is self focused and does not act with integrity to support those around them may reach business goals, but they likely will not be bringing their team with them in a way that will meet the goals of everyone within their organization.
Another powerful idea represented by Kiel and his quote above is the thought of deliberate practice and grit on the way to virtuosity in leadership. When we begin to think that leaders are not born as great leaders, and when we recognize that those with great character are not born with overflowing character, we can see both to be attainable in our own lives through dedicated focus and effort. I recently listened to the NPR podcast, Hidden Brain
, where the idea of grit, practice, and achievement was directly addressed. What they find, and what I am sure Kiel would support, is that those who can preserver, or display grit, are the ones who begin to display effortlessness in their areas of focus, and virtuous leadership certainly falls in line with this thought. Just as incredibly talented individuals such as Kobe Bryant became awe inspiring thanks to practice, we can grow and change to become exceptional with our moral character and leadership. We may not all start our on the same playing field in terms of talent (there may be Kobe Bryants of the leadership and character world out there) but we can certainly put in the focus and deliberate practice to ensure that our nature skill will not be the only thing that matters in our ability to lead and be morally responsible to those in our lives.
The character of our business leaders is a major factor for driving successful organizations in the world today, and having a strong moral character will continue to be the key difference maker among leadership teams of the top corporations in the world. This is the argument laid out in Return on Character written by Fred Kiel. In his book he advocates that leaders and leadership teams need to be comprised of individuals with strong character if they are to build real value for their shareholders, communities, and for those working for the company. Kiel gives us many examples of how character can help a company thrive and win in today’s business environment, and he starts his book by taking a deep look at just what character is.
Early on Kiel establishes that character is defined by our belief system and our daily actions and behaviors. “Character has to be expressed through behavior. Integrity, responsibility, forgiveness, and compassion don’t live inside us. Our behavior, especially as demonstrated through our relationships with others, is where our character comes to life. Which means that, despite the common wisdom, character isn’t some hidden quality that no one can really know or assess.”
I like Kiel’s quote because it shows just how prominent our character truly is in our lives, and how important it is that our behaviors and interactions represent our true character. It does not mean that we must go out of our way to be showy and ostentatious, but it does mean that our character should manifests itself in all of our actions, be they grand charitable acts, or small actions barely perceptible within a conversation. In order to build this character we must develop a level of self-awareness which allows us to consider others and our actions toward others as much as we consider ourselves and our desires. To foster the character needed to succeed in today’s business world we must be able to take our drive, passion, and focus for success, and recognize that we depend on others to reach the levels we desire. By creating more value for others, as Bob Berg would suggest, we can begin to increase the strength of our relationships and develop a strong moral character that is based on being a great person towards others.
Fred Kiel lays out his ideas and definitions of morality in his book Return on Character, his business book where he lays out the idea that in order to be truly successful in todays world companies must find leaders with strong moral character. Much of his book focuses on relationships and the types of benefits that a leader and leadership team with strong moral character can bring to the relationships of everyone working within an organization, and the benefits that brings to a company as a whole. As part of this idea, Kiel dives into morality, and what it means to develop morality within a corporation or company today.
One of Kiel’s interpretations on morality relates to the way we see other people and interact with them, “Each of us constantly makes decisions about how to interact with other people, and each of those decisions has the potential to either harm or enhance the other person’s well-being.” This is a simple idea about how we can interpret and see the world and Kiel explains that what we are more moral when our actions help the well-being of others, and we are immoral when our behaviors detract from the well-being of others. This is a good starting point for describing the importance of character in relationships and business, because on an individual level it is easy to asses whether or not we are acting with the motivation of helping ourselves at the expense of others, or if we are acting in a way that is meant to help everyone as much as ourselves.
I recently listened to a podcast from the Transistor Podcast from PRX in which they discussed Theory of Mind which states that we are constantly interpreting what others are thinking and feeling, and we are able to recognize that others outside of ourselves have their own emotions and thoughts about any given situation. I think that Kiel would argue that it is important for us to work on our Theory of Mind to build our ability to recognize the thoughts and feelings of others so that we can have better interactions with those around us. The idea laid out by both the Transistor podcast and by Fred Kiel aligns with Colin Wright’s ideas presented in his book Considerations. In Considerations Wright posits the idea that we move through the world without being present in the moment as much as we should be, and he writes that we do not take the time to truly be considerate of other people, our good fortune, and of the world around us which shapes our interactions with people and our environment. By being aware of our Theory of Mind and working to be more considerate of those around us, we can improve our character. With our improved character and better relationships and interactions we can begin to be a more rewarding person to be around, and in a business sense, our character generates a return that can be felt and measured within a company.
In his book Return on Character Fred Kiel addresses human nature and how it relates to business, success, and relationships. Kiel focuses on basic moral behaviors and attributes that humans display, and he explains that while morality may manifest and be presented in different manners based on culture, there are some key moral ideas and principles that humans seem to show across the globe. He bumps up agains the idea of a universal human nature bestowed upon us at birth versus the idea that culture and our nurturing shape what we describe as our nature and common behaviors.
Kiel quotes Steven Pinker who wrote in his book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature to express his ideas of nature and how that impacts our lives in business, “Thus, while conflict is a human universal, so is conflict resolution. Together with all their nasty and brutish motives, all people display a host of kinder gentler ones.” Kiel is suggesting that we have a set of common human behaviors that can be interpreted as human nature, and he is positing those behaviors in a semi positive light. He uses the passage in his book to explain that human nature is complex and that modern action and behavior cannot simply be explained away as human nature, especially when we have contradicting behaviors that we all share and display.
The idea behind Return on Character is that companies that are very forward in thinking in terms of their moral activity within society; the positive treatment of their employees, and the integrity of their leadership, perform better than companies that do not have the same positive values. For a long time the business world has been regarded as cutthroat and we have valued individuals who can boast about their success even at the expense of the environment, the health of others, and the true wellbeing of the companies they lead. By accepting that human nature does not simply boil down to conflict and competition, we can see that business and human interactions within a business space can go beyond the typical vision which has produced a bellicose view of the work world. Just as it can be human nature to compete and fight, we can build compassion and assistance. Kiel argues throughout his book that those who integrate better moral goals as part of their company do better because it helps the company foster better relationships internally and externally.