Compiling a Coherent Life Story

One characteristic that high performing and morally focused CEOs have in common is an understanding of their life story and the events that happened in their life, shaping them into the people they are today. This idea is a cornerstone part of Fred Kiel’s book Return on Character. Kiel researched successful companies and CEOs trying to identify the importance of strong moral judgement, personal ethical behavior, and ideas of responsibility among company leaders.  He found that CEOs who displayed strong moral character and built leadership teams that mirrored their approach to relationships and ethics, outperformed those who were self focused and did not apply rigorous moral standards to their work and companies.  The businesses led by these moral CEOs had employees that felt more engaged, and productive, had better relationships with the communities in which they served, and had loyal customer bases. All of  these benefits stemmed from the CEOs high moral standards and made the companies more successful.  A key aspect in the lives of the CEOs who led these high performing companies was self-reflection and self-awareness.

 

Kiel argues that you cannot build a foundation of strong moral habits and characteristics without reflecting on what has impacted your life and led in you in a direction where you become more considerate, looking beyond your own benefit to see the world from multiple perspectives.

 

“Uncovering the sources of your character and moral habits is, in many ways, an essential element of compiling a coherent life story.  By piecing together a clear picture of how you formed your understanding of the world, you can identify the source of the negative ideas, emotions, or responses that may be promoting those aspects of your character that you need to address.”

 

This process of self-reflection is challenging, but what it uncovers are the motivations that push us to action and drive us toward goals which we were not aware of.  To avoid becoming self focused and acting in only your own interest one must truly examine how they define success, and where that definition originated. If we are chasing a certain lifestyle, a certain size of house, or a certain car just to show others that we have become successful, then we are acting out of a misplaced motivation.  Our motivation is based on what others see as successful and we are trying to act in a way to impress and show others that we are valuable, ultimately pushing us to be more interested in our own success than the success of the bigger organization in which we fit.

 

Contrasting this vision of a self-focused individual, a CEO with a strong moral character would have at some point recognized what drives their motivation and their definition of success, and they would have realized that it can be toxic to act out of motivations defined by another individual.  To truly follow ones passion and find a better aligned level of success, it is important to know what pressures society, parents, friends, and others have placed on us.  We may want to reach a certain level in our career to impress those who are in our social group, or we may be trying to reach standards of success presented to us in advertisements. A virtuous leader would understand their own vision of success, and find a goal that aligns with their inner self and is worth driving toward. Their life story would help them understand where they are, where they want to go, and how to move forward in a way that returns the benefit to everyone.

Personal Change

Author Fred Kiel advocates for self-awareness and and the development of strong moral character traits among leaders in business throughout his book Return on Character.  Kiel spends time explaining the ways in which leaders with strong values, who truly care about the people they work with and providing real value for the people they serve, bring more to the companies they lead and help their companies find greater growth. His research showed that workforces become more engaged, customers view the companies from better perspectives, and leadership teams are more effective when they are guided by self awareness and a drive to make the best moral decisions possible for their teams.  In the book Kiel addresses the transformation to become a leader with strong moral character and he explains the challenges with our self-transformations.

 

“In any event, personal change is, by definition, personal. Changing the habits that shape your character is an act that penetrates to the very core of who you are as a person.  Such change isn’t quick or easy, but it’s well worth the time and attention you’ll invest in it.  Developing the character of strong, principled leadership helps you in every aspect of your life: decision making, relationships, goal setting, conflict resolution, life and career satisfaction, and so much more.  Of course, it also involves hard work.”

 

In this quote Kiel is addressing the idea of applying self-awareness to your current situation to help drive the change that you want to see to become a better leader.  It is never easy to begin a process of self-reflection and to truly understand what parts of yourself are working well and what parts are in conflict with the goals you want to achieve, but it is crucial to growth as a leader.  Kiel explains in his book that those leaders who his research identified as the strongest moral leaders had a well developed understanding of their past and the events in their past which shaped them.  Working through the difficult process of understanding what impacted our lives to push us to where we currently are does not have a specific road map.  The journey is individual and personal. It is also a process that develops over time and, as we strengthen our self-reflection muscles, becomes more specific.  The way we see the events in our life will change over time. As we grow and become better at reflecting on our lives, we will begin to reach places where we better understand not just our actions, but the actions of others and why we feel the way we do about them.

 

By driving through this process and constantly focusing on self-awareness and self-reflection it is possible to become a moral leader.  We can reach a place where we are fully understanding of ourselves, our reactions, and emotions, and we can use that to better connect with those around us. Our decision making will be more complete as we can better empathize with those around us and view the world through more perspectives.

Caring for the Workforce

Throughout his book Return on Character Fred Kiel addresses the importance of business leaders maintaining high moral standards and incorporating those standards into their businesses.  Kiel addresses the ways in which leading with strong values can have a positive impact on a companies bottom line.  He explains ways in which many companies fall short in bringing character to the front of their organization, and what benefits they miss out on when they fail to think beyond the numbers.  One of the big points in the book is Kiel’s focus on how the leadership team’s character translates into a happier and more engaged workforce. He writes, “A workforce that feels cared for is more productive than one that feels neglected, and that translates into bottom-line financial results.”

 

Through self-awareness and respect for everyone within a company, meaning everyone from the executive team to the newest employee with the lowest hourly wage, a CEO can begin to understand the human elements of the workplace to see how important it is that everyone feels secure, welcomed, and valued. If someone does not feel this way about their position in the company, Kiel would argue that they would not perform at their best. By thinking about others and trying to show ways that you value everyone as a human being, you can create the sense of caring that Kiel addresses in his quote.  When a leader makes an effort to show their respect and works to treat their employees like human beings then everyone wins. The employees feel as though they contribute in a meaningful way and they are willing to continue to work hard and become more productive.

Human Capital

Many employees in companies across the country do not feel very engaged in the work they do.  As a result, they don’t feel inspired to do their best, and they do not provide the most value possible to the companies they work for.  Fred Kiel argues in his book Return on Character that this is because employees know when they are truly being treated with respect and when they are simply being treated as “human capital”.

 

Kiel’s book focuses on morals, ethics, and how leaders who display strong moral character habits shape the companies they oversee. By creating teams that match their values and support their moral goals, a company’s top leaders can create a system that better engages the workforce. When describing a common feature of workforces that engage their employees, Kiel writes, “They treat their employees with respect.  Employees experience the culture as one that cares for them as people—where they are not treated as “human capital.”” What he is showing is that those who we expect to work for us and provide value for us need to know that they are valuable as human beings and individuals, and they need to feel a sense of purpose and appreciation from their leaders.

 

When a leadership team or a supervisory team does not expand respect to all levels of the workforce, then the work that each individual does will not become a sense of pride and will suffer.  The employees become disengaged causing productivity and quality to diminish.  If a leadership team broadcasts strong moral values and guides supervisory teams to truly respect and value their employees as more than warm bodies, then the employees can develop meaningful relationships with their leadership and with each other. These relationships will stem from respect and encourage everyone, not just the employees but management level workers as well, to commit to their work to maximize their potential.

Organizational Structure

In his book Return on Character author Fred Kiel addresses ways in which a business leader’s strong moral character can boost the bottom  line for the company they work for, and how their strong moral character can have a meaningful and positive impact on the lives of the employees working for them.  Part of the way that strong character can translate into a more engaged and fulfilled workforce and a better bottom line is through an organizational structure which supports the employees of the company, and helps them do their best work with the ethos of their virtuoso CEO. A strong structure can help guide a company by allowing everyone involved to act in a morally defined manner, helping everyone do better work.  Kiel sets up the idea that a great business structure depends on a strong moral ethos developed by the leadership team and the CEO:

 

“Even an ideal structure offers no guarantee that the dynamics will be positive, harmonious, and energized.  As the ROC [Return on Character] data revealed, this is where the character habits of the executive team come into play.”

 

Kiel is explaining that an efficient organizational structure within the business is not enough for great business success.  His argument is that CEOs need to develop moral habits and characteristics that help build people up by treating them as more than just extra hands on deck.  When the CEO is able to truly live through this idea and create and shape a leadership team that can spread this idea, then everyone within the company will be taken care of, and they will feel as though they work in an environment where people truly care about them and want to help them do their best work.

 

The opposite end of this scale would be a self focused CEO who displays character habits of a dog-eat-dog, success hungry individual. This type of character will show that what is most important is personal growth, even at the expensive of others. They likely will not develop strong leadership teams that can put the interests and goals of employees at the same level of importance as their own. As a result, employees feel disconnected and have no reason to demonstrate strong moral habits within their own work.

 

By voicing, living up to, and building a leadership team that is focused on strong moral goals, a CEO can create a structure in which all actors of the company are able to make positive moral decisions and feel encouraged to do their best work.  The strong moral values of the company will be reflected beyond the work space and into the world in which the company provides value to those with whom they serve.  Reinforcing this structure and maintaining it requires more than just a keen eye for efficiency, and requires a true respect for human beings.

Mental Complexity

“The term mental complexity refers to our ability to perceive the subtle nuances that separate similar ideas, issues, and events in the world around us—the gray areas that replace the strictly black-and-white understandings of the world that most of us have when we’er young.” Fred Kiel uses this quote to introduce us to the ways in which he believes great leaders think about the world.  For Kiel, a strong leader needs to have well developed moral ideas, an evolving and profound sense of self-awareness, and an ability to think of others as much as they think of themselves.  By introducing the idea of mental complexity Kiel is able to show how thorough our leaders’ though processes should be. They cannot adhere to simplistic guidelines or principles and they cannot apply blanket statements to all facets of life when so much of what happens in our life takes on a new meaning when you shift your perspective.

 

Kiel quotes psychologist Robert Kegan  and his idea of the self-transforming mind to continue his thoughts on mental complexity, “According to Kegan, the self-transforming mind is continually aware of not knowing everything—of understanding that every worldview is incomplete and that we can never know everything there is to know about anything.” This quote fits with Kiel’s idea of living life in more of a gray are as opposed to living in a dichotomy.  Life in this way can be frustrating and sometimes clouded, but learning to better think through the events and ideas surrounding us will allow us to live more dynamically and open to changes.  Rather than shutting anyone or any event out of our lives we can adjust to situations and people as situations change. Understanding that we all approach the world from our own perspectives and being able to see that we will not all thrive by approaching life from the same angle will give us a better grasp on how to create real progress in not just our own lives, but in the lives of those around us as well. Kiel argues that this is a necessary quality for a strong business leader because so often our leaders are faced with decisions that have many implications and conflicting interests for various groups of people such as shareholders, employees, local communities, and global customers. By thinking dynamically a leader with a strong moral backbone can help navigate these decisions in a way that will add value to the lives of more people than just those in the boardroom.

 

In the United States I think we do a particularly poor job of approaching the world with the type of mindset that Kiel describes.  In our politics we have seen our two major parties diverge from moderate and centrist ideas to become more extreme and more polarized, and I think a big part of this shift has to do with a lack of developing mental complexity in our world views’.  For some reason our country highly values strong and unwavering view points on everything from abortion, taxes, sports teams, and music. We have begun using our preferences for seemingly minor parts of our lives as cornerstone concepts of our identities, and this has pushed us to a place where we understand the world through dichotomies. Rather than living in the black and white and doing our best to think through and understand various points of view, we have tied ourselves to specific though processes on which we lean on to create our identity.  This is dangerous because it limits our ability to see nuances in thought processes, and it creates winners and losers in areas that cannot simply reduced to good or bad. When a leader, political or in business, ties themselves to a set identity and refuses to think of the world through multiple perspectives, they risk alienating others and preventing growth by failing to truly understand the choices available to them.

Leadership: Act Accordingly

Fred Kiel addresses leadership throughout his book Return on Character and he constantly relates leadership and decision making back to our character development. Kiel focuses on self-awareness and the ability humans have to recognize their decision making and their environment and to grow and change within those frameworks.  Kiel writes, “We aren’t born great leaders, after all; we become great leaders by training ourselves to think and act accordingly.” In this quote he is directly explaining the importance of reflection along our journey to ensure that we are growing in the right direction to help us become great leaders.

 

Kiel’s quote reminds me of Colin Write’s book Act Accordingly and a post I wrote last September. In my post regarding acting accordingly I wrote about the importance of self-awareness and recognizing why we make the decisions we make. That careful consideration requires a dose of self-awareness to help us see not just why we make decisions by why we think the way we do about decisions and how those decisions fit into a framework that we create to explain who we are.

 

When we focus on leadership we must develop a way of thinking about our actions that is in accord with the vision we have for ourselves. If we lack self-awareness then the vision we have for ourselves will not be aligned with what we ultimately want to achieve.  This means we could be bogged down in self-interest and that we may be more focused on our own success than the success of those arounds us, diminishing the quality of our leadership.  Thinking critically of our actions as a leader will help us create habits based on integrity that can guide us and those who are around us to maximize our moral character, building it into our decision making framework.  We can continually grow into this role through practice, and our actions can actually help others learn to develop into leaders of high character as well.

Self-Aware

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.”

Leadership and Your Life Story

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.

Leaders and Motivation

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.