A Thought on Leadership

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.

Revealing Character

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.

Interactions

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.

Human Nature

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.

Character

Fred Kiel’s book Return on Character focuses on the importance of strong moral character traits in the leaders of today. Kiel’s book is about business, but many of the ideas he expresses go well beyond business and can manifest in our every day life.  The central idea to Kiel’s book is that those who are truly successful in life are individuals with high moral character. He continues with a business focus to say that those companies who are the most successful and provide the most value to their customers, employees, communities, and societies are lead by truly virtuous leaders with strong moral characters.

In looking at character and what it means to have a strong character Kiel quotes E. O. Wilson from his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge:

“True character rises from a deeper well than religion.  It is the internalization of the moral principles of a society, augmented by those tenets personally chosen by the individual, strong enough to endure through trials of solitude and diversity.  The principles are fitted together into what we call … the integrated self, wherein personal decisions feel good and true.  Character is in turn the enduring source of virtue.  It stands by itself and excites admiration in others.  It is not obedience to authority, and while it is often consistent with and reinforced by religious belief, it is not piety.”

Kiel explains this quote by examining the way that an individual with high character is able to recognize the behaviors expected and accepted as morally correct in a society. The quote also shows that the individual has a choice to accept these behaviors, and then choose how to incorporate those behaviors into their life.  Kiel shows that those with the strongest moral character are able to do this in a way that will best amplify those positive traits beyond what is simply expected.

I like this quote because it shows the dynamic nature of morals and character, and it reflects on the ways in which we can use self awareness and reflection to boost our character. Through our power of reason we are able to recognize the behaviors and characteristics we find to be helpful or harmful to ourselves, those around us, or those in society who are affected by our decisions. Through reason, we are able to consider our actions and reactions, and develop a practice that allows us to move toward developing a better character.

50-50?

One of the ideas Bob Berg establishes in his business book The Go Giver is the idea that we have to abandon the long-held belief that compromise and progress are built through 50-50 splits in ideas, needs, plans, and desires. In his story, the main character’s mentor tells him, “Forget about fifty-fifty, son.  Fifty-fifty’s a losing proposition. The only winning proposition is one hundred percent. Make your win about the other person, go after what he wants.  Forget win-win—focus on the other person’s win.” Berg explains that this mindset, focusing on the other and not fighting to both agree on as much as possible, is what drives progress in business and helps people build networks of support.

 

Berg’s message is that fifty-fifty does not work because no one truly gets what they want, and no one get’s a complete package that really works.  When you approach the situation as Berg suggests with a focus on the other person, you are supporting them and genuinely doing your best to help them. The reason we should focus on the other is because they will recognize the assistance or service we provided them, and they will be more likely to help us in the future by returning for business, providing us with more contacts, or by supporting us in other situations. Relationships never stop being important in any context of life, including business, and approaching interactions with a mindset that is best suited to build relationships will help us all become successful and get what we want.

 

Being able to take Berg’s message and apply it to relationships and areas outside of life is what makes his point of view so powerful. Considering personal relationships, Berg’s idea fits in will with ideas about respect and trust.  If you only seem to approach others when you need things from them, and when you have your own interests in mind, others will notice.  It is hard to be completely genuine and focus more on what we can do for those around us, but doing so will lead to greater satisfaction, and greater friendships that will provide more for us in the long run.

Value & Worth

One of the business books I read in the last year was Bob Berg’s book The Go Giver: A Little Story About a Powerful Business Idea. The powerful business idea that Berg lays out in his book is summed up in the following quote, “Your true worth is determined by how much more you give in value than you take in payment.” This quote is told to the story’s protagonist, a young business man named Joe, early on by a successful colleague of his. Joe was struggling to reach his quarterly goals, even though he felt as though he was working harder than he ever had, and his senior colleague was giving him advice about how to become more successful. This simple idea, and lessons from a new mentor, help push Joe in a new direction thanks to a new way of thinking about life, relationships, and business.

I enjoyed Berg’s writing because the lessons he explains in his short book about business can truly be expanded to other areas of ones life. Berg’s quote above shows that in business when you focus on providing a great value to others you increase the overall worth of yourself and the products you offer for those you serve.  He explains in his book that you are allowed to ask for payment or reward, which can be quite significant, but he explains that when the value you provide is greater than the payment you receive, you become indispensable.  Berg in his quote is shifting the idea of setting out to directly build your own self worth and reach success. He shows that one truly becomes successful by thinking of others and looking for ways to provide greater value for those with whom one interacts.  As we build the value we provide to others, we are able to ask for more in payment, and the more we serve and the greater the value we create for all, the more we can ask for in return.

This can play out well in relationship because of the shift of focus from, “What can I get out of this?” to “What can I put into this?”. When we focus on a relationship the way many think that businesses focus on customers, we would try to minimize the relationship and our input into the relationship to maximize our effort and efficiency.  We would measure ourselves relative to others in a game of mental accounting to make sure we were both playing fair in the effort and sacrifice made for our relationship.  But when we think of ourselves in a relationship the way that Berg thinks of a successful business, we are able to change our view and think of how we can put more into the relationship and what more we can do for the other person. We stop our game of mental accounting and in any given situation we think of the other before ourselves. This does not mean that we give up all of our desires to simply give all control to the other person, but it means that we put their happiness as a focus beyond our own, knowing that they will make a grater effort to help us and participate in things we enjoy as well.

What We Set Out to Find

In his book The Go Giver Bob Berg tells a story that relates back to positive ideas about business and the sales side of business.  It is often hard to picture positive things coming from a work and business environment, especially when companies and executives are portrayed as greedy and selfish.  In his book, Berg lays out a better platform for looking at and understanding business contexts. He talks about the importance of developing relationships of trust within our professional lives, and acting with integrity as a genuinely nice person to others.  His cornerstone idea rests with treating other people well, and providing more in value than you receive in payment. In other words, Berg is focused on giving more than asking and taking.  Hi book explores how the idea of giving can lead one to become very successful, especially at points where we need to rely on others for assistance.

 

Throughout his book he dives into multiple themes and ideas, and one idea that resonated with me was his thoughts on perspective.  Berg writes, “See the world as a dog-eat-dog place and you’ll always find a bigger dog looking at you as if you’re his next meal.  Go looking for the best in people, and you’ll be amazed at how much talent, ingenuity, empathy and good you will find.” What Berg is identifying her is the importance of what we are focusing on and trying to perceive.  Our perspective can be limited to only the negative aspects of any place that we are at, which will only lead to the continued flood of negative thoughts and perceptions. Berg continues, “Ultimately, the world treats you more or less the way you expect to be treated.” He is showing us how confirmation bias can affect our workplace, and how disastrous it can be if we are not aware of the thoughts that we build.

 

What Berg explains in his two quotes is the idea of perspective and expectations shaping our experiences.  Our presumptions and prejudices will change the way we interact with others, which will be noticeable to them, and in the end our attitude will shape the way we are treated by those with whom we interact.  A negative mindset will prevent us from connecting with those around us or in our community and will lead to others having negative thoughts about us. In his book, Berg explains that a positive perspective can help us become successful because it changes the expectations we have about our work, and allows us to reach for new possibilities.

Peace and Creativity

In his book 59 Seconds psychologist Richard Wiseman evaluated research on how to maximize our time to bring about the desired results that we want in our lives.  He examined everything from creativity, to success, and happiness.  When researching creativity Wiseman found that our environment and emotional feelings toward our environment played a large role in our creativity.  Wiseman writes, “When people feel worried, they become very focused, concentrate on the task at hand, become risk-averse, rely on well-established habits and routines, and see the world through less-creative eyes.  In contrast when people feel at ease in a situation, they’re more likely to explore new and unusual ways of thinking and behaving, see the bigger picture, take risks, and think and act more creatively.”

 

I think this is a powerful section from Wiseman and one that I wish I could share with every business leader. Encouraging employees to be more creative and push for new ideas can help a company grow and succeed, but many employers don’t give their employees a chance to be creative, and they expect them to be in simple boxes where their routine is set and their actions are limited.  Focusing on your employees environment and attitude can help an employer create a place where employees are more at ease and able to think more creatively to build better habits and produce better results. I am currently reading Return on Character by Fred Kiel, and the thesis of his work is that leaders and CEO’s who focus on building an organization focused around integrity, honesty, and forgiveness provide greater returns for their companies, employees, and stakeholders.  When we consider Wiseman’s quote about people becoming more creative in relaxed environments, we can see how Kiel’s CEO’s who create those environments become more successful.  By maintaining a strong moral character a CEO can create a space where employees feel welcomed to perform their best and are not restricted in their actions and approaches to greatness.

 

However, I am afraid that sharing this quote with every business leader could backfire.  Those employers who do not see their employees as being in creative positions may read that quote and think that they can put their employees under pressure to have them focus better on the single task at hand as opposed to being distracted by the people and environment around them.  The quote could be read to suggest that developing well established habits and putting employees into risk-averse mindsets may be useful for employees who work specific and routine jobs.  This idea falls flat when you think about wanting to be a company that excels, with employees that excel at every position, especially if that employee performs any sort of customer service function.  Encouraging the creativity of employees by helping them fee comfortable and relaxed at work will lead to better results when employees are free to be creative and break away from ordinary habits.  When they are worried they will not risk trying something new in their daily routine and will never develop a habit that could drastically improve the quality of the work they produce.

 

In the end, I think we need to try and understand creativity as being something that we all have access to.  Wiseman’s quote shows that building supportive environments and bing at ease helps people become more creative. Those who deal with a high amount of anxiety tend to display a less creative vision and provide less innovation.