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.
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.
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.
Fred Kiel addresses the importance of leaders and how they transmit their values and beliefs throughout their leadership teams in his book Return on Character. He explains that it is important for leaders to hold strong moral values and principles, but he also explains the importance of leaders sharing those values and building them into the ethos of a company in a way that is clear and concise, and easy to connect with for everyone in the company.
Kiel explains the importance of leaders being able to clearly communicate their values and expectations in the following quote, “While most people are well intentioned, they also need to have clarity about expectations and boundaries. If a leader claims that “integrity is the cornerstone of our culture” but fails to spell out exactly what that means in practice, then the claim has little weight or purpose.” What this shows that we must take lofty ideas and connect them back to the basic and every day actions of those within our teams. Connecting the core values back to the basic process of every employee becomes vital so that the culture and the key values that the leader wants to develop within an organization can manifest in everything that a team does. Having a leader who can demonstrate how those core values relate fit in with the business can help an organization in a trickle down manner. The CEO can build those values into the decisions and actions of his leadership team, who can distill those values in practical manners to management levels throughout the company, and those team managers can build those values into the actions of those who they guide and work with.
While explaining this process Kiel admits that rules and core values do not fit nicely into a black and white dichotomy, but that there are wide gray areas. He argues that developing character throughout the company will help leaders make decisions that better align with the core values of the company when situations fall within these gray areas. Having leadership and management teams that display character habits that are in line with the companies core values can help everyone from the CEO to the newest employee understand what is expected and how to act in a way that bolsters the company’s core values as opposed to feigning to adhere to company values.
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.
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.
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.