Judging Others Along Our Journey

Throughout Meditations, the book published after his death containing his writing and personal reflections, Marcus Aurelius focuses on the mind and our thoughts, and how we can use our thoughts to give us guidance.  Two areas that he returns to frequently are our life journey and how we think of our journey, and how we think about the people we interact with along our journey.  While writing Meditations he was continually reminding himself not to be judgmental of others and to remain focused on the positive in his own life.  His spirit is captured in the following quote which merges both of these ideas,

 

“How much trouble he avoids who does not look to see what his neighbor says or does or thinks, but only to what he does himself, that it may be just and pure; or, as Agathon says, look not round at the depraved morals of others, but run straight along the line without deviating from it.”

 

What he is saying is that those who begin to focus more on what those around them are doing begin to lose sight of their own lives and actions. When you continually worry if others are working as hard as you then your own work will suffer. If you focus on the things that other people have, you begin to depreciate the things that you have. These types of comparisons may help drive a capitalistic society today, but just as they were dangerous in the second century, in the 21st century they can detract from your overall life.

 

A better use of time and focus according to aurelius is to look inward and focus on presence.  Avoiding lingering thoughts of a gilded past or glorified thoughts of a potential future, we are better served and can make the most of our time on earth if we can focus on where we are now, and how we can make the most of our current actions.  Living with goals for the future and understanding and learning from the experiences that have shaped us is key, but when the past or future take over in our lives, then our current self becomes a less important afterthought.  Remaining present, and pushing worries about others behind us can allow us to participate in activities we truly enjoy, and to maximize the time in which we actually experience the world.  Aurelius continually encouraged himself and wrote down reminders to remain focused on the present, and to not let jealousy or worry over the actions of others detract from his own life.

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.

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.

Expectations and Boundaries

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.