Over the years, I’ve encountered jerky leaders who somehow managed to achieve solid business results. We’ve also seen plenty of these examples in the media. The late Steve Jobs comes to mind. He’s been described as intense, brutally candid, obsessively controlling, perfectionistic, volatile, and supremely arrogant, to name a few characteristics. And yet he revolutionized six industries.
I’ve also encountered leaders with very strong character who, at the end of the day, didn’t get the results that were needed. I’m sure you have encountered both types of leaders as well.
When we think about these examples, it leads us to wonder, “Does character matter for the bottom line?” Examples like the ones above often stand out in our minds, and it can seem like strong character is a “nice-to-have,” but not essential attribute for effective leadership. Our corporate culture continues to believe that “nice guys and gals finish last” when it comes to business results.
A New Study: Return on Character
There is a growing body of research, however, that suggests that strong character drives positive business results. A recent study and book by Fred Kiel, “Return on Character,” adds to this body of research.
The major finding from Kiel’s research is that strong character in a leader is associated with strong business results. He found that high-character, or “Virtuoso” CEOs out performed low-character, or “self-focused” CEOs on return on assets by a factor of almost 5 to 1.
Kiel found key differences between Virtuoso CEOs and self-focused CEOs in their inner journey. The inner journey is a journey toward an integrated self, comprised of developing self-awareness, keystone character habits, a positive worldview, and mental complexity. People who achieve some measure of self-integraiton feel a sense of wholeness and purpose. Daniel Siegel, a leading psychiatrist in the area of interpersonal neurobiology, defines integration as the linkage of differentiated parts. When integration occurs, distinct parts of the brain and self are linked together and function as a whole. Virtually all the Virtuoso CEOs in Kiel’s study showed evidence of an integrated self in these four areas.
The Keystone Competency of Leadership: Self-Awareness
While there is a lot to learn from this study, I want to focus in this post on the keystone competency of self-awareness. It’s a keystone competency because it drives other competencies. One way to measure self-awareness is by looking at your ability to tell your life story in a coherent way. Kiel interviewed participant CEOs and found that all the Virtuoso CEOs had clearly spent time reflecting on their lives and understood how their past had shaped who they had become.
Virtuoso CEOs Are Self-Aware
One Virtuoso CEO exemplified self-awareness and coherence in his response to the question, “What’s the worst thing that happened to you while growing up?” He reported that doing drugs at 17 “freaked” him out, and that he experienced some very painful social rejection growing up. He later integrated these experiences into his sense of self: “I ended up working as a manual laborer for five years, which is where I cleared my head. That’s when I grew up. That’s also about the time I met and married my wife twenty-eight years ago. I realized then that I could get beyond those difficult years and make something of myself” (p. 56).
Contrast this with the response of a self-focused CEO when asked about the long-term impact of bad car accident and injury during high school that left his leg deformed until his twenties, and ended his strong athletic career: “I don’t know. I haven’t speculated on that much. I’m somebody who, after I’m done working, I like my private time and space.” This answer reveals a man who lacks self-awareness and has not integrated painful experiences.
One fascinating parallel here is that the ability to tell a coherent story about one’s life is the main indicator of secure attachment as measured by the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI). The AAI yields four main attachment categories (secure, dismissing, preoccupied and disorganized) and several sub-categories. More than the content of a person’s story, the AAI is coded based on the coherence of their story. People with secure attachment tendencies look much like the Virtuoso CEOs. Their stories in the AAI are coherent and believable. They show that they have reflected on their past and have integrated both positive and negative experiences into their sense of self.
I would venture to say that all the Virtuoso CEOs in Kiel’s study have a predominantly secure attachment. This is not surprising because secure attachment is associated with many positive outcomes that overlap with the outcomes of mindful awareness practices. Many of these basic functions are also associated with the middle prefrontal cortex, an integrative region of the brain that is essential for self-regulation, social communication, and self-observation. These functions include: body regulation, attuned communication, emotional balance, response flexibility, empathy, insight, fear modulation, intuition and morality (Siegel, 2007).
Safe to Tell the Truth
In order to be self-aware, you have to get and assimilate feedback about yourself. The Virtuoso CEOs had developed a discipline of seeking objective feedback. They ask for the truth and, just as important, they made it safe for others to tell the truth. This requires some measure of an internalized secure attachment. I’ve had several supervisors over the years who asked for names on their evaluations so they could call employees in to “discuss” feedback if they thought it would be helpful. Most people in the department felt these leaders were defensive, insecure and lacked self-awareness, and this request was an example of that insecurity par excellence. The result? Almost no one offered feedback, because it didn’t feel safe. So, these leaders who desperately needed feedback to become self-aware systematically created conditions that hindered their getting it. This is the sad reality of psychological dysfunction and insecure attachment.
We have more and more hard evidence that the “soft” skills related to strong character are critical to leadership effectiveness. Developing the character of a Virtuoso leader is hard work, but it can be done. The benefits include success in business and a meaningful and fulfilling life. I believe these benefits far outweigh the cost of building character.
3 Practices to Become a Virtuoso Leader
Here’s 3 practices to help you develop the character of a Virtuoso leader.
1. Reflect on Your Life's Journey and Tell Your Story
Reflecting on your life journey is the way you integrate all your experiences, both positive and painful, into your sense of self. To the extent you haven’t done this, painful experiences will come online and filter your processing and response without your awareness. Think through what some of the most formative experiences of your life have been. How have they shaped you and your guiding principles for life and leadership? In addition, tell your story to someone; preferably a mentor who will provide empathy and insight. When you look someone in the eyes and communicate your story, it activates your social brain and deeper aspects of your sense of self. Here are some questions and categories to help you reflect on your life journey.
Questions for Self-Reflection
- What are the chapters of your life? How would you title them? What does this reveal about you?
- What are the key events of your life?
- Peak experience
- Low point
- Key turning points
- Earliest memory
- An important childhood memory
- An important adolescent memory
- An important adult memory
- Significant people
- Describe four of the most significant people in your life story
- Tell me about any particular heroes or heroines
- Future goals
- Core challenges
- Personal ideology or worldview
- Deeper themes of your work
2. Make it Safe for Others to Tell the Truth About Their Perceptions of You
If you want to get genuine feedback about yourself, you have to make it safe for others to give it, especially with people who report to you. In order to do this, you have to be able to face painful emotions about yourself, regulate your emotions, and assimilate this information. If you can’t do this, you’ll go into denial like many of the self-focsued CEOs in Kiel’s study, and blame others within reach. Kiel recounts a poignant example of this from one of the self-focused CEOs when he received the negative picture of his integrity painted by the survey. Here’s his response to the researchers: “Where did you get this data? We’ve been doing employee surveys for years, and my team and I always get the highest ratings on integrity. There must be something wrong with your research design!”
First, you have to work on being safe. This goes back to #1 above.
Next, you have to show people that you are safe. You do this by being transparent and humble. Share your struggles and admit your mistakes. When people know that you are aware of your limitations, they feel safer with you. Humility involves focusing on others. This is opposite of the “self-focused” CEOs in Kiel’s study. This means when you’re receiving feedback, focus on how you have impacted other people. Let them know you care about the impact you have, and that you’re always trying to have a more positive impact. If you do this, people will feel safer giving you genuine feedback, because people intuitively know that focusing on others is correlated with being able to face your own pain.
3. Pay Attention to Feedback, and be Disciplined in Seeking it
There are lots of ways we’re given feedback informally, but we often miss these opportunities. Pay attention to when people offer suggestions or evaluations informally. In addition, be intentional about seeking out feedback from others with whom you work. And then spend time reflecting on that feedback.
I hope these practices will help you become a self-aware, Virtuoso leader. To go deeper into the research, pick up a copy of Fred Kiel’s excellent book: Return on Character: The Real Reason Leaders and Their Companies Win.
More From Dr. Todd Hall
Todd Hall, Ph.D. is Chief Scientist and cofounder of Connection Culture Group. Dr. Hall is a psychologist, author, and consultant focused on helping people live and lead with connection. He is a co-developer of the MCORE motivation assessment, and a contributor for the Human Capital Institute. You can learn more about Dr. Hall's work at drtoddhall.com and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.