The Crisis of Character

There is no time so miserable but a man may be true. -William Shakespeare


Recently, I had a business executive question the amount of time and focus I place on the development of character as a solid foundation for Visionmaking.


"What's that got to do with leadership," he asked?  "Isn't that just about being a good person?" 


That this executive is working in the financial services industry is more proof that many in the business community just don't get it.


Why is there so little recognition that the right use of power–a fundamental responsibility of leaders–is directly tied to character development? 


Most of the economic calamities of the past year are outcomes of a deficit of character and the failure of many leaders to abide by the basic, moral values that guide good governance.


You would think that with the dizzying array of business failures, arrests, government interventions and negative press about the state of the world economy and those that lead it, these smart people would reach the same conclusion.


This is not simply an economic crisis. This is a crisis of character.


With great talent and power comes great responsibility.  Talent and power must be subject to morals values and principles. Without these as ballast, leaders behave like despots who stand above the rule of law.


Yet, we have tolerated the excesses of those who are most talented, seduced by a "star player" mentality that runs the gamut from petty tyrants and bullies in the office to grandmaster Ponzi schemers looting billions from trusting investors.


Winning at any cost may be the highest value in Western society today. If this is true, the ways of honor and integrity are endangered. But so is free enterprise which is a trust-based economic system.  If we lose our faith in the integrity of global markets, capitalism as we know it will collapse and we will be thrust backwards into heavily regulated, protectionist economies.


Trust is the problem... but it is also the key to addressing this crisis.


Trust is earned and maintained by the quality of leadership that we demonstrate. Ethical, principled and thoughtful leaders are required to restore trust in the system and re-balance the economy as a result.


Character development-the foundation of trustworthy leadership– is on few leadership curricula that I am aware of outside of the military.  The United States Military Academy holds as its motto: "The cadet will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those that do."


A good policy. We may not all have lied, cheated or stolen the property of others. But we may have been too tolerant of falling standards and practices of integrity. Time to recover the way of honor. 


That's why the Visionmaking places so much emphasis on character and the right use of power. It is the solution to the problem in most of our institutions and leads to ethical conduct that results in the recovery of trust in leaders.


Lewis Mumford describes the road ahead. 


"At moments of crisis, where the roads to disintegration or to development separate, as on a watershed, a single decisive personality, or a small group of informed and purposeful men (and women)*, may by a slight push determine the direction and movement of an otherwise uncontrollable mass of conflicting social forces. At such moments not a single institution or group, but a whole society, will be involved in a change far beyond its ordinary capacities for adaptation: yet the dynamic agent in this transformation, the "spark" which kindles the great forest," will be the individual human person; for it is he who precipitates the change in the social order by first initiating a profound regrouping of forces and ideal goals within himself. At such a moment the human integer represents the whole and in turn has an effect on the whole.  Only within the compass of the person can a total change be affected within the span of a single generation, sufficient to produce the necessary effect on the civilization at large: like the seed crystal, he (and she)* passes on to the whole the new order of the part." 

(* My additions.) 


Visionmakers can be that small, informed group committed to sparking the new order that Lewis Mumford depicts. It is a path with heart.


Thank you for visiting Visions.  Your comments and insights are most welcome.


© Patrick O’Neill 2009. All rights reserved.

Posted on May 4, 2009 and filed under Uncategorized.