Crisis calls for renewed focus on character

Editor’s note: Visit the official Western COVID-19 website for the latest campus updates.

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With the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders across all sectors and at all levels in societies worldwide are facing enormous challenges. Whether they are able to meet these challenges depends to a great extent on each leader’s character.

Once the gravity of the COVID-19 outbreak became actualized, the word character in relation to leadership has surfaced a lot.

But what exactly is character? It is being used in cavalier ways in everyday conversations with no consistent understanding of what it really means.

This lack of definitive consensus is problematic because character is a potent differentiator in leadership, especially during a major crisis. A leader’s character is vital to their ability to allay fear, move people forward, and help facilitate a solution that will benefit all of society.

But what is it?  What constitutes character? And how does it reveal itself during the most challenging times?

Drawing upon a decade of research, scholars at the Ivey Business School assert that character is an amalgam of virtues, values, and personality traits that are embodied in an individual’s habitual behaviours. Their research identified 11 dimensions of character and supporting behaviours that are critical to good leadership: accountability, courage, collaboration, drive, humanity, humility, integrity, judgment, justice, temperance, and transcendence.

The reason that character is a critical and indispensable component of good leadership is its central relevance to effective decision-making and subsequent action. Character shapes a number of things, including:

  • What we notice within the current context;
  • Who we engage in conversation;
  • How we interpret feedback;
  • What we choose to act upon;
  • How we deal with conflict, disappointment and setbacks;
  • How we communicate; etc.

Character influences every choice a person makes about what to do in any given situation. Simply put, character-driven leaders out-behave and out-perform those who lack it.

Now more than ever – whether it’s the acute flaring of the COVID-19 emergency or the slow burn of the climate crisis – the world requires leaders with strong character. We need leaders able to activate each dimension of character at the right time and in the right amount to guide their decision-making and call forth the right behaviours.

Any crisis exposes both the good and bad in people who find themselves in leadership roles. But the unique aspect of character is that it is linked to one’s disposition, not one’s position within an organization.

As such, this pandemic is revealing things about the citizens of nations as well as their leaders. For example, as the crisis deepens we are not only seeing a profound response from healthcare workers worldwide, but also a coordinated global outpouring of gratitude called #Solidarityat8, where citizens are taking to their balconies, windows, and porches every evening to applaud their tireless efforts. This serves as a powerful reminder that we can all find ways to mobilize ourselves to remain connected while we are mandated to remain apart.

It is perhaps an ironic statement to talk about the need to mobilize citizens to defeat this virus when much of the world is on decreed or self-imposed lockdown. In this technological era, however, the definition of mobilization has evolved to encompass both the physical and the virtual. We are now able, for better or for worse, to reach out across global platforms to ideate or entertain, to scaremonger or caremonger (a trend started by groups of altruistic Canadians).

But there should be no doubt whatsoever that we face a collective challenge.

The character dimension of transcendence, which manifests as optimism, creativity, and a sense of purpose, is especially important in challenging times. Optimistic people believe that not only is change possible, but – more importantly – they are capable of creating it.

Within the current situation, this certainly applies to politicians, business leaders, and scientists, but it also applies to every one of us as we seek to be individual change agents by doing our part to contribute to the whole.

As we endure the challenges of today, it is with the optimism that there will be a tomorrow.

The COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us in real time that character is not a niche topic or a “nice to have.” It is essential to good leadership. For many of us, our character has been tested these past few days and weeks – at work, at home, in grocery stores, in hospital and senior homes, in our neighbourhoods, etc. For the most part, Canadians are rising to the occasion.

Our hope is that as our daily lives grind to a near-halt, people reflect upon how we can raise the bar in our respective personal and professional lives by working to develop strength of character, strive to make a difference, and contribute to the well-being of individuals and societies. Canada needs it. The world needs it.

Kimberley Young Milani is the Co-founder of the Women’s Leadership and Mentoring Program and the Manager of Operations, Projects and Stakeholder Engagement, for the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership at the Ivey Business School.

Organizational Behaviour professor Gerard Seijts is the Executive Director of the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership at the Ivey Business School.