Executive Leadership Character Matters — I Knew It! (Part One)

Ever had an experience when you finally come across evidence that confirms, validates and substantiates a belief you hold near and dear, and know in your gut is absolutely right? Well I have just had one.

Let me set the stage. Awhile back I read Michael Lewis’s excellent book, entitled “The Big Short.”  In his book he chronicles the behind-the-scenes story of how the global financial crisis in 2008-2009 evolved.  Lewis was once a trader with Morgan Stanley before he became a best-selling novelist and had the contacts and knew what to ask to uncover this intriguing time in recent history.  As everyone now knows the crisis had its genesis amongst the financial wizards working in the trading firms on Wall Street and came within hours of bringing the entire western financial system to its knees.  His book left me disgusted at the absence of integrity and responsibility and also angry that such a thing could have happened.  How low can people go, I thought to myself? Five years later, individuals, companies and even countries are still reeling from the fallout that resulted from the reckless greed of a few opportunists and their flagrant disregard for the implications of their actions on countless unsuspecting and trusting people.

Over the last few years various leaders (Bernie Madoff [Madoff Investments], Bernie Ebbers [WorldCom], Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling [Enron], Dennie Kowolski [Tyco], John Regas [Adelphia] and others like Martha Stewart to name a few) in high influential places have been exposed for what they are – white collar crooks who abused their position of power and influence thinking and acting as if they were above the law while they satisfied their egos and stuffed their pockets.  These are the obvious culprits highlighted in the media who were caught with their hands in the massive fraud and insider trading cookie jar.  However, there are many more CEO’s and senior executives in significant leadership positions who don’t break the law per se, but through their pitiful ethics, integrity and lack of moral intelligence destroy the value of their organizations, much to the dismay of the shareholders, employees and communities they serve.  Even as I write this it turns my stomach at the audacity and low character of such executives who too often go unnoticed until after the value has already been destroyed. This can’t continue.  We need more effective ways of identifying and weeding out such examples of low character leadership, and conversely, identifying and promoting our high character leaders.  This isn’t about stiffening up the regulatory environment or the judiciary procedures, as clever people will always find ways to wiggle around such things.

Fortunately, a colleague of mine, Dr. Fred Kiel, has just recently completed a research project that directly links CEO’s and leadership teams of high character to the achievement of significantly better financial results than those of low character.  He calls such leaders “virtuosos.” In short, Dr. Kiel can conclude with evidence that “Character Matters” and what’s more “It can be taught.”  I will tell you much more about his research in the next blog.  I KNEW IT!!!

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