Unlocking the Power of Leader Character with Gerard Seijts

Unlocking the Power of Leader Character with Gerard Seijts

Explore the transformative power of leader character with Gerard Seijts. Discover how character shapes exceptional leaders and organizations, and learn strategies for developing and embedding character in your leadership journey.

Meet Gerard Seijts

Gerard Seijts

Gerard Seijts: Professor at Richard Ivey School of Business at The University of Western Ontario. Co-author of Character: What contemporary leaders can teach us about building a more just, prosperous, and sustainable future. Connect with Gerard on LinkedIn.


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Introduction

If you could ask Gerard Seijts one question about his groundbreaking research on leader character, what would it be?

How might his insights transform your approach to leadership?

Fortunately, I had the opportunity of engaging in a thought-provoking dialogue with Gerard Seijts, exploring his groundbreaking research and insights from his new book.

Our conversation explored six crucial questions that illuminate the transformative power of leader character in shaping exceptional individuals and organizations.

Here's what I learned:

🔸 The critical role of character in effective leadership, alongside competence and commitment

🔸 The research-based leader character framework developed by Seijts and his colleagues

🔸 How the 11 distinct character dimensions provide a clear language for understanding and developing character

🔸 The profound impact of character on individual and organizational outcomes

🔸 Strategies for putting character at the center of leadership development

🔸 Insights from interviews with diverse exemplary leaders who embody the character dimensions

🔸 The importance of raising awareness about character and inspiring people to improve

🔸 And much more

Some key takeaways:

  1. Character is a crucial component of leadership: While often overlooked, character is vital to effective leadership. Seijts' work brings character to the forefront alongside competence and commitment.
  2. A clear framework for understanding character: The leader character framework, based on extensive research, provides a clear language and structure for understanding and discussing the 11 key dimensions of character.
  3. Character has profound impacts: Far from being a "nice to have," character deeply influences individual and organizational outcomes. Developing character should be a priority for leaders.
  4. Character can be developed: Through awareness, reflection, and deliberate practice, individuals can enhance their character. Seijts' book aims to inspire and guide this development.
  5. Diverse leaders embody character: Interviews with exemplary leaders from various backgrounds illustrate the character dimensions in action and offer compelling insights for readers.

To your forward-thinking life & great success!

— Bill

Bill Fox, Founder, LeaderONE​ & Forward Thinking Workplaces
​Pioneering Leadership from Within | Unlocking Human and Organizational Potential


The Interview

Q1: You've written a timely new book, Character: What Contemporary Leaders Can Teach Us About Building a More Just, Prosperous, and Sustainable Future. Why did you write it, and who was it for?

Gerard: To tell this story, I should take you back to 2008 and the onset of the global financial crisis. Ivey Business School had just celebrated its 100th anniversary. Since its inception, Ivey has focused on developing the next generation of leaders for the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors. So leadership has been and continues to be a primary interest to many people affiliated with the school.

That was such an interesting time — 2008, 2009. There were lots of conversations in the media around the global financial crisis and what really contributed to it. As a leading business school in Canada with a heavy emphasis on producing leaders, it was impossible not to say something about the role of leadership and its contribution to the global financial crisis. So a number of us at the school started to talk and write about it. 

I and four other colleagues wrote a position paper. We were an eclectic combination: one was from finance, another was from marketing, and the dean at the time was also involved.

We were also aware of what people sometimes say about business schools and universities in general — that they're not always in touch with what's happening in organizations in the real world. We weren't sure if our position would resonate with the people who were at the epicenter of the crisis. So we made a deal with people: we asked 40 friends of the Ivey Business School – all leaders in the public, private, or not for profit sectors – to read our paper, which was about 25 pages long. We promised them breakfast in exchange for a conversation under the Chatham House Rule: we could use the information people provided in the conversation, but we would not reveal the identity of any of the participants or their affiliations. We wanted frank, honest feedback. Were we too harsh in our paper about the role of leadership? Were we too lenient or even dead wrong? Did we miss anything important? We wanted to know what they had seen and heard, and what resonated with them in the paper. 

We set aside about 90 minutes for the conversation. After four hours, we had a group that was still talking! The problems we highlighted about leadership struck a chord with our participants. People were upset, angry almost, with the bad rap that leadership had, particularly in the financial services industry. 

Then it dawned on us that we should roll this out. We took our conversation to all the major cities in Canada. We also went to London, England; New York; and Asia, where Ivey had a campus as well.

Out of all those conversations, we published a book, Leadership on Trial: A Manifesto for Leadership Development. It's a quick and easy read with a profound message. The result has little to do with how brilliant and smart we might be but everything to do with keeping an open mind and learning from what people shared with us.

What we learned is that when it comes to good, effective leadership, competencies count, character matters, and commitment to the role of leadership is critical to individual and organizational success.

What surprised us the most in these conversations was the passion with which people talked about character. We had no idea that people wanted to talk about that. We went into the conversations talking about issues such as idiosyncratic biases in decision making, groupthink, and systems that rewarded the wrong thing. But time and time again, people came back to character as the big challenge. Nobody really knew what it was, but they sensed it was important and wanted to talk about it.

Those discussions eventually led to the foundation of an institute at Ivey, funded by one of our donors who felt strongly about leadership character. Since 2010, we have almost exclusively focused on research, student programming, and outreach around what character is, what it looks like, how it can be developed, and how we may embed character in organizations as we recruit, select, and develop people with good character.

Much of that work has been empirical, primarily for research and the research community. But we began to realize just how important this work is beyond business leaders. The concepts apply to all people, no matter where you are in an organization or even if you are not part of an organization. Character is foundational to being human.

So we decided to write this book, not necessarily for academics but for practitioners and all citizens —anybody who is interested in this material. We wanted our information to be available to the general public in general bookstores. You may not find our academic material there, but you will find this book.

We had three broad objectives with this book. First, we wanted to say to the world that good leadership is not just about the competencies that we often talk about. Job descriptions and leadership descriptions often emphasize the competencies that leaders need to bring, and they fail to consider character. But good leadership is always a function of all three Cs: competencies, character, and commitment. 

Second, we wanted to make the point that there is nothing soft about character. Sometimes people think it's “nice” to have a leader of character. But character has a profound impact on variables and outcomes that organizations and society should care about. This stuff matters. Character is consequential.

And then, third, we wanted the book to be inspirational. You can read about character, but we want people to be able to do something with the knowledge they gained about character. We wanted people to be inspired and able to act. We wanted to give people the language and learnings about character, and also inspire them — give character color — so that people say, “I can improve.”

Q2: What has been your own leadership journey, and who or what has had the biggest influence on that journey?

Gerard: This is a difficult question to answer because I never aspired to be a leader, and yet I led the Institute for 12 years, since its founding in 2010. That wasn't always easy. 

This might sound corny, but my dad was probably my original mentor. He was an entrepreneur with his own business in the Netherlands. He was in agriculture, growing flowers. That wasn't always easy for him because you’d have a good season only to be followed by a bad season.

But my dad taught me the value of hard work. In the character language we talk about in the book, that would be the “drive.” My dad was always working, and somehow that rubbed off. As an academic, I think, to a great extent, I was fairly successful because I worked really hard at what I did.

Interestingly, around 2009, 2010, when the Institute came into being, I was actually feeling fairly inconsequential with the kind of research I was doing. So the Institute was a great opportunity for me. But after two months as executive director, somebody told me I was driving people crazy. I worked hard, but I was making everything a priority. And I wasn’t paying enough attention to the people around me.

As the executive director of the Institute, I had no power. I worked with volunteers. The Institute didn’t exist without volunteers, inspiration, and donated talent and time. But I was a vicious dictator — maybe with the character traits of courage and high drive as well as a strong feeling of accountability, to our donor. Instead of drawing people in, I pushed them away.

I was lucky. It was at that point that someone influenced my journey as a leader.  Maura Pare, now the assistant vice-president of Global Communications and Sustainability at Canada Life, came into my office and had a conversation with me. She delivered a wakeup call. She told me I needed to slow down a little, reach for some temperance.

“You need to work with people, not through people,” she said. That was a defining moment for me. 

I think that changed everything, or at least a lot. Because what do academics do? They do their own research. They do their own teaching. They develop their own teaching materials. It's oftentimes an “I” or me business.  I had to change that perspective. It believe it was largely because of Maura’s advice that I survived in a leadership position for 12 years. I would say that was a defining moment in my own leadership journey.

There have been many people we can talk about whom I liked, who inspired me, and I tried to emulate. But that conversation with Maura was, for me, a defining moment. I left the Institute after 12 years, satisfied. I think my colleagues at the Institute and I have results we can take pride in. But none of that would have happened without that one individual who told me that I needed to correct my course.

Q3: What is the leader character framework, and how did you decide on the specific dimensions that make up the framework?

Gerard: That’s a good question. As I said earlier, people wanted to talk about character. We asked 25 people to define character – we got 25 different definitions! We knew the concept was valid, but we needed to clarify what character is. 

Of course, people – academics and practitioners – had written about virtues and character strengths, but the literature wasn't always helpful because the language did not always resonate with leaders. The ideas were academically interesting but in practice, useless.

So we went back to leaders in the public, private, and not for profit sectors and simply listened to what they had to tell us. We collected data and ran qualitative and quantitative analyses on what we collected. The result was the character framework with 11 dimensions of character and more than 60 supporting virtuous behaviors that illustrate the 11 dimensions.

The beauty of the framework is that it is not driven by our imagination; rather, it was created from what leaders themselves shared with us.

The creation of the framework took years. Whatever we do in an academic institution has to be based on good scholarship, and this tool is based on sound research; but, yes, it took a long time. We also had to demonstrate that character actually predicted individually and organizationally relevant variables – it was important to demonstrate the utility of the framework. 

The Institute of Corporate Directors was deeply involved in putting the framework together because, again, we had some ideas, but we wanted to be sure our ideas stood the test of practice. We can talk forever about character, but if you want to go from thinking and talking about character to actually doing something about it, we need that tool to have the right language. And the right language is what is used by the people at the center of leadership. 

And that's how we did it. Good scholarship, qualitative and quantitative research, and validation. It took us at least three years and many, many data points. Is the framework and its language perfect? I don't know. But I think it's pretty darned good. Are there competing frameworks of character? Of course there are. But looking at all the research that is being done in this area of leadership, and our ongoing conversations with people like you, helps us to eventually understand what leader character is and how we can use it to shape individuals and make organizations perhaps a little bit more successful.

That's the story.

Q4: How did you choose the leaders you interviewed for your book with Kimberley Young Milani?

Gerard: Well, once we knew what we wanted to do with the book and what our objectives were, we thought about the 11 dimensions of character and who would be really cool and fantastic people who illustrate the character dimensions well.

Coming up with our wish list of leaders was relatively easy. It was mostly thinking and talking things through. Some choices were just obvious to us. For example, courage would be Maria Ressa. She epitomizes courage with her efforts to combat fake news, which led to her arrest under condemned legislation. She had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and was in the news.

In terms of justice, the Honorable Murray Sinclair, here in Canada, immediately came to mind. He is a former member of the Canadian Senate and First Nations lawyer and judge. He chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which spent six years examining the injustices Indigenous people experienced in residential schools. Sinclair was instrumental in exposing the genocidal tendencies on the part of the government. An exceptionally well-spoken individual.

Some people were in our line of sight because we had admired them for years. For example, Kim had long known about Sister Joan Chittister and her work. Interviewing Sister Joan was important to Kim because she was mentored by nuns and sisters who were radical thinkers and revolutionary. For Kim, including Sister Joan was a chance to dispel some of the myths that surround women in religious life.

Kim had studied Celtic studies and had admired Mary Robinson, the chancellor of the University of Dublin and the first woman to serve as president of Ireland. We put her on our list and made it work through the help of colleagues at Trinity College – the interview was amazing.

And of course, we also asked people we respected and trusted within our network to make solid recommendations about who to interview. We sort of socialized the idea of what we were doing, and people made suggestions. Some even put us in touch with people we could interview.

So it was kind of an organic process with a little bit of aspiration. We came to an agreement on our wish list fairly easily, then did a bit of homework to check whether there might be any kind of baggage associated with our choices — something that might undermine our goals with the book. We also really tried to make sure when we were picking the leaders who would be in the book that we were selecting a broad representation of sectors, geographies, and even racial demographics. We wanted to make sure that there was diversity there. 

When we were making our selections, we kept in mind that we wanted to write a book for young and old, or I should say aspiring leaders and more seasoned leaders. From all sectors: public, private, and not for profit. We wanted to write for people who have the ambition to become better people and better leaders. We didn't want to write for a business audience only, so we wanted a diverse group of people to interview. 

The interesting thing is that people – friends, colleagues, and the leaders we interviewed – kept surprising us.

I spoke to a good friend of mine who said, “Listen, of all those interviews, the interview with Sister Joan was actually the best.” That interview resonated strongly with my friend, and he comes from the military. It’s so interesting that he would pick Sister Joan without any idea who she is. We've had big-name leaders come to speak at Ivey, and in hindsight, some were disappointing what they had to offer. Then you have a person that you've never heard of sharing unbelievable wisdom. For me and for my friend, that was Sister Joan. I'm so happy she's in the book.

In the end, we have a nice cross-section of people that Kim and I agreed on. That's it. 

Bill: I noticed the mix of people, and I had not heard of most of the leaders you interviewed. What is interesting is that I've done over 90 interviews for forward-thinking workplaces, and the same thing happened for me: I allowed synchronicity to bring the people to me. I just knew I needed to interview that person. The mix is diverse, from marketing experts, branding experts, some well-known leaders. But the wisdom that comes from some of those people is unexpected. It’s phenomenal. I really appreciate how you approached that.

Gerard: I want to run an experiment. Few people in my circle would know Sister Joan, and she says so many profound things. I want to show a clip in class and ask, “Who is she?” I'll give the students four options, say Fortune 500 leader, entrepreneur, Sister, and something else. My hypothesis is that nobody will pick Sister. She gave an awesome interview and provided great insights – relevant to any audience.

Q5: Of all the leaders you interviewed, whose story or insights did you find most inspiring or eye opening in terms of demonstrating the importance of character?

Gerard: The interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson stands out for me. It wasn't because he was better, but he made me think the most.

His insights were the hardest to grasp, I think. He's got something special going for sure. I bought several of his books after the interview!

David Kipping’s interview inspired me as well. Very similar to Tyson’s interview. Kipping is a professor of astronomy at Columbia University, and director of the Cool Worlds Lab. He tapped into transcendence and just brought it right down to the ground. He was just profoundly inspiring. And spoiler alert, we give David Kipping the last line of the book, quoting from his interview just because we thought it was really extraordinary.

Tyson and Kipping were similar, but they have their own unique thoughts. Both evoked that same sort of sense of awe and wonder and transcendence. That was interesting.

Q6: How do you envision your book contributing to the larger conversation around leadership and character?

Gerard: Maybe this is just a modest observation, but I hope the book contributes to and creates awareness about character in both citizenship and leadership. I want the book to make people think about life and be inspired.

It strikes me we haven’t talked about character for so long. As a society, we used to talk about character, but somehow, the conversation stopped. I don't know why – even at Ivey, before the global financial crisis, I do not recall a single situation where we took a deep dive into character. I suspect that was the case for many business schools and academic institutions.  Things are changing now, for the better.

Here's what I do know. Many people consider character to be subjective and deeply personal. “Character” is an emotionally charged word. For example, if I talk to you about your character, there is often an assumption that there's something wrong with you. And because it's an emotionally charged, deeply personal topic, the conversation is often difficult. The lack of a precise language or a vocabulary with which to address character-related challenges compounds the problem.

So if we're going to go from thinking and talking about character to actually doing something about it, we need clear language, a framework.

I know that our book provides language that people can relate to. People have told us so – the framework not only helps them to understand character but also shapes the conversation that needs to take place. 

Sometimes, people will say that 11 dimensions of character are too many. Actually, I wouldn't disagree with them because who is a superstar living up to all 11 dimensions? That is indeed a tall order! But, it is important to understand that the dimensions are distinct. They are all unique. 

You're probably familiar with the virtue–vice problem: too much of a good thing, virtue, can actually be a negative, or a vice. Thinking about the story I shared about myself earlier, you could say that I had high drive, high courage, and a deep sense of accountability. But in the absence of temperance – that is, patience, self-control, and a bit of restraint – you may get reckless behavior. The point is that these character dimensions interact. They work together to produce, in the end, good judgment or good outcomes. 

The framework — the model and its language — is, I think, something that people look for and respond to favorably. The framework helps us to bring important, productive conversation into the classroom. It also helps us to work with organizations to begin thinking about how we can reinforce these important behaviors in the workplace.

If that is what we contributed to the discourse around leadership and leader character — some ideas about how to develop character — then, checkmark. 

Is character something that can be developed? Of course. We often define character as a habit of being. Habits can be hard to break. Breaking bad habits and solidifying good habits takes time. It requires many things including reflection, self-awareness and deliberate practice. The practices are not for the faint of heart. I think our research and the book have something interesting to say about creating new habits as well.

The final thing that I will say is that we are not the only ones who are pushing character. Thank goodness, other academic institutions also pay attention to this foundational part of leadership. There is great work being done at Oxford. There's great work being done at Wake Forest. There are other great academic institutions where people do research on leader character. The result is a better picture of how to cultivate good leader character in individuals.

Bill: What I notice is that many people are aware, more than ever, that character is missing in leadership. We know we need more of it, but we feel helpless to do anything about it. I think the book offers something timely that will catch people's attention. Maybe we can do something about character. Maybe we can change it, develop it because we need leaders with strong, well-developed character.

Gerard: Well said. Well said, Bill. I completely agree. We need character-based leadership to tackle the grand challenges of our time.

Bill: What's the best way for people to find out more and get in touch with you, Gerard?

Gerard: Please use my email. I'm a professor at the Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada. Kim and I can be easily found on the Web. We are also on LinkedIn. Kim and I are affiliated with the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership at Ivey; https://www.ivey.uwo.ca/leadership/ 

The Institute publishes a newsletter a few times a year that gives an update on all the activities we do in research, student programming, and outreach. You can subscribe to the newsletter from the Institute’s website. People are also welcome to reach out to us if there's anything they need in terms of research, recommendations, or speaking. Whatever it is, just connect with us. Kim, my colleagues at Ivey and the Institute, and I believe that our mission – to elevate character alongside competence in the art and practice of leadership – is important. Whatever people need, just connect with us. 

Bill: Absolutely, Gerard. Thank you very much. I'll share all those links in the interview so people can get to you easily.

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