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CHARACTER: The Undervalued Virtue of Human Goodness

 “Think only on those things that are in line with your principles and can bear the light of day. The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you choose, what you think, and what you do is who you become. Your integrity is your destiny. It is the light that guides your way.”                                               – Heraclitus

My early years were filled with my father’s passion for sport and love for his sons. Dad was a nationally ranked gymnast, and when I was in elementary school, he would take me every Saturday morning to the old YMCA in our community. We would work, just him and me alone, on the parallel bars, tumbling mats, and climbing ropes. While he’s been gone now for more than thirty years, I can still close my eyes and feel the strength of his biceps and shoulders lifting me gently up on those bars. I can feel his thigh muscles as I would rest on them, learning to find a resemblance of balance on the mat. I can remember the enthusiasm and caring that lay below all of his dedicated actions. He wasn’t there because of his ego. He was there because of me and what he desired to instill in me.

When I was in high school, it was my father who inspired a dream within me to make the 1980 Canadian Olympic team as a track athlete. It was that dream that in turn inspired me to get up early to train and to take better care of my health. When I would lie in bed at 5:00 a.m. debating about whether to get up for my morning run, it was the power of that purpose that enabled me to get my feet on the floor and my rear end out the door in -25°F weather.  I can still hear my father tell me that, “The purpose of having a dream is not to achieve your dream. The purpose of having a dream is to inspire yourself to become the kind of person it takes to achieve your dream. Very few people make it to the Olympics, and even fewer stand on the podium, but anyone can become the kind of person it takes to get there.”

While I didn’t qualify for the Olympics, having the dream inspired me to live a healthier, more disciplined life. To this day, I have maintained many of those healthy habits ingrained in me over forty years ago. While my purpose has changed and broadened, the inspiration remains.

The seeds of character were planted early on in my life. At sixty, my father would walk around the house on his hands. But he didn’t lead with the strength of his shoulders. He led with the strength of his character. And he understood that character is developed by the daily discipline of duties done.

Twenty-three centuries ago, Aristotle distinguished between what he termed “external goods,” such as prosperity, property, power, personal advancement and reputation, and “inner goods,” or “goods of the soul,” including fortitude, temperance, justice, compassion, and wisdom. He taught that the good life is not one of consumption, but of the nourishing of these deeper, hidden virtues. Unshakeable character calls you to shift from being the best in the world to being the best for the world, to strive not for what you can get, but what you can give, to endeavor not for what you can have, but for who you can be.  If you want to attract others, you must be attractive.  A job title, the letters behind your name, the size of your office, or your income are not measures of human worth. No success by the world’s standards will ever be enough to compensate for a lack of strong character.

It’s not the fierceness of the storm that determines whether we break, but rather the strength of the roots that lie below the surface. Character is the courage to meet the demands of reality. When your wealth is lost, something is lost; when your health is lost, a great deal is lost; when your character is lost, everything is lost.

Originally published in 1934, this poem, written by Peter Dale Wimbrow Sr. was a favorite of my father’s and beautifully illustrates this virtue of character.

It’s called, “The Guy In The Glass.”

When you get what you want in your struggle for self
And the world makes you king for a day
Just go to the mirror and look at yourself
And see what that guy has to say.

For it isn’t your father, or mother, or wife
Whose judgment upon you must pass
The fellow whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the one staring back from the glass.

He’s the fellow to please – never mind all the rest
For he’s with you, clear to the end
And you’ve passed your most difficult, dangerous test
If the guy in the glass is your friend.

You may fool the whole world down the pathway of years
And get pats on the back as you pass
But your final reward will be heartache and tears
If you’ve cheated the guy in the glass.

This past month I had the good fortune to speak to my daughter’s high school English class about authentic leadership and the strength of character. At the conclusion of my presentation I recited this poem and then I told these students that if it were my poem, I would have added one more verse:

When you don’t get what you want in your struggle for self
And the world makes you dirt for a day
Just go to the mirror and look at yourself
And see what that guy has to say…

Hire For Character; Train For Cashiers

The title of this blog came from an executive at Nordstrom Department Stores when I asked him about his hiring philosophy. “We hire for character; we train for cashiers.” Far too often people get hired on the basis of competence, and fired on the basis of attitude.

I am often asked, “So how do we hire for attitude? How do we ensure that the right people are hired? How do we ensure that just because a potential employee has technical competence, that they are the right fit for our culture?”

Here’s a five-step process for hiring the right people in your organization.

Step 1. Clearly define the kind of culture you are committed to create and the kind of attitude you need from your employees. Be sure you have an answer to the following questions:

  • What values do you need your staff to exhibit?
  • What behaviors do you expect from your employees that will demonstrate the kind of attitude you expect?
  • What behaviors do you expect from every employee that will demonstrate your espoused values?

Step 2. Be committed to take your time in the hiring process. The management guru, Peter Drucker, had a favorite saying: “Hire s-l-o-w-l-y; fire quickly.” Depending on the position, the best organizations are prepared to take up to several hours getting the right people on the bus.

Step 3. Bring the right questions to the interview process. Note that accountability is described as:

  • The ability to be counted on
  • The willingness and ability to take initiative
  • Taking ownership for the environment you work in
  • Taking responsibility for the mistakes you make
  • Seeing all blame as a waste of time
  • Choosing service over self-interest
  • Choosing gratitude over entitlement

Here are some sample questions for the interview to help you assess if a candidate is accountable. You can adapt these questions to any of the values that you are hiring for.

  • What does accountability mean to you?
  • Why do you feel that accountability is important in your work and in your life?
  • Where did you learn to be accountable? How was accountability instilled in you?
  • Tell me about a time in your work when you took initiative, ownership, and personal responsibility. What was the result?
  • Tell me about a time when you weren’t accountable. What was the result?
  • Tell me about a time when your accountability was tested under pressure, or when it was easier to be lazy and complacent or have a sense of entitlement instead of being accountable? How did you respond? What were the consequences?
  • When have you had to stand alone from the crowd in order to live this value?
  • How do you anticipate living this value (e.g. accountability) in the job that you are applying for?

Step 4. Be sure that all stakeholders – or as many as possible – in the organization who will depend on this person have an opportunity to ask these questions. Be sure that the questions are asked and answered from a variety of perspectives.

Step 5. Observe the candidate in action under pressure, if at all possible. Depending on the role, a probationary period where you can observe how they are living the value in their job, especially under stress, is recommended.

In the boiler room while you wait in line for the Tower of Terror ride at Disney you will find a sign with a rhyme, written by an American poet named Ella Wheeler Wilcox. It’s fitting to include it here, as no matter how brilliant a person can sound in a job interview, you don’t really know them until they are put under pressure.

It’s easy enough to be pleasant, when life hums along like a song.  But the man worthwhile is the man who can smile when everything goes dead wrong.

After a stay at a Marriott Hotel where I experienced great service from every employee all weekend, I asked the checkout clerk if everyone gets training in good customer service. After a moment of reflection, she responded, “Well… you can’t train someone to be nice. What we do here is hire nice people and train them how to use the computer.”

A well-designed culture starts with hiring the right people. I’d love to hear from you about how you use in the hiring process to get the right people on board.

How To Build A Respectful Workplace: It’s Not A Program

I recently overheard a manager talking with a colleague about how he was being sent to a “Respectful Workplace Program.” I couldn’t help but interrupt and ask him about it.

“Yes,” he explained. “Everyone in our company is required to attend a one-day training seminar on how to build a respectful workplace.”

Be assured that I am respectful of whoever might, with good intentions, be running a workshop on building respect in an organization. And even without any knowledge of what will be presented in the workshop, I’m sure that this program will undoubtedly bring valuable information.

But with all due respect (pun intended!), respect can’t be taught like mathematics. Building a respectful workplace, like building respect in your home or community doesn’t come from a training program. Respect isn’t about speaking to each other nicely or holding hands or hugging each other. While we could all use a refresher in good manners, respect goes much deeper than techniques or even behavior.

If you want improve a disrespectful workplace you have to get to the root cause of the problem. A respectful workplace is achieved – and sustained – through one critical element: respect for yourself. When you have self-respect you won’t tolerate bullying, inappropriate, disrespectful comments, or people acting unprofessionally. You have the same standards for yourself as you expect from others. When you have respect for yourself you don’t demean others or act in ill-mannered ways. You have better things to do with your time, and you have no interest in being disrespectful to others. You won’t find yourself entangled in hurtful, useless and hurtful arguments. And you won’t let others disrespect you.

Here are four strategies for increasing your level of self-respect. Just as anyone can be a leader, anyone can put these into practice, beginning today. As you do, notice the positive impact and benefit to your workplace by increasing the respect around you.

  • Never make a promise you aren’t prepared to keep. Self-respect, like confidence, is an outcome of right choices, not a prerequisite. Learning to keep promises, whether it is to your child to attend his baseball game or to yourself to keep up good health habits, results in personal integrity. Keeping promises to yourself and others, even in the face of discomfort and the tendency toward complacency, gives you confidence to get through the hard times. As the late Stephen R. Covey used to say, private victory precedes public victory.
  • Create focus in your life. Clarity around your highest values, a sense of purpose, daily disciplines around your health, and an ongoing personal development plan are all ways that contribute to how you feel about yourself. People who respect themselves take care of themselves. And they spend their time being of service to others. When you start paying attention, you will notice that people with focus and clarity in their lives aren’t part of the gossiping crowds. They don’t have time for complaining or blaming others or being a part of disrespectful conversations. They are too busy focused on being useful in the world.
  • Take the high ground. If you are wondering why people yell at you or degrade you or act in disrespectful ways, it’s simple. Because you let them. You don’t have any obligation to tolerate disrespectful behavior. You don’t have to become lazy even if the people you work with are lazy. You don’t have to get involved in ill-mannered arguments. A leader I have high regard for told me once, “Never argue with an idiot because they will bring you down to their level and beat you with experience.” Live on the foundation good principles, even if the people around you don’t appreciate it. Do the right thing, because the right thing will make things right inside of you.
  • Be a light, not a judge. The disciples of a Hasidic rabbi approached their spiritual leader with a complaint about the prevalence of evil in the world. Intent upon driving out the forces of iniquity and darkness, they requested that the rabbi counsel them. The rabbi’s response was one that can help us all come to grips with the malevolent forces of darkness that at times seem to surround our world. The rabbi suggested to his students that they take brooms, go down to the basement, and attempt to sweep the darkness from the cellar. The bewildered disciples applied themselves to sweeping out the darkness, but to no avail. The rabbi then advised them to take sticks and beat vigorously at the darkness to drive out the evil. When this likewise failed, he counseled them to again go down to the cellar and to protest against the evil. When this failed as well, he said, “My students, let each of you meet the challenge of darkness by lighting a lamp.” The disciples descended to the cellar and kindled their lights. They looked, and behold! The darkness had been driven out.

Self-respect doesn’t guarantee that others will treat you with respect. What it does do is guarantee that you won’t tolerate disrespect. When disrespect is no longer tolerated, it will soon cease to exist.

I’d love to hear from you about some of your organizational challenges if you are working in a disrespectful workplace or relationship. Send me your thoughts on my contact page. I’d be glad to schedule a complimentary ½ hour session to discuss your situation.

Three Attributes of Authenticity – It Goes Beyond “Being Yourself”

“We are in the age of authenticity,” writes Adam Grant, in a recent New York Times article, “where ‘be yourself’ is the defining advice in life, love and career… We want to live authentic lives, marry authentic partners, work for an authentic boss, vote for an authentic president. In university commencement speeches, ‘Be true to yourself’ is one of the most common themes…”
But I think we have to understand just exactly what we mean by authenticity and “being yourself”.
If you’ve been around as long as I have, you’ll remember the children’s story of Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby. Br’er Rabbit, in the famous Joel Chandler Harris story of the old south, walks along the road of life, whistling and happy, until he encounters a tar baby on the side of the road who he believes is insulting him. Br’er Rabbit strikes out at the tar baby because he thinks he would not be true to himself if he were to let someone say nasty things about him. But by kicking and hitting the tar baby he ends up getting completely embroiled in the tar. He actually loses his sense of self by reacting to someone else’s evaluation of him.
Just because you are upset with someone doesn’t mean you have to confront them in order to prove your authenticity. Being authentic is not about showing your “true self” indiscriminately to the world. It’s also not about erasing the gap between who you are on the inside and what you reveal to the outside world. In fact, if you aren’t careful, this approach can easily get you enmeshed in tar. We all have thoughts and feelings and tendencies and impulses in our lives that are better left unspoken, or at best spoken only with trusted friends or confidants.
An example of this is cited by Adam Grant in his NYT article. When Cynthia Danaher was promoted to general manager of a group at Hewlett-Packard, she announced to her 5,300 employees that the job was “scary” and that “I need your help.” She was supposedly authentic. She was “being herself,” and her team lost confidence in her.
I have learned from my colleague and co-author, Jim Reger, that authentic people exhibit three fundamental qualities:
1)  Their identity and security come from within, not from someone else’s view of them. Br’er Rabbit loses his way by reacting to someone else’s opinion of him. The more we react to other people’s evaluation of us, the more we demonstrate a lack of self-assurance.
People who are dependent on others for a sense of worth spend their time and energy seeking approval, rather than pursuing their own goals. Subsequently, they fall short of their potential. They are obsessed with getting recognition from others instead of relaxing and bringing to the world who they are meant to be.
Being authentic means you are able to clarify your own values and decide what is most important to you. You are able to live your life in a way that is truly expressive of your beliefs, values, and desires. This does not mean you express yourself without regard for the opinions or feelings of others. It means, instead, that you are self-aware enough to be both honest and respectful.
2.   Authentic people are comfortable with themselves. When your worth and security come from within, you have no interest in bullying, abusing, or disrespecting others because you are at peace with who you are. When you are at peace with yourself you are open to learn, to respond appropriately rather than impulsively, and are open to the possibility of change. Authentic people are willing to re-evaluate their point of view when presented with new information.
Authenticity means a willingness to think through your position when you encounter different points of view. Authentic people are humble enough to bring curiosity rather than rigidity to their relationships. They can set their own limits while also considering the views of others. Rather than needing to defend themselves or criticizing, they respect differing opinions and are open to learning.
3.   Authentic people care. They care about their work. They care about the people around them. And they care about themselves enough to not let themselves be disrespected. Authentic people seek the betterment of all constituents. They choose service over self-interest.
The ability to clarify and pursue what you genuinely want for yourself while also maintaining close relationships with others – and respecting them to also be themselves – is one of the major attributes of an authentic person. Most of us are able to do only one of these at a time. We either conform to the culture in order to be accepted, or cut ourselves off from others in order to be ourselves. It’s a sign of authenticity if you able to walk the line between seeking both independence and connection.
Authenticity is a tall order. However, if you are sincere (you don’t have a hidden agenda for personal gain) and you are honestly striving to work for what serves the greater good people are much more apt to trust you. Trustworthiness results from authenticity.
If you are interested in assessing your own authenticity or getting some input from others on how authentic you are perceived to be, you will find a quick no-fee authenticity assessment on the home page of my website: www.davidirvine.com
If you are interested in learning more about how to be authentic and deepening your authentic presence, send me an email or contact me at: www.davidirvine.ca/contact and we’ll schedule a ½ hour complementary call to explore your options.

7 ROOTS OF LEADERSHIP Living A Good Life

Over the winter, my wife, Val and I took time to transplant trees and repot houseplants. It’s been good for me to slow down and spend some time working with soil, getting my hands dirty and connecting to the land, reminding me of the value farmers bring to our culture. I’ve been learning from Val, our resident plant expert, that a healthy root system is necessary to ensure a robust plant. Through their natural intelligence, plants know this and develop extensive roots before their energy is transferred into growing foliage. You’ll see this in a houseplant that will get root bound in a pot before they flourish above the ground. The root system is first developed in the dirt, thus enabling the plant to support its growth above the surface.

Leadership is like that. The source of what is manifested in the world is not seen by the world. Like a plant, whose strength and energy come from its roots, the strength and energy of a leader comes from within. A good life – through a person’s roots – precedes good leadership. Below is a short list of what a good life means to me, and the roots that will sustain and support you to do the work that you are called to do.

  1. Clarity. Clarity is about living your life by design rather than by default. Living without clarity is like embarking on a wilderness journey without a compass. Any way will get you there if you don’t know where you are going. Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare and precious achievement. You’ll be told in a hundred ways what is expected of you and what is needed of you to be a success. The real discipline in life comes in saying no to the wrong opportunities.
  2. Courage. If you have ever walked through something that frightens you, and you grew through to the other side, you know that courage is inspiring. It inspires you and it inspires those around you. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is facing fear and walking through it. There have always been courageous men and women who have been prepared to die for what they believe in. What do you care enough about to give your life for?
  3. Character. If you want to attract others, you must be attractive. Strong character demands that you shift from being the best in the world to being the best for the world, to strive not for what you can get, but what you can give, to endeavor not for what you can have, but for who you can be. A job title, the letters behind your name, the size of your office, or your income are not measures of human worth. No success by the world’s standards will ever be enough to compensate for a lack of strong character.
  4. Calling. Calling is a devotion to a cause beyond you. It is inspiring to be around people who have a dedication to a cause they care about. When you feel an internal calling, a deep sense of pursuing what you are meant to be pursuing, you take a step toward completeness in your life. “A musician must make music,” wrote Abraham Maslow, the famed American psychologist, “an artist must paint, a poet must write, if they are to be ultimately at peace with themselves.” Whether you are paid or not to express your calling, a good life requires you listen and respond.
  5. Contribution. When we come to the end of our days on this earth, we take no material thing with us. It’s not what we have gained for ourselves but the contribution we have made to others that makes life meaningful. It’s not what we get from life that has the greatest most lasting reward. It’s what we give. A good life requires a generous spirit and a giving heart. A life of contribution is a good life.
  6. Connection. After three decades of observing and learning from thousands of leaders in hundreds of organizations and in every walk of life, I finally understand what my parents tried to teach me more than forty years ago. In an interdependent world, everything is about relationships. It’s not all about models or strategies or programs or the latest technology. Whether you are a CEO building a company, a middle manager leading a division, a supervisor ensuring results on your team, a front-line sales person, a customer-service representative, or a parent attempting to develop capable young people, leadership is all about making contact and building connections. And caring is at the root.
  7. Centering. “Dwell as near as possible to the channel in which your life flows,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. For me, a good life is built around a spiritual center that I constantly seek and return to. From this foundation I find security amidst uncertainty, serenity in the middle of success and failure, stability among the fleeting emotions of happiness and sadness. It is this center that sustains me and provides connection in loss, humility in achievement, perspective in chaos, strength in weakness, and wholeness in fragmentation.

It’s an exciting time to be living in this wondrous world. What concerns me is the possibility that our efforts to continuously improve and advance everything will create a society that is actually less satisfying to live in. Every day we have an opportunity to invent a new world through the choices we make. Not just in a narrow economic sense, but also in a broader human sense: for ourselves and for our children and for our children’s children.

What does a good life mean to you, and how does living in accord with what matters to you make you a better person and a better leader?

7 WAYS TO DEVELOP UNSHAKABLE CHARACTER

There is no real success in the world that can be separated from being a good person.

In 1944, in Marzobotto, a small town near Bologna, Italy, two thousand civilians were massacred by Nazi troops. The Nazis were retaliating for acts of sabotage committed by members of the Italian resistance. One young German soldier, however, refused to take part in the massacre and was shot.

While few of us will ever face losing our life to live in accordance with our conscience, everyone of us have opportunities every day to choose character over comfort. In our leadership and cultural alignment programs we teach that great character is the foundation of great cultures. Like the roots of a tree, character is hidden to the world, but is vital to an aligned, sustainable organization and life. It’s not the fierceness of the storm that determines whether we break, but rather the strength of the roots that lie below the surface. And, like that German soldier, having strong roots of character determines our strength and our courage.

Twenty-three centuries ago, Aristotle distinguished between what he termed “external goods,” such as prosperity, property, power, personal advancement and reputation, and “inner goods,” what he referred to as “goods of the soul,” including fortitude, temperance, justice, compassion, and wisdom. He taught that the good life is not one of consumption, but of the flourishing of these deeper, hidden virtues.

Unshakeable character calls you to shift from being the best in the world to being the best for the world, to strive not for what you can get, but what you can be, to endeavor to be a better person, before you attempt to be a better leader. Respectful and civil societies, organizations, and families depend on the self-respect, dignity, and the civility earned by their members, acquired by living with strong character.

Below are seven ways to develop unshakable character. Take a little time to notice the effect of these simple choices on your self-respect, your well-being, and your responses to those you love and serve.

  • Take a character assessment. Take a personal inventory of your character. How are you doing in such areas as compassion, reliability, honesty, courage, prudence, contribution, and maturity? Are you one person in public and another in private? Like a business that takes regular stock of its inventory, this is a fact-finding process. There can be blind spots to seeing yourself, so get feedback from the most important people in your life. Being a good person precedes being a good leader.
  • Let go of what you want. Prudence is the common sense – that unfortunately is not so common any more – to live with what you can do without, and the ability to find joy in what is here. Every so often it’s good to surrender something we want, but don’t need. In a world that confuses wants with needs, debt continues to rise as character continues to erode. Practice enjoying not getting everything you want, and find freedom in enjoying what you have.
  • Do something difficult every day. “Do the hard stuff first,” my mother used to say. The earlier in the day you get the difficult work done, the better you’ll feel about yourself and the rest of your day will go better. Whether it’s having a difficult conversation, getting up and getting some exercise, or taking a risk, character is built on the foundation of overcoming the natural tendency to take the course of least resistance.
  • Clean up after yourself. Something eats away at your character when you leave your messes for someone else to look after.
  • Look beyond yourself. Character means choosing service over self-interest. Character grows in the soil of concern for others and the commitment to act on that concern. It is always a win-win when we find ways to make life better for someone less fortunate than ourselves.
  • Spend less than you earn. This is truly one of the best character habits you can develop. Spending less than you earn, whether it’s reflected in your home, your car, or the stuff you buy, is another version of prudence. The space you create in your life by doing so will give you freedom, renewed worth, and contentment that money will never buy.
  • Practice gratitude. Gratitude is integral to strong character. It’s the antithesis of entitlement, the poison that contaminates character. Be an appreciator, rather than a depreciator, of everything that shows up in your life, including opportunities disguised as problems. What you appreciate, appreciates.

Character is not developed over night. It’s a life-long process. Just as it takes years of unseen work to have an “overnight” success, great acts of character come from years of small habits, diligently and persistently lived each day. The payoff is profound: self-respect, freedom, peace of mind, and the courage and clarity to build a better world around you. The nineteenth-century British writer William Makepeace Thackeray captured the essence of character in four lines:

Sow a thought and you reap an act;

Sow an act and you reap a habit;

Sow a habit and you reap a character;

Sow a character and you reap a destiny.