Understanding the Character of Success

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Understanding the Character of Success

In the 1940s, while consulting for industrial giant General Motors, Peter Drucker met the company's chairman Alfred Sloan, who, according to the Drucker Institute, became the management guru's model for "the effective executive" in his highly influential books. One insight from Sloan particularly impressed Drucker: Sloan insisted, "The chief executive must be . . . absolutely tolerant and pay no attention to how a man does his work, let alone whether he likes a man or not. The only criteria must be performance and character."

Seven decades later, the twin criteria of performance and character remain just as essential in determining whether each individual adds value to an organization, from the CEO to the front-line employees. Yet despite this reality, what people are continuously measured and rewarded for is performance, not character.

From first grade through college, students are graded on their academic performance. Throughout their careers, employees are evaluated and given or denied raises and promotions based on their work performance. The message is clear: High performance leads to success.

But what about character? Perhaps because character is so hard to measure, it rarely shows up in evaluations explicitly. Yet character is just as important—or perhaps even more important—to success as is performance.

According to University of Chicago economics and law professor James Heckman, a Nobel winner in Economic Sciences and author of The Myth of Achievement Tests,1 "Character skills matter at least as much as cognitive skills. A multiplicity of skills is needed for success in life. The power of personality, or character, has been demonstrated in numerous studies in addition to the longer-established power of cognitive traits like IQ and scores on achievement tests. If anything, character strengths matter more."

As Heckman points out in one of a series of "Essays on Character & Opportunity" by a diverse assortment of experts from The Center on Children & Families at the Brookings Institution, a person's character is not genetically bestowed at birth. Character skills can be shaped and changed throughout the individual's life, unlike cognitive skills that are solidified by adolescence.2

It seems clear that an educational system that focuses only on developing cognitive skills and rewarding performance rather than on character, isn't just keeping students from achieving greater success; it is also creating an environment in which those who do manage to rise to the top on performance alone can do even greater harm to their organizations and the world...

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