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Why We Should Teach Everyone Character

Words by 3p Contributor
Leadership & Transparency
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By Shannon Houde

An organization in the U.S. is teaching kids character. Yes, really. They've developed an educational framework for schools that supports the "social, emotional and ethical development of students." Or, as Daniel Goleman would term it: emotional intelligence. Now that’s just core character if I have ever heard it!

Sounds odd though, right? When I was at school the idea of teaching character would have been laughed out of the classroom. Character was something that we were expected to acquire over time and accrue somewhere between the rocks and hard places of life. Challenging life experiences were 'character building.' The message was clear: You had to earn it. Blood, sweat and tears. My parents sent me into the woods for a month when I was 16 to toughen me up, and just the stench of 30 teenagers in small tents with no shower for that long gave me a kick in the character pants. I keep saying I want both my boys to be in the military like my Navy dad, so they too learn character.

So, when I saw this article, I was intrigued by the idea that someone was trying to formally teach it in schools and curious about the potential applications for my career coaching clients and the sustainability sector as a whole. Maybe these guys were on to something. I'm a executive coach and talent advisor, and I spend a lot of time analyzing the concept of leadership: what it is, how to cultivate it, how to mentor it, how to hire it, how to work with it, and how to use it to push sustainability and innovation forward. I was already convinced that good character is a cornerstone of great leadership and that great leadership is a cornerstone of better -- and more sustainable -- business. What's more, I already knew that in the sustainability jobs market, the hallmarks of good character -- authenticity, integrity, accountability and a commitment to walking the talk -- are at a premium. So, the question followed quite easily: If you can teach character to children, can you teach it to our future leaders, too?

Much like sustainability itself, character is a heterogeneous concept that's hard to define in any tangible way. For the purposes of this post, I'm thinking about the role an educational framework might play in equipping the next generation of leaders with the key competencies they'll need to deliver the sustainability agenda. Certainly worth more than geometry class, no? In my experience from working with more than 3,000 sustainability practitioners over the past decade, I have found that the top five key competencies for sustainability are:


  1. Bravery and resilience

  2. Ability to balance global and local perspectives

  3. Innovative- and systems-thinking

  4. Influencing and negotiating

  5. Engaging others on the journey on their own terms

Social, emotional and ethical development -- to quote Character.org -- is the bedrock of the soft skills that underlie these competencies, and that makes teaching character a no-brainer.

But how? There are a couple of routes worth exploring such as a professional mentoring relationships in which -- as this Forbes article explains – “self-aware, patient and empathic people with strong listening skills who are committed to using their strategic insight, technical expertise and industry knowledge can contribute to a junior's personal growth and professional development." The downside is that it's on a one-to-one basis and so by its nature is not available to everyone.

Another is Business in the Community's competency map: a useful online tool that uses interpersonal, personal and organizational themes to break down the skills, values and traits needed for strong sustainability leadership. The behaviors described in it could be considered the professional hallmarks of good character. I've admired this framework before and found it useful to help the jobseekers I work with to clarify their thinking around what makes a great leader. But looking at it now, I think it's missing something: an outer ring, going the whole way around, with just one word in it (I'll let you guess what...).

Competency maps help us conceptualize the challenge of embedding good character traits in the workplace, and mentoring relationships can give a small percentage of elite future leaders bespoke one-on-one coaching -- but maybe that's not enough. Maybe what we need is a formalized, across-the-board, open access professional development offering for businesses what Character.org is doing for schools and communities. What kind of an impact would that sort of education and support have on the delivery of sustainability goals and our developing future leaders?

According to the director of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability at the University of Cumbria Business School, Jem Bendell: "Leadership should be about helping people do difficult things together that they wouldn’t otherwise do, so sustainability leadership is a useful term when talking of helping society transition to a totally different way of life.”

From this perspective, we all need to be sustainability leaders -- whether we have a C-suite role or not. He says: "Just because you don’t have a position of power does not mean you can’t change things." I say: Good character will be what makes us try. So, let's teach it.

If you are interested in leadership coaching, executive coaching or character training please contact us.

Image credit: Taigo, via Flickr

Shannon Houde is founder of Walk of Life Consulting, the first international career and executive coaching business focused solely on the environmental, sustainability and corporate responsibility fields.

3p Contributor

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