How Business Schools Can Teach ‘Character 101’

Photograph by James Leynse/Corbis

In my last blog I argued that while cognitive skills were a necessary, indeed, an indispensable component of management education, “it wasn’t nearly enough.” Most B-schools manifest this cognitive emphasis in the way we organize our schools: departments of finance, marketing, IT, and such are variations on the essential cognitive functions of business. The admission tests do the same, skewing the questions to the left side of the brain, stressing quantitative and analytical skills. This is not too different from the “Moneyball” syndrome, relying exclusively on stats and numbers to choose gifted players. Rex Ryan, the talented coach of the New York Jets, recently lamented to his general manager, “The one thing you can’t measure is damn heart.” (Emphasis his.) As the “most trusted” Walter Cronkite used to say at the end of his TV program: “And that’s the way it is.”

And the way it is isn’t good enough. It isn’t good enough because it ignores noncognitive skills which, in a word, I summarized as character. The word itself is a problem. More than 15 years ago when I looked to the OED for a definition, I found 37, going from “character actor” to a kind of print. Wikipedia is more current and more daunting: 4,354 definitions, 420 etymologies, thousands of phrases. More serious than this clumsy consensus about its meaning is the absence of agreement on how character develops or doesn’t. Or how malleable one’s character is at any given age. There are too many factors involved, and for every theory advanced, you can count on several disconfirming theories before the previous ones are in print.

Given all the ambiguity and confusion—no, because of the ambiguity and confusion—I feel emboldened to hold forth about the significance of character. I’ll go further: Without including character as an integral part of management education, we will not produce the masters of business our society, especially today, requires. Maybe good and competent managers are fine; you know, fine. In the old, pre-politically correct days they were referred to as journeymen. (Don’t even think about “journeypersons,” please.) But if we want to educate “masters,” attention must be paid to character.

My observations and a lot of research that started in the Fifties give me some confidence (and foundation) to say that the key components of character include the following (listed alphabetically): accountability, conscientiousness, empathy, fairness, respect, responsibility, self-awareness, teamwork, and trust. I do not consider these nine factors “traits” or “qualities” of an individual. The character components listed are profoundly distinct from traits or individual assessment scores for two important reasons. First, each component presumes a relationship: another, a colleague, a team member, a boss, or a subordinate. Self-respect is a good thing, but it’s not the same and doesn’t encompass the interpersonal covenant of “giving and receiving” respect. Second, each component is an action taken vis-à-vis another, not just a nice quality.

Now let’s get to the hard part: How do we teach character? We don’t. None of my colleagues even claim they can. David Logan, a gifted professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, says the best we can do is provide some opportunities for our students to learn more and reflect more about who they are and what drives them. He believes that at least two of the nine components of character, self-awareness and empathy, can be learned through life experience but not, in a technical sense, taught.

In concluding my last blog, I promised that with Bob Thomas’s help, I would provide some specific ways we can give life and meaning to these noncognitive factors of character. Recall that he is executive director of the Accenture Institute of High Performance and a visiting professor at Brandeis University where he teaches global business leadership. What follows is a synopsis of the Bob Thomas model of how character can be learned.

In Bob’s Brandeis course, there are two overarching principles: assessment/reflection and action/reflection. The students write up and discuss their most formative life experiences, those that shaped them as leaders. In our book, Geeks and Geezers, we refer to them as “crucibles.” Additionally, the students take various personality tests, such as the popular Myers-Briggs assessment, and discuss their scores. He also invites executives to class to discuss their crucible experiences. The action component is challenging students to “change some corner of the world”—usually Brandeis or their workplace—and to keep field notes. In this way, Bob creates an evocative community of students and faculty challenging and learning from each other. Bob, for convenience and brevity, summarizes his learning model into Five C’s:

Crucibles: These experiences highlight the need for behavioral change.

Commitment to Practice: It takes deliberate practice to progress from amateur to eminent. And practice is often not fun. To become a master, it is essential to practice while you perform.

Combination: Skill development combines the “outside game” (basic skills that must be mastered) and the “inside game” (an individual’s aspirations and motivations).

Coaches: People don’t learn alone. Like that Sondheim song, “It takes two!”

Community: Without community, it’s virtually impossible to grow a pipeline of leaders. Most leadership development programs focus only on individuals and miss the power of community to encourage continuous, career-long learning.

I’m going to conclude with a sixth C: Copy this model for your classroom.

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