Of Mind, Heart and Backbone

Posted on Sep 30, 2011 | 14 Comments

Brains are useful, but character is king.

That was the key takeaway from a New York Times Magazine article last Sunday in which writer Paul Tough observed that at the KIPP charter school network, good test scores turn out to be less important to success in life than habits and mindset.

“The students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP,” Tough noted. “They were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead; to persuade professors to give them extra help after class.”

Certainly, Peter Drucker was one smart cookie himself. But, like the folks at KIPP, he gave relatively little weight to raw cognitive ability.

“Management should not appoint a man who considers intelligence more important than integrity,” Drucker warned in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. “If he lacks in character and integrity—no matter how knowledgeable, how brilliant, how successful—he destroys. He destroys people, the most valuable resource of the enterprise. He destroys spirit. And he destroys performance.”

Also, being smart on paper doesn’t necessarily equip you to deal with the real world. “Being an employee means living and working with people; it means living and working in a society,” Drucker wrote in People and Performance. “Intelligence, in the last analysis, is therefore not the most important quality. What is decisive is character and integrity. And integrity—character—is the one thing most, if not all, employers consider first.”

What do you think: What exactly is good character—and can it be taught?

14 Comments

  1. Nelson
    September 30, 2011

    Character begins in ones heart… Then surfaces in the mind and exposes itself thru ones words… That ultimately turn to actions which in time become our habits which developes character which of course determines our destiny…. Yes, character is taught and trained during 10000 steps…and it usually comes by way of a caring and admiring mentor.

    Reply
  2. Bryan
    October 1, 2011

    I teach a course in Leadership at the US Air Force Academy and values, ethics, and character are integral to not only this institution, but our profession (of arms) as well. Integrity is the foundation for effective leadership.
    We spend much of our time teaching and analyzing “honorable living.” I often remind my cadets of how the public’s trust in our uniformed service members is directly related to our nation’s freedom and capacity to do good things around the world.
    We have cadets come here from all walks of life, and yes, the admission standards are high, but I agree with the notion that perseverance, attitude and character are more important than test scores.
    (Go Air Force! Sink Navy!)

    Reply
  3. Mike Grayson
    October 1, 2011

    The quote from Tough is really referring to one aspect of character and that is “discipline”. Tough is quoted as saying, “They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead; to persuade professors to give them extra help after class”.

    Discipline is doing what you know needs to be done when your mind and body are screaming at you to do something else. And it is an aspect of character – but not the most important one by a long shot.

    The most important character quality is TRUST. When you assign a task to someone and don’t have to worry about it getting done, that is trust. When you know that the other person has your best interest at heart, that is trust.

    Trust is a rare commodity in leadership these days. That is why Congress and the President have such low approval ratings. We don’t trust their decisions or their honesty. There is a lack of trust between management and labor – in both directions. If you could bottle trust and sell it, you would become rich. But, as the old saying goes, “trust must be earned”.

    Reply
  4. Renee Hendrickson
    October 1, 2011

    There are alot of business “advisors” out there today, but Drucker seems to be the only one that really encompasses the whole of business. His common sense is “old school” and I wonder where as a society we lost that?

    Reply
  5. Reggie Revis
    October 2, 2011

    I do not think it can be taught, but I assure you that goodness can be learned.

    Reply
    • Greg Zerovnik
      October 3, 2011

      I read somewhere that Plato said there were three aspects to humanity: logos or the mind, pathos or emotion, and ethos or character. As Director of Business Programs at Touro University Worldwide, I require a course in Professional Ethics as part of the core requirements in our online MBA program. I believe the elements of character and morality can, in fact, be taught. Indeed, that is part of every child’s upbringing, whether the education is by parent or peer and whether what is learned is adaptive or maladaptive. While incorrect or false learning is harder to overcome than simple ignorance, I would argue that it is possible to do so. After all, not all criminals remain criminals. There are such things as changed lives, new directions, and acceptance of personal responsibility for one’s actions.

      Reply
  6. Alba Patricia Valencia
    October 2, 2011

    Character is qualities that make a person or thing different from other. For me these qualities are: Perfect discipline, courage, strength.

    Carácter son las cualidades que hacen que una persona o cosa sea diferente a otra. Para mí esas cualidades son: perfecta disciplina, coraje y fuerza.

    Reply
  7. Maverick18
    October 2, 2011

    Ethics are rules to be followed, and in business, Ethics is often a prescribed course for employees. In various business lines, and particularly with respect to international trade, the rules can be complicated and must be taught. Character in business is a fundamental desire to not only play by the rules, but always do what is fair and honest in any given situation. Ethics can be learned, Character is a way of life. .

    Reply
  8. Joy
    October 3, 2011

    Character is doing what is right when no one is looking.

    Reply
  9. Dennis Howard
    October 3, 2011

    Eric Greiten explores this in his new book, The Heart and The Fist, and describes it as what happens when compassion and courage come together in meaningful service. To me, it means that all of one’s actions must be consistent with one’s own thoughtful, deeply held beliefs. Short term actions must be consistent with long term vision. “Unintended consequences” are a lame excuse for the failure to think things through before taking action. However, no human being is perfect; therefore, when we are wrong, we must promptly admit it and take corrective action.

    Reply
  10. Dana Friedman
    October 3, 2011

    Character, trust, ethics — these are all learned in early childhood – before children even arrive at school or the workplace. When adults provide young children with a secure, nurturing environment, children feel safe to explore the world around them, to try out new ideas, interact with other people. The “executive functions” of the brain are formed by age 5 — and they are so aptly named because as Drucker and others posit — these functions will eventually determine how effective they will be as “executives.”

    Reply
  11. CARL RODGERS
    October 4, 2011

    The problem is quite often the alpha habits are too strong so integrity is lost.

    Reply
  12. The Feedback | The Drucker Exchange
    October 4, 2011

    [...] week, we asked what it means to have good character—and whether it can be taught.  Many readers wrote in with [...]

    Reply
  13. We Guess He Won’t Be Getting a Gold Watch | The Drucker Exchange
    March 14, 2012

    [...] before (more than once) about what Peter Drucker had to say about integrity. However, he wrote about it so often, considering it to be of such [...]

    Reply

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