Building Character Through Adversity

Leadership Balance — External vs Internal

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership

Building Character Through Adversity


Building leadership character requires understanding the external, professional environment, and your firmly held internal, moral values. According to UCLA surveys, in 1966, 80% of first-year college students stated that they were strongly motivated to develop a meaningful life philosophy. Today, less than half of them say that. In 1966 42% of first-year college students stated that they thought becoming rich was an important goal. By 1990, 74% agreed with that statement. It seems it is now entirely acceptable to say that one is primarily interested in money rather than developing a moral philosophy for life.


I believe that we are seeing the consequences of allowing (encouraging?) people to focus on the external trappings of life rather than doing the hard work of delving into the internal values that determine character. From sports to politics, to the corporate leadership halls, we see the spectacular failings of character. In his new book, On the Road to Character, David Brooks notes that:

“The use of words having to do with economics and business has increased, while the language of morality and character building is in decline.”
—David Brooks, On the Road to Character

Friends and colleagues often respond to this view due to a connected world where news travels quickly and globally. They seem to take comfort in the concept that humans are no better or worse than they ever were. There are just more of us, and it’s harder to hide our flaws.

I take no comfort in such a view. Even if it is statistically accurate (a point which I do not concede), it is unacceptable to give up on humankind’s evolving higher moral values for our societies.

Developing Others

In terms of leadership, I view one of our primary tasks to be developing the character of those we are privileged to lead. Not only do we have a responsibility to help people understand the professional, external skills required to be useful, but we must pay attention to creating an environment where people can delve deeper into their internal moral values. Excellent leaders can decide what to do in the external world based on strong, well understood personal values.

I want to be clear that I am NOT suggesting that we try to instill personal values in others. They must develop their unique moral compasses. We can, however, be very transparent in how we make decisions. We can be open about our struggle with competing values when confronted with dilemmas in business or personal matters. We can live our values rather than preach our values.

I am reminded of the story of Thomas Watson, Jr., who was confronted with a young IBM executive who had made a series of bad decisions that cost the company several million dollars. According to Edgar Shien, the young executive was summoned to Watson’s office and fully expected Watson to fire him. When he said so upon entering the office, Shien reports that Watson said, “Not at all young man, we have just spent a couple of million dollars educating you.” I will leave it to you to determine what moral value Watson was demonstrating. He indeed wasn’t focused on merely the money. When this took place, a couple of million dollars was a considerable amount, even for IBM. Indeed, in some way, Watson was demonstrating his view of the worth and dignity of human beings. How do you think that the young executive handled the failures of people he came to lead?


The firey crucible of adversity is what strengthens character. The unintended consequence of wanting to help our children, friends, and employees avoid what we feel are painful mistakes is that we do not let them forge iron clad values to live their lives. It is straightforward to live a “surface,” materialistic life in our society today. It seems that to live on the surface is not the life of a true leader.

[Updated 9/16/2017 Lightly edited in 10/2020 for our new website.]