Building Character Through Adversity

Leadership Balance – External vs Internal

Dave Kinnear 1-On Leadership


Building leadership character requires understanding both the external, professional environment, and your strongly held internal, moral values. According to UCLA surveys, in 1966 80% of college freshmen stated that they were strongly motivated to develop a meaningful philosophy of life. Today, less than half of them say that. In 1966 42% of college freshmen 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 state 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 halls of the corporate leadership 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.”

Friends and colleagues often respond to this view as being a result of 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.

Personally, I take no comfort in such a view. Even if it is statistically true (a point which I do not concede), it is unacceptable to simply give up on human kind in terms of evolving higher moral values for our societies.

Developing Others

In terms of leadership, I view one of our major tasks to be  developing the character of those whom we are privileged to lead. Not only do we have a responsibility to help people understand the professional, external skills required to be effective, but we must pay attention to creating an environment where people can delve deeply into their own internal moral values. Excellent leadership is based on being able to make decisions about 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 our own values in others. They must develop their own 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 a dilemma 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 which cost the company several million dollars. According to Edgar Shien, the young executive was summoned to Watson’s office and fully expected to be fired. 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 certainly wasn’t focused on simply the money. At the time this took place, a couple of million dollars was a considerable amount, even for IBM. Surely, Watson was in some way demonstrating his view of the worth and dignity of human beings. How do you think that young executive handled the failures of people he lead?


Character is most often forged in the fiery crucible of adversity. 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 by which to live their lives. It is very easy to live a “surface,” materialistic life in our society today. It seems to me, that is not the life of a true leader.

[Updated 9/16/2017]