The character of leadership transformation with Mary Crossan

“Organisations that fail to hire for and develop positive character among their leaders are missing an opportunity..”

A great conversation with Mary about the crucial relationship between character and leadership, and how it can enable transformation in organisations and organisational culture.

We dive into the 11 dimensions of character with corresponding behaviours and look at the importance for leaders to balance extremes and manage polarities to promote inclusive and collaborative spaces.

We discuss dismantling the assumption of static character and empowering leaders to embrace personal agency in their decision-making processes. Our conversation goes beyond the surface, tackling the subconscious influences on our behaviour, balancing polarities and looking at the various different levers for developing character, as well as challenging biases in different processes and systems.

What is the impact of taking Character into account ? A significant shift in the environment within organisations, calling for a re-evaluation of leadership selection to be more character-centric.

Mary shares her research and experience from running educational programmes with leaders all over the world on Character and its impact on leadership in today’s workplace.

The main insights you’ll get from this episode are :

–       Character development can unleash excellence once unlocked, but linking the science of character to leadership is a relatively new concept. Leadership was on trial during the economic crisis in 2008 – the leadership failures that led to the global financial crisis were not a failure of competence but a failure of character.

–       What is character? Is it possible to develop character? There is no evidence that character is ingrained and cannot change, but it should not be confused with personality, which is semi-stable (e.g. introvert/extrovert).

–       Character is a set of specific behaviours that satisfy criteria, and each one of these behaviours can be developed as a habit. Most of us have underdeveloped character because we don’t know of the possibility to develop it.  

–       There are metrics, e.g. 11 dimensions of character with 62 associated behaviours, and Aristotle called character practical wisdom – the key facet is that any virtue operates as either an excess or a deficiency, e.g. a lot of courage requires a lot of temperance.

–       We need to understand that strengths operate in a dysfunctional way in the face of the virtue vs. vice polarity; operating with a deficiency must be recognised and excess must countered, e.g. tenacity/grit has to be offset to avoid negative outcomes.

–       The link between character and DE&I is that understanding character can create a more inclusive environment in which people can thrive. We judge ourselves on our intention and others on their behaviour, but character is about observable behaviour, and our intentions mask our lack of understanding of others’ behaviours.

–       The culture of an organisation will reflect the character of the individuals in the organisation: intention and behaviours don’t match up, which is borne out by research on self-awareness. Character supercharges the DE&I agenda and helps us get to our real natures.  

–       We have personal agency over our character and must form the right habits to develop it. Character brings laser focus to core beliefs and scripts that we are unaware of and that are difficult to overcome, e.g. vulnerability, trust, worthiness.

–       There are various levers that create an intention to develop a behaviour:  What belief leads you to think it will be a positive or negative outcome? Is it a normative behaviour in my milieu? Does my lifestyle support that? Would I have the ability to do it? We have a choice how we respond to these questions.

–       We need character to counter cognitive biases, e.g. in the recruitment/interview process, and systemic biases where justice and accountability are an exploration (for leaders) to understand how it feels to be in systems not designed for you.

–       ‘Boundary spanners’ have had to develop character to navigate a world not built for them; character enables the development of competence once given the opportunity to do so and levels the playing field more.

–       Leadership development should be about education and awareness of what character is so as to be able to assess it and embed it in organisation. This can be scaled from individuals to groups/teams/organisations using the Virtuosity app, which offers resources for running workshops for groups.

–       The app is a great example of how digital can be used to leverage the impact of behavioural science and is intended to help bring about the paradigm shift required, e.g. post-Covid, the transformation in individuals and the multiplier effect from train the trainer, and the importance of psychological safety.

–       The development of character helps people both personally and professionally – personal development benefits an entire organisation and is a holistic approach that takes life as its motivation (self-leadership).

Find out more about Mary’s work here :




Ivey Business School:

For organisations:

For individuals:

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