Return on Character: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: April 17th, 2015 by bobmorris

Return on CharacterReturn on Character: The Real Reason Leaders and Their Companies Win
Fred Kiel
Harvard Business Review Press (2015)

“Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.” Albert Einstein

As I began to read this book, I was again reminded of Einstein’s observation as well as one of my favorite Warren Buffett insights: “Somebody once said that in looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you. You think about it; it’s true. If you hire somebody without [integrity], you really want them to be dumb and lazy.”

It is no coincidence that most of the companies annually ranked among the most highly admired and best to work for are also among the companies annually ranked as most profitable with the greatest cap value in their competitive marketplace. Some of their leaders may lack charisma but none of their leaders lacks the character and integrity to which Einstein and Buffett refer.

Fred Kiel wrote this book because he saw a need to offer “concrete reasons for rethinking our ideas about effective leadership and to map out the direct connection between strong character, principled behavior, and sustainable business results.” He would be among the first to agree that leadership without character has a very short duration. Character-driven leadership – at all levels and in all areas, especially in the so-called C-suite – is essential to the “sustainable business results” to which Kiel refers.

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of his coverage:

o ROC Is for Leaders — At Any Level (Pages 8-9)
o Coming to Terms with Character (15-18)
o Profiling the CEO Character, and, Plotting the Character Curve (18-20)
o Connecting the Links in the ROC Value Chain (28-32)
o Updating to Leadership 2.0 (37-40)
o Exploring the Software at the Heart of Human Nature (42-46)
o Telling a Coherent Life Story (54-58)
o The Keystone Character Traits (63-66)
o The Worldview from the Vantage Point of Success (69-73)
o Decision Making and Character-Driven Leadership (84-92)
o Establishing Strategic Focus, and, Enforcing a Culture of Accountability (92-95)
o Leading the Way Toward Maximum ROC (99-102)
o Leading the Executive Team
o Building Workforce Engagement (118-122)
o Building on the Bedrock of Character (124-125)
o The Return on Character for Employees (135-141)
o Becoming a Virtuoso Leader: A Six-Step Process (157-189)
o Creating an Executive Team with as Shared Sense of Vision and Strategy (195-198)
o Looking for World-Class Leaders (212-215)

I agree with Kiel that almost anyone can become a Virtuoso leader by completing the process explained in Chapter 7. Long ago, I realized that all character-driven leaders have a “green thumb” for “growing” associates entrusted to their care. That is the key to establishing and then nourishing a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. Those who aspire to become a Virtuoso leader should be able to rely on the support and encouragement of a character-driven supervisor while completing the aforementioned process. If there is none, they should seriously consider joining another organization.

Fred Kiel is to be commended on the abundance of information, insights, counsel, and personal experiences that he shares in this book. He makes brilliant use of several reader-friendly devices, notably an “ROC Takeaways” section at the conclusion of each chapter. This is an especially effective way to review key points and will also facilitate, indeed expedite frequent review of relevant material later.

Hopefully, many of those who read this brief commentary will read and then re-read the book. Not everyone who does so will become – or even aspire to become- a C-level executive but all of them will, I hope, make and sustain a heartfelt commitment to character-driven leadership, both at work and everywhere else available to them. Meanwhile, I ask them to keep in mind this observation by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

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