How MBA schools are trying to teach character, not just skills

Professor Mary Crossan at the Ivey Business School is helping students hone who they are, not just what they know


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Ivey professor Mary Crossan

Professor Mary Crossan of Ivey Business School. (Ivey)

Mary Crossan’s MBA students can analyze business environments in Indonesia and Milwaukee, break down Coke’s brand identity versus Pepsi’s and list three reasons why Uber should pull out of Mexico. But most still aren’t prepared for the assignment Crossan throws at them in the leadership course she teaches at Ivey Business School.

Crossan asks her students to close their eyes, clear their minds, and imagine that they’re dying. As they think about their last few days on Earth, and eventually their final moments, she urges the class to consider how they want to live them. Are there conversations they need to have with colleagues or family? Behaviours they want to drop? What’s giving their life a sense of purpose? “It can be challenging for some people,” Crossan says of the 20-minute guided visualization, “but it can also be very liberating and clarifying. It helps you figure out what’s important, and that can help ground you when you face challenging situations later on.”

Imagining the day of their own demise isn’t one of the highly marketable business competencies most grads will eventually list on their C.V.s, but the exercise offers essential insights to future leaders, says Crossan, who’s one of a growing number of MBA instructors interested in teaching leadership character alongside hard skills like accounting and operations management. Who executives are—how they make decisions, what motivates them, how they respond to stress—can be just as important as what they know how to do. Crossan points to Volkswagen’s recent admission that it rigged diesel-engine emissions tests as an example: That ethical lapse wasn’t caused by business incompetency, but rather by key managers’ poor judgment. “We’ve kind of hit a wall on this stuff,” she says. “People are realizing that we need to start investing in character.”

Until recently, however, many educators and leadership coaches believed character couldn’t be taught, or even truly defined. But Crossan and her colleagues are working to change that by making character an essential component of Ivey’s MBA education–and by developing a personal assessment tool that students and businesses can use to evaluate individual strengths and weaknesses.

Blame the 2007/08 financial crisis for sparking academic interest in character: After watching so many companies melt down, researchers around the world started thinking about why some survived while others imploded. Crossan and two colleagues–Gerard Seijts, director of Ivey’s Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership, and professor emeritus Jeffrey Gandz–conducted more than 2,000 interviews, including about 300 with C-suite executives and board directors, and discovered some common elements to the senior leadership at companies that had thrived during the crisis.

Their recently released Leadership Character Insight Assessment Tool identifies the 11 character dimensions they found to be key to strong, effective leadership: judgment, courage, drive, collaboration, integrity, temperance, accountability, justice, humility, humanity and transcendence. Several of the dimensions—notably, humility, temperance and humanity—may seem surprising to those who buy into the stereotype of the hard-driving, alpha-dog CEO, but research suggests these qualities are essential to strong, sustainable decision-making, Seijts says. “Think about the high level of drive in Wall Street financiers,” he says. “That may seem like a good thing, but if there’s too much of it, if it’s not combined with a dimension like temperance, drive can result in reckless behaviour.” (A separate study, conducted by Rick Hackett, a researcher at DeGroote School of Business, and Gordon Wang, a professor at George Brown College, came to similar conclusions.)

But teaching character isn’t easy–Seijts recently organized a conference in Toronto to help educators and businesses discuss how to introduce character-based elements into classroom curriculum and workplace culture and practice. Seijts and his Ivey colleagues described inviting Steinthor Palsson, CEO of a failed Icelandic bank, and Andy Fastow, former CFO of Wall Street flame-out Enron, to talk to students about leadership mistakes they made. And to help “stress-test” their own qualities as a leader, Ivey MBAs can opt for a three-day basic officer training course taught by veteran Canadian officers. Participants undergo mental duress, fatigue and sleep deprivation, the conference was assured. But they come back with a stronger sense of their strengths and weaknesses.

Others can opt to try hot yoga with Crossan—another way she aims to help students develop their character. (Students who get angry and stressed by the heat and discomfort, for instance, can work on temperance as they explore ways to express their irritation.) “Expressing your values and ethics isn’t enough,” Crossan says. “You have to invest in actually developing strength of character. It’s like a muscle. You can check out what your tricep feels like, but if you don’t keep working it, it’ll atrophy.”

Most people intuitively understand the importance of character in leadership, but there’s also a business case: A new study by leadership consultancy KRW International shows that CEOs who received high marks for character from their employees had an average return on assets of 9.35%–nearly five times as much as what those with low character ratings had.

“It doesn’t take people long to see that it pays to develop character,” says Seijts. “And now we’re finally starting to be able to talk about that in an intelligent way.”


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One comment on “How MBA schools are trying to teach character, not just skills

  1. Good Day to You,

    Imagining that we’re dying, is a pretty drastic method to get to a point of considering how we make a difference in the world around us. Even more so, when we try to examine our character.

    I hope the new training method includes learning how to be kind and considerate to others, especially when stress is at a high level. That alone would make such a difference.

    Looking for shortcuts and sweeping something “under the rug”, in hopes that it will be overlooked dates back to the beginning of “being human”.

    We all have known someone who was raised by responsible and loving parents, who did their best to instill the qualities mentioned here. Somehow they seem to lose their way and do something self-destructive or otherwise exercise poor judgment.

    Some professional licensing requirements involve taking an ethics course. The licensee is even required to continue ethics training, as part of the continuing education requirements to renew a license. This is true in the U.S. and locally in my home state of Maine.

    The Ivey MBAs taking a three-day basic officer training course sounds pretty drastic. Undergoing “mental duress, fatigue and sleep deprivation” is bound to bring out a person’s strengths and weaknesses. It sounds a lot like military boot camp in ways.

    Boot camp or perhaps a special gym, when we consider the extreme measures of a “hot yoga”.

    I like the idea of working on our “strength of character” being like having to keep up with our physical exercises to stay in good health. This takes simply “being mindful” to a new level.

    I consider myself to be of reasonably good character. Trying to identify what situations could possibly compromise my judgment in character, is a challenging prospect indeed.

    I am a retired customer service representative with my local state government.

    Having had a number of different bosses through my 30 years of state employment, it doesn’t surprise me at all when a leader who does not get good marks for “character” is less able to be an effective leader.

    I once had a boss who was not supportive and cared more about “their own job description” than giving a helping hand in a tough situation.

    That agency also has a very high employee turn around. That turn around included myself. I ended up taking a cut in pay to go back to my old position, and never again tried to advance in state government. If this sounds like it left me a bit “bitter”, you’re correct.

    The character of our leaders can have a great effect on us, to become better workers or give up caring. I agree, this is a huge problem for business.

    Now I’m working on my retirement project with “Helper” as the last word in the title of my blog.

    Even if my venture is never successful from a financial standpoint, I feel good about establishing a niche of value, knowing my efforts may help to empower someone.

    I’ve seen a lot of hype in regards to social media, and tools to make using them “more efficient”.

    My eyes are slow, and so am I. I don’t care.

    I would rather progress at the “speed of my eyes”, than rely on some “tool”, just to be more efficient. This may not be the “norm”, but it speaks to the character described in this article.

    The kind of character that makes a difference in our daily lives, let alone in business.

    Happy Holidays!

    My Best to You