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Does Character matter anymore?

I was surprised by how well the Trump vote held up in the 2020 presidential election in the US. Surely, I thought, his loose relationship with ‘truth’, highly personal attacks on his detractors, and self – serving undermining of democratic institutions would deter moderate voters from supporting him for a second term. I was wrong.

Character it seems was not an issue for most republicans once Trump delivered on low taxes and the wider conservative policy agenda. Even in the wake of the Capital insurrection his approval ratings amongst republican voters remains strong, with widespread belief in unsubstanciated conspiracy theories.

My assumption was that once the impact of Thump’s character defects were exposed that his supporters would desert him. After all, the importance of character is engrained in our educational systems and religions. Also, a consistent message from respected writers on leadership over the years is that a commitment to high moral and ethical standards is a ‘must have’ for those in leadership roles. No where is it written that character doesn’t matter!

But, of course, we can all recall examples of individuals who do not live by espoused organisational values, and who nonetheless have been elevated to senior leadership positions, due to a mix of charisma, complicity of others, and perceived ability to deliver on goals (usually short term but with longer term negative consequences). Perhaps the underlying message from leadership literature is the inevitable longer term consequences of such appointments. None of us are perfect but in every system there needs to be enforcement of minimum acceptable standards of behaviour to which all are held accountable. The political system depends ultimately on the savvy of voters to make this happen.

So there are salutary lessons for all of us from the recent US experience:

  • Living in a bubble affects our judgements and makes us vulnerable to being misled. By this I mean the bubble of a particular ‘tribe’ with a shared set of beliefs, or the bubble of the privileged who are insulated from the suffering of the less fortunate. There is no future stability for any group in ‘them’ and ‘us’ thinking. We will not be fully informed if we only expose ourselves to information sources that confirm what we already believe. Read widely from reliable sources and listen to different perspectives on key issues.
  • Take a long term perspective. If society had taken climate change more seriously we would not be experiencing extreme climate events. Choose leaders who paint a picture of where we need to go for the greater long term good and motivate us to do what needs doing to get there.
  • Be alert to conflicts of interest. We need leaders who act for the common good, are independent minded and not be compromised by having conflicts of interest. At the very least potential conflicts of interest should be disclosed.
  • Fear is a powerful force. We need to be prepared to stand out from the crowd sometimes and call out bad behaviour, even if we are fearful of retribution. Another way that fear is weaponised by unscrupulous leaders is stoking fear of ‘others’, through lies and conspiracy theories.
  • Importance of the law and governance. Those charged with the enforcement of ‘rules’ need to be independent minded (and supported by robust governance frameworks), as they are the last line of defence against those who feel that the rules do not apply to them.

While the above observations are my take on lessons from recent political events in the US and elsewhere, the insights can be applied to any organisational context. All structures are fragile and constant vigilence is required to preserve what we take for granted. Everyone who is part of a system, political or otherwise has to do their bit to defend the ‘mothership’. This represents a test of Character for all involved, not just the leaders.

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