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More Than Ever, Character Counts in Life
The long-term health of an organization depends on the character of the people who lead and work in the organization.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Story By Robert "Doc" Foglesong

There's good news and bad news. First, the good news -- there are organizations and institutions, both public and private, that will not accept any trace of a compromise of public trust. In fact, in my personal and professional experience, I have found that when it comes to ensuring the character of most organizations, leadership usually will err on the side of honor versus any perception of working on the dark side of integrity.

Corporate boards routinely have to balance social responsibility, meaning doing what's best for the public, with corporate responsibility, read the profits.

Public institutions -- where I have a lifetime of experience -- will face moments when bad judgments will require hard changes and a transparent public discussion of mistakes. Experience leads most public organizations to disclose bad news as soon as is practical. It's less painful to announce mistakes and what the fix is than to have someone else discover mistakes and spread the wrong information about the problem and the solution. Most public and corporate organizations get it. That's the good news.

Now for the bad news -- some public and corporate organizations don't get it. There will be other news stories about bad behavior in organizations that will impact the public's trust and confidence in those organizations. I almost think it's a sign of arrogance in this day and age to think that organizations can perform acts or condone actions that are not honorable and get by with it.

We are an incredibly open society. Even in the mostly secret society that I worked in for decades, it was naive to think that bad judgment would not eventually surface. That's because most people want to be proud of the organization where they work. When they see something wrong that is not explained and corrected, it aggravates them. In due course, the character of good people will work to modify bad behavior of organizations. When the correction mechanism is the work force rather than the leadership of an organization, expect a bad headline and a public outcry for explanation. Say goodbye to public trust when this happens.

The long-term health of an organization depends on the character of the people who lead and work in the organization. Most importantly, the character of the organization will be directly reflected by the character of the leadership. If the leadership has the integrity to admit when it's right or when it's wrong, the rest of the organization will imprint with the same sense of responsibility to be truthful without fear of retribution. It's that simple.

If the leadership of an organization fails the integrity test, the rest of the organization will struggle with confidence in the leadership and public confidence in the organization will eventually erode. It's really a matter of courage. The courage of the leadership to do the right thing will define the character of an organization.

Whether corporate or public, the courage of leadership to accept responsibility for an organization's actions will determine the organization's members' -- and the public's -- confidence in the organization. It's the ultimate test of service before self -- when leadership holds itself accountable even at the expense of personal reputation.

So what does this all mean? It means that character -- individual and organizational -- really counts. While it's a professional necessity for responsible leadership, having technical skills in any chosen field simply isn't good enough. The world is full of people who have superb technical skills. But responsible leadership requires more. Responsible leadership requires a deep, sincere dose of integrity, a service-before-self commitment to the organization and, just as importantly, the courage to pull the trigger on both integrity and that service-before-self commitment. My experience in both public institutions and in corporate boardrooms has shown that character counts as much or more than job-related skills when it comes to leading.

A final thought, please. I also think it's the responsibility of any honorable society to present to the next generation of public and corporate leadership -- meaning our sons and daughters -- a template for character. For our next "greatest generation" of leaders to believe and understand the importance of character, those in leadership positions today have to put aside influences that can lead to even the perception of less than pristine character.
It's up to us to define for the next "greatest generation" what it means to value one's integrity, to embrace the notion that it's honorable to place something in our lives before ourselves and the importance of having the courage to make decisions that are noble, even if the decisions are at odds with our own personal ambitions. That's the challenge for all of us over age 30: to remember to bring our courage during trying times to make tough decisions. Because, at the end of the day, character really does count.

A native of Mingo County, retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Robert H. "Doc" Foglesong formerly served as president of Mississippi State University. He has a Ph.D. from West Virginia University. He is founder and executive director of the Appalachian Leadership and Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports the next generation of leaders in Appalachia.

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