05 December 2023
Good character is a key trait of good leaders, but one that is difficult to quantify. Yet even more than clear competence, the outward signs of a firm mental, emotional and ethical rudder lend authority to decision making. It is character that counts in effective leadership, particularly in times of crisis.
And character is what Dr. Edward Brooks wants to see more of—in leadership generally and in business leadership in particular. The development of character in students and professionals has become a focus of his research. He is now Executive Director of the Oxford Character Project and Director of the Programme for Global Leadership at the University of Oxford. In addition, he is co-founder of the Oxford SDG Impact Lab, the Global Leadership Challenge, and the Oxford Global Leadership Initiative.
We spoke with Dr. Brooks recently about his work, about the return of the appreciation of character and virtue, and the expanding need for it in the leadership of our fast-changing world.
Why “character”? Why does Oxford University invest in this research?
I came to the study of character through an interest in the personal dimension of leadership and in hope. What enables leaders to focus on the future and take others with them, even in really difficult situations? My PhD had addressed that theme of hope—how we might think about developing and strengthening hope in different contexts today.
Around the same time, in 2013, there was a broader conversation happening in Oxford around character and leadership. I suppose this was partly the outfall from the financial crash and concerns about a leadership crisis. What is the university doing to help students who aspire to serve as leaders in society? How are we supporting them to grow as leaders who can advance positive change in different ways through their careers? If there’s a leadership crisis, what’s our education doing to support good leadership?
Oxford has a commitment to a certain kind of personal education which historically focuses on intellectual and personal growth as well as knowledge and skills. The development of character was essential to what universities around the world have been about through the centuries.
So that’s how our project started. We knew we needed to understand what is meant by “character” and “character development,” exploring philosophy and psychology as well as different cultural traditions over time.
And we knew we needed to do some work in education, thinking about how character is developed: Can it be cultivated when students are in their 20s? What approaches are suitable for adults and for diverse institutional contexts like ours?
We put some thought into these questions, drew together the state of the research and devised some practical strategies for character development. We then used these as a basis for programs focusing on leadership. These are all about helping students to consider who they want to be, how they want to lead and the contribution they hope to make through their career. There’s been no shortage of interest—students have been very keen to participate from the outset.
That’s how things came together. It’s been a privilege to be involved in it.
How did that research expand into the business community?
Through developing our educational programs, we recognized that there are a much bigger set of questions about character and leadership beyond universities. We’re now focused on three areas of research involving character and leadership: higher education; the professions, with a major project in UK business; and global perspectives of character and leadership development through working with partners.
We’ve been working with 51 different companies in the UK with a particular focus on tech, law and financial services. A major piece of work is our UK Business Values Survey, which is a content analysis of values and purpose statements for 220 companies in the UK. It tries to understand not just what values are stated, but why they are important as well. The words on the page can mean quite different things to different people, so how are these being interpreted? And how are companies talking about how they’re seeking to embody these values and embed them across the business? This was the first significant survey of its kind in the UK for several years.
We also surveyed over 1,100 employees in 36 firms using a method known as “prototype analysis” in order to identify the features of good leadership that professionals consider most central—that is, how good leadership is understood by people in different sectors. This on-the-ground understanding is really important since it shapes the interpretation of what leaders do, the expectations people have and the performance of leadership roles.
The Good Leadership in UK Business report came out in September 2023 and highlights that character is central to the way leadership is understood within the business community. Out of 84 features, 52% relate to character, 35% to interpersonal skills and 13% to professional competence.
The development of character is at the heart of a flourishing life and essential for good leadership across contexts.
Is this focus on character an enduring model of leadership, based on what you’ve seen through your research?
Absolutely! On its website, the Harvard Business School states that its mission is to “educate leaders who make a difference in the world.” It continues: “When we talk about leaders, we mean people who embody a certain type of competence and character.” The fact that competence is more easily defined, observed and measured means that it is often emphasized above character, which involves deeper aspects of emotion and motivation as well as patterns of thought and action. However, the development of character is at the heart of a flourishing life and essential for good leadership across contexts.
Competence is non-negotiable, but aspects of character—virtues such as courage, resilience, kindness, humility, hope and judgment—are what drive performance and success over the long term. This is especially true at a time when there is so much uncertainty in the world and leaders are under pressure to deliver results on multiple fronts as well as taking care of their teams.
Companies and business schools who are thinking about leadership development are starting to emphasize different aspects of character in their programs but there is more they can do. Our experience has been that employees at all levels welcome the opportunity to consider their own personal growth as an aspect of the leadership development process.
Have there been any dissenters or contrarians you have encountered during your research?
Yes, there are some different critiques. One is: “All this talk about character is out of date and very conservative and individualistic. It threatens to place a lot of increased burden on individuals.” Now, I’m sure that can be the case. Does that mean it necessarily is? No, I don’t think so at all. And certainly the way in which we’re understanding character here doesn’t rely on certain conservative discourses. It stems from a renaissance of virtue ethics in a number of global traditions and the potential of going beyond regulation and compliance to think about supporting and liberating personal agency so that people can do and be their best.
There’s also the critique that says we should be focusing on culture rather than character: “To talk about personal character is neither here nor there because there are studies that suggest that the situation is really what matters.” The research on this is out there, and it does emphasize the power of situational pressures, incentives and group effects. We can all be overwhelmed by the norms and practices of situations and organizations that we’re placed in. But does that mean that character plays no part in how people respond in challenging circumstances? Not at all. And there’s good research that pushes back, highlighting the importance of both culture and character.
Competence is non-negotiable, but aspects of character—virtues such as courage, resilience, kindness, humility, hope and judgment—are what drive performance and success over the long term.
Were there any surprises you found in your research?
When it comes to features of leadership that are coming to the fore, I was surprised to see just how prominent character is. In the context of our UK Business Values Survey, “passion,” “empathy” and “courage” have come to the fore as new emphases. Perhaps this indicates a greater importance of emotional connection in business.
Some emphases are unsurprising, such as a focus on “collaboration” and “integrity.” But here what is important is not the terms themselves but what they mean in organizations and the commitment to embed these values in practice. On the other hand, some values and aspects of leadership that aren’t prominent in our surveys are actually very important, for individuals and organizations: “kindness”, “humility,” “curiosity,” “hope.” There’s some good research in psychology around the importance and the potential of these virtues to support individuals to flourish, and to contribute to organizational culture and performance. For example, “humility” is there in a lot of leadership research as something deeply important.
The traction we’ve been getting for this discussion, all told, is the biggest surprise, I think. I wasn’t sure we would find corporates engaged on this agenda but I’ve been really encouraged by the response.
Have you thought about what this conversation might look like across different markets? Do you anticipate different traits coming up top?
We recently did a survey of company values in low- and middle-income countries as part of our report on Character and Global Leadership. In terms of corporates, there is a difference. “Responsibility” comes at the top, and “excellence” is high up. “Sustainability” is much higher in lower- and middle-income countries. There’s also a strong commitment to country that is not evident in the UK and US. “Global vision” is also emphasized in lower- and middle-income countries—perhaps we’d expect that.
More generally when it comes to character-based leadership, there’s a lot of academic work going on around the world—in East Asia, some in Africa—which is fascinating.
Which leaders, past or present, have inspired your research on character?
I always find that’s a hard question because I spend lots of time trying to explore different exemplars and role models. Having said that, I have come across some key people as I’ve gone along this journey. Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela embodied the hope that triggered my interest when I was living in South Africa. Tutu’s famous quote gets to the heart of it: “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”
More recently, Jacinda Ardern, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, came to the fore during the pandemic as a great leader. Why? Well, it was this quality of empathy that she had, which I think is wonderfully admirable. And Angela Merkel—again, how was she able to communicate? More than a personable empathy, she had an intellectual humility which enabled her to be confident in saying what her understanding was of the best ideas available at the time.
I am also particularly interested in leaders in sport and how lessons from sporting performance can be translated into business and other contexts. I’ve been reading several books by Mike Brearley, the former England cricket captain who was once an academic philosopher and later became a psychotherapist. His book The Art of Captaincy offers incredible insight into the complexity of leadership, the importance of self-awareness and good judgment, and the different personal and professional pressures the leaders often need to manage.