Gerard Seijts is a professor of organizational behaviour at the Ivey Business School and director of the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership
Whether we teach finance, literature or engineering, educators have the obligation to help students become citizens of good character. This is not a revolutionary or even modern idea, for thinkers as far back as Aristotle espoused the value of character development. In more recent times, Winston Churchill, after witnessing the horrific and inhumane deployment of science and technology during the Second World War, emphatically declared, “The first duty of a university is to teach wisdom, not a trade; character, not technicalities.” As we become more deeply immersed in our age of sweeping disruption, we need to ask: How we can change the way we educate individuals today to prepare them to make a positive difference to society tomorrow?
Good leadership – the capacity to bring the best of ourselves to support and enable others – depends on competence, commitment and character. However, much of what we do in postsecondary education focuses on developing competence by imparting knowledge to equip students to perform effectively in their future professions.
Character is not something one simply acquires by reading or talking about it, but, as with competencies such as communication and negotiation, character can be developed.
Within many courses, opportunities for character development hang in the background. Bringing these opportunities to the forefront allows students to reflect on how their personal values, beliefs and attitudes affect the way they behave in various contexts. It also helps them determine how and to what end they will deploy the competencies they have acquired.
The examples of opportunities for character development within the classroom are almost endless. Using the case method helps students think through complex and complicated situations and promotes character strengths such as bravery, curiosity and open-mindedness. Role-playing and simulations can take students beyond critical thinking to engage their personal values and prepare them to implement ethical decisions. Service-learning opportunities, where students interact with different community outreach programs, can develop character strengths such as compassion, gratitude and hope. Journaling or reflection can help students to develop skills in self-awareness and judgment as well as help connect abstract concepts to real-life examples. One could examine the strength of character it takes to be successful in scientific discovery. Or use novels, plays, or other literature to enhance reflection.
But these opportunities are all noise if we do not live the lessons we seek to impart. This requires educators to reflect and determine what values, beliefs or attitudes they hold that may be biasing their approach to leadership development.
Educators naturally serve as professional role models and, therefore, act as character models as well. So, if we wish to develop leaders with integrity, we must act with integrity ourselves. When we do not enact the requisite character strengths, we reinforce experiences that contribute to deficiencies in character in ourselves and our students.
Further, as educational institutions, we teach character by providing an environment that models and fosters virtuous behaviours. Organizational strategies and processes, for example, help shape the extent to which we develop character in our students. Among the first signals in what gets valued are our recruitment materials, which may emphasize starting salaries over humility, the ability to collaborate, and our sense of justice. We also impart what we value through our admissions policies, the criteria for allocating student awards, or how we deal with ethical transgressions. In fact, the very design of a curriculum itself indicates what is valued.
The ideas presented here are more than a possibility; they exist, for example, in undergraduate and MBA courses at the Ivey Business School, where many of the recommendations are integrated into the curriculum with the explicit goal of introducing self-reflection and a focus on virtues, values and character strengths.
The development of character is a personal journey, and each individual engages with the learning process in a different way. Change is evolutionary and may best occur when educators are drawn to the potential that exists to develop character within themselves and their students. For, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” In light of the multitude of recent crises and the subsequent call for schools to reconsider not only their course content but also the character of the students they graduate, the time is ripe to engage, now, in a deeper conversation about the role of character development as the responsibility of the broader educational community.
This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.
Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.