Character Counts

HKS Magazine | Winter 2016 Character Counts
Research

Character Counts

Photo by Kent Dayton

After a distinguished 30-year career in the U.S. Air Force, retired Brigadier General Dana Born joined the Kennedy School, where she teaches courses on leadership development and is affiliated with the Center for Public Leadership. Born, with leadership scholars William Hendrix and Scott Hopkins, recently published a paper looking at the benefits of transformational leadership and character for organizations.

Can you say a little bit about transformational leadership and how it’s different from other types of leadership?

Transformational leadership is more about changing or transforming individuals or organizations by inspiring them to greater levels of achievement. It is an intellectually and emotionally stimulating type of leadership. The distinctive contribution of our current work is to look at the qualities of character and at how crucial they are in complementing leadership to achieve positive organizational outcomes.

Did you find this type of leadership to be more effective?

Our studies validate that character is critically important in leadership development and may result in longer-term benefits than other attributes associated with leadership—competence for example. Individuals perceived as low in character were seen as fostering environments where others either make or accept unethical decisions that can negatively influence job performance. An individual’s leadership and character are critical to an organization financially, but perhaps even more important, they are absolutely crucial to its long-term health, esprit de corps, and reputation.

Are transformational leadership and character becoming part of the school’s leadership curriculum?

We’re in conversations with our colleagues who teach ethics to better understand the implications of our ethics and leadership teaching. Our focus on teaching leadership and character is not about attaining leadership positions. Our focus is challenging our students to reach an even higher level where leaders are driven by a moral compass. The people who come to the Kennedy School want to make a difference in the world, and it’s our mission to educate, train, and inspire them to do so… to imagine what we can do together.

Are there other factors that have been shown to be related to organizational effectiveness?

Yes, we are presently investigating whether job enrichment influences organizational effectiveness more than character and leadership. Our preliminary results indicate that it not only adds to the prediction of organizational effectiveness, but in some cases it is more powerful than leadership or character. This suggests that there are three major pillars of organizational effectiveness: job enrichment, transformational leadership, and character of the leader.

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