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Exercising Your Leadership Character 

Like the interplay of the body’s anatomy and physiology, there’s a robust framework of 11 interconnected dimensions with associated behaviors that provide the roadmap for character development.

Following a workshop with a professional sports team to help them understand the science of character and how to develop it, the veteran all-star captain of the team was lost in thought. We asked what was on his mind and he said he had never understood that character was something you could develop. He isn’t alone.

Many people don’t understand what character is and certainly don’t understand how to develop it or embed it in an organization—although everyone would agree it’s important. This is the equivalent of thinking about being fit, not knowing how to train for it, and just sitting on the couch watching others. We rely on exercise science to bring clarity to what it takes to understand and develop strong habits of character—the equivalent of “going to the character gym”—with a clear set of steps that mirror the stages of character development. The payoff is a realization that leaders aren’t born but made, and with the science of leader character we now have an intelligent and intentional pathway we can follow.

Step 1: Discover your character 

The first step is understanding what it is you’re actually exercising. If you do a bicep curl, you know what muscle you’re building and over time understand how to exercise that muscle and integrate it with the development of other muscles. The same is true for character. Like the interplay of the body’s anatomy and physiology, there’s a robust framework of 11 interconnected dimensions with associated behaviors that provide the roadmap for character development.

Just as you can do harm to your body by not understanding what you need to exercise or how you need to exercise, a little knowledge can go a long way when it comes to exploring and developing character. Start by developing an awareness of two aspects of character. The first is that most of us have an incomplete understanding of what character is, and worse yet, think we’re all talking about the same thing. In one person’s mind, it’s about ethics and honesty, while another person assumes it’s about determination and tenacity, and still another interprets it as trustworthiness. These are all true, in fact, but only when they’re understood in an integrated way, leading to the second aspect.

The danger of not understanding how dimensions of character are integrated is when what could be considered a character strength actually operates as a vice—if it’s not supported by other character dimensions.

For example, one of the big insights for the professional sports team was how important humility and humanity are to support drive. Contrary to the general prescription that we should celebrate our strengths and complement our weakness through other people, character doesn’t work that way. In part, this is because character strengths don’t just matter in our tasks; they matter in our lives. And they fundamentally influence the quality of our judgment, decision making, and well-being no matter what we do.

Reading about these dimensions and behaviors is a great start, but daily habit development is another matter. You need to get off the couch!

Step 2: Activate your character

Our research has shown how powerful music can be in activating character. Why? It acts as a stimulus to elicit a behavioral response. We see this a lot with athletes who use music to enhance their training or prepare for a competition. And character activation isn’t just limited to music. Other types of stimuli can include movies, books, or even looking to people that you’re surrounded by every day.

Research in exercise science and habit development shows that incremental changes over time have cumulative benefits. This means that if you’ve been sitting on the couch, you can simply go for a walk and start to reap the benefits. Similarly, when it comes to character, spending five minutes a day in an intentional way can transform not only your other waking moments, but over time even influence the quality of your non-waking moments. The development of character fundamentally influences both performance and overall well-being, whether as a professional athlete, student, parent, or leader.

Step 3: Strengthen your character

Just as you can’t get fit by studying how to become fit, character development demands more than learning about it intellectually. It requires exercise to develop. Similar to how investing time at the gym each day reaps a long list of benefits, like better relationships, sleep, etc., so too does getting to the character gym.

We’ve developed an app, Virtuosity, that provides a daily character exercise to help transform the way you operate each a day. For example, an exercise encourages the use of “yes, and” language in conversations. These exercises strengthen character and lead to sustained excellence and well-being over time.

Developing a new habit is surprisingly challenging. Science points to a few things that help, such as tying an existing habit to another habit, called habit stacking. When you have your coffee, tea or smoothie in the morning, that could be a great time to trigger the activation of your character exercise for the day.

Doing the same character exercises in the same way all the time may not lead to sustained development. You need to incrementally increase the challenge. Taking incremental steps will increase what you are capable of, hence increasing the load or challenge of your character exercises. This often means progressively getting a little outside your comfort zone over time. In fact, you know you’re on the right track when your character exercises are making you feel a little uncomfortable!

Step 4: Connect your character 

If you Google or ask ChatGPT how to develop your resilience, you’ll get a long list of strategies that go beyond the development of your resilience muscle, including collaboration, integrity and compassion. What Google or ChatGPT responses offer that align with our research is that character behaviors can’t be developed in isolation, but instead are interconnected and require the support of one another. What Google or ChatGPT may not tell you is that resilience, when not supported by other character behaviors can operate like a vice. For example, people can overcompensate on resilience and wish away or bury the challenges they face.

When focusing on the development of one character behavior, it’s very helpful to have a framework that can guide you to other connected virtues to support you. For example, when trying to become more vulnerable, you may notice you also need to activate bravery. And paying attention to how your character behaviors are interconnected helps prevent your virtuous strengths from becoming excess vices. For example, confidence may transition into arrogance if it isn’t supported by humility.

Step 5: Sustain your character

James Clear identified a key point in habit development: “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” Your character is strongest across different contexts, and under stress these contexts or systems can either undermine or support character development.

The Virtuosity app was designed as a system to support individual and organizational character development. It is a compilation of what we know about character through our research, and how to exercise it on a daily basis. Embedded within this system is a framework developed by The Oxford Character Project and The Program for Leadership and Character at Wake Forest University that describes seven strategies of character development. These include:

1. Language: The character framework of a leader allows you to understand the anatomy and physiology of character and creates a common language within groups.

2. Habituation: Daily character exercises support your targeted character behavior. The Virtuosity system helps you incrementally increase the load and challenge of the exercises to strengthen your character.

3. Reflection: Daily reflection encourages you to explore your efforts and their associated benefits, and to strategically target your next character behavior. Embedded within the Virtuosity system are metrics that help you understand progress and identify the benefits, opportunities and challenges in your character development.

4. Reminders: Daily reminders help you remember to exercise your character. The Virtuosity system is embedded into a mobile app, which makes character accessible at all times, especially through reminder notifications.

5. Exemplars: Stories illustrated in movies, books, music, and more show what strong character looks like and how it’s cultivated. The Virtuosity system encourages the exploration of who these exemplars are and provides a long list of films and music to inspire character development.

6. Friendships: Supportive partnerships and organizational groups that encourage self-awareness, accountability, and learnings through dialogue and insights. The Virtuosity system includes a partner and group feature to encourage learnings through dialogue.

7. Systems: A set of tools encourage external and internal systems that are conducive to character development. The Virtuosity system includes weekly reflection on these systems in addition to providing tools to strengthen these systems.

The system you utilize must work for you. While in any gym you will find different exercise machines and pieces of equipment to use for strengthening muscles, the same goes for character development.

The benefits of developing character are profound for individuals and organizations alike, including an 8-percent increase in well-being, 10-percent increase in resilience and 14-percent increase in leader effectiveness.

As the Nike slogan “Just Do It” might motivate us to get off the couch, there’s much more to be done when it comes to developing and exercising character. The good news is that sound science and proven practices can guide individuals and organizations to build this muscle in a healthy way. This opens up the world of elite leadership to us all.


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