Bringing Sustainable Happiness to Life
New Pedagogies Develop Leader Character

By Catherine O'Brien • March 7, 2016

Transformation of education requires transformation of ourselves and at the root of this transformation is leader character. Mary Crossan, Distinguished University Professor, Western University

Last summer, my sister, Dr. Mary Crossan, and I had a long, lingering conversation about the intersection between her research on leader character and mine in sustainable happiness. We were both on vacation and enjoyed the opportunity to catch up on each other’s work. It was a pivotal moment in our discussion when Mary asked me what kind of person is likely to choose sustainable happiness. Given the various options and pressures that individuals have on a day-to-day basis, what motivates one person to engage in sustainable behaviour and another person, who may be fully aware of environmental consequences, does not? She pressed further with questions about what kind of person will care deeply enough about other people or even future generations in order to embrace sustainable happiness in a meaningful way. She explained that in her view, who that person is – the choices that they make – will ultimately be influenced by their character.

Mary referred to the significance of character development as ‘bedrock,’ meaning that it is a fundamental to our well-being. It is entirely possible that many teachers would agree. A Canadian study that reviewed recommendations for 21st century competencies noted that when teachers were asked about their views on the weight that ought to be placed on character development in the classroom, “the results, which are consistent across provinces, indicate that teachers attribute more importance to character development than they feel the curriculum does” (Action Canada, 2013, p. 11).

If character is a major influence on the choices that we make, it stands to reason that it is relevant for our students and also relevant for educators.

At this point I should mention that when Mary and I were chatting about character I was already familiar with character education and the classification of character strengths and virtues that have been developed by Peterson and Seligman (2004). I had not yet articulated for myself why that view of character hadn’t resonated with me as a strong connection with sustainable happiness. However, over the course of many more conversations with Mary, I began to understand how leader character is essential to individual and organizational transformation – and how leader character differs from the positive psychology perspective on character. I also had the opportunity to participate in a workshop on leader character that Mary facilitated with a group of managers. During the session one participant leaned toward me and said, “This is remarkable! I could see this work being applied to every field! Imagine if this was taught in school!”

Leader character and change

Character is developed over a lifetime. It is a journey, rather than a destination. Every situation presents a different experience and opportunity to exercise, apply and develop character. (Crossan, Seijts, & Gandz, 2016, p. 30)

Reading through the character education and positive psychology literature the following questions arose for me:

1) It is highly likely that helping students to identify and develop character strengths will contribute to a stronger awareness of their strengths and potentially enhance their well-being. Will the development of character automatically lead to healthier and more sustainable choices?
2) We are immersed in a consumer culture with daily pressures or incentives to engage in behaviour that is not in the best interest of our well-being nor a model of sustainability. (E.g. eating fast foods; purchasing products regardless of their origin, packaging, or the fair labour practices associated with their production; driving for convenience when many of our trips are within walking distance). How does the Peterson and Seligman (2004) character classification assist individuals to navigate this kind of socialization or situational pressures?
3) How does the character of teachers, administrators, and education policy makers impact the transformation of education? For instance, how does it impact our openness to implement new pedagogies or to be leaders of educational change?
4) What kind of character development will assist students to be leaders of change – for themselves personally, and of education?

As I pondered these questions, I contacted Mary once again to deepen my understanding of the work that she and her colleagues are doing at the Ivey Business School (Western University). I learned that while their previous research incorporated the Peterson and Seligman (2004) character classification, their latest work is a very important departure. Their team used an engaged scholarship (Van de Ven & Johnson, 2006) approach to investigate how various leaders view the character strengths classification, and indeed, if the strengths are relevant to the real-world challenges of the organizations they lead. The impetus for this research came from the economic crisis that unfolded over the last half of the previous decade. The researchers wondered, what was the role of business schools in averting the innumerable catastrophes that reverberated throughout the world. They began to frame their answer to this around leadership. The Ivey research team developed a discussion paper and set up focus groups with business leaders from various kinds of organizations – small, large, public, and private – in Canada, New York, Hong Kong, and London to garner feedback on the paper. A theme that emerged from these discussions was the role of leader character and the publication of Leadership on Trial (Gandz, Crossan, Seijts, & Stephenson, 2010). This theme was reinforced for the team when Domenic Barton, head of McKinsey’s global consulting practice, formulated the importance of character during his commencement address at Ivey. “When we think about leadership,” Barton told the graduating class, “we focus too much on what leaders do . . . and we don’t spend enough time on who leaders are—the character of leaders” (Seijts, Gandz, Crossan, & Reno, 2015, p. 65).

Let’s think about this statement in the context of schools. Could we say the same about our classrooms? That we focus too much on what students do, with insufficient attention to developing who they are? For example, if we consider the many benefits of real-world, project-based learning, we can see that this affords students the opportunity to experience themselves as leaders and to grow from the experience of interacting with the ‘messiness’ of contexts that are not carefully controlled with pre-determined answers.
Might we also learn from the Ivey team’s quest to understand the role of business schools in averting economic calamity? The education sector and teacher training institutions could likewise take a hard look at our role in preventing human suffering and environmental degradation, as well as contributing to greater health and well-being.

To continue the Ivey story, the team obtained a major research grant to pursue the study of leader character. Drawing upon research literature and insights from practitioners (leaders) they shifted away from the Peterson and Seligman (2004) classification and established a model for leader character that is based on 11 dimensions. Each of the circles in their model (below) is referred to as a ‘dimension’ and within each dimension you see words that describe ‘elements’ of those dimensions.

Source: Seijts, Gandz, Crossan, & Reno (2013)

Source: Seijts, Gandz, Crossan, & Reno (2013)

This is a dynamic model that views character as a collection of virtues, values and traits. It is important to note that the values and traits are not just a random cluster but rather include only the ones that are defined as virtuous. Another extremely important differentiating factor is that good leadership relies on all of the dimensions. It is not sufficient, for example, for a leader to draw upon his or her top five dimensions (akin to working with one’s top five signature strengths) and depend on others to complement him/her with their “strengths.” Likewise, the dimensions work in concert. They are interdependent. For example, imagine someone who has exceptional Drive. You very likely know someone who does! If that person lacks Integrity, Justice, or Humanity it is possible that an “ends justifies the means” attitude could prevail. Thus, each dimension is important. Also, finding the right balance amongst all of the dimensions is essential. Building on the example of someone who has exceptional Drive, such a person would not necessarily lower that drive to be balanced, but rather increase his or her development of Temperance. In other words, preventing excess in one of the Dimensions involves having strength in the others.

You will also notice the central location of Judgment. At the beginning of this blog I shared the questions that Mary had posed to me about what kind of person would choose sustainable happiness. Looking at the leader character model, we find some answers. The character dimensions come into effect as an individual responds to each choice that they make on a daily and moment-to-moment basis. Will I recycle my coffee cup, or not? Will I make a healthy meal or reach for the processed food? Will I plant a vegetable garden? The quote below from the Ivey team’s book, Developing Leadership Character (Crossan, Seijts, & Gandz, 2016) outlines the particular significance of Judgment.

A word more on that central dimension: judgment. Each of the other dimensions of character represents reservoirs of varying depth – in other words, people may have lots of courage or a little, or great integrity or not so much. How an individual’s character influences their actual behavior in a particular context depends on their judgment. It serves to moderate and mediate the way that the other dimensions determine individuals’ behaviors in different situations. In effect, it acts as a sort of air traffic controller, determining when courage should be shown and when it is better suppressed; when collaboration is appropriate and when a leader should go it alone; when it’s appropriate to demonstrate humility and when to demonstrate great confidence; when to be temperate and when to be bold; and so on. Conversely, judgment without the other dimensions moderating it is inherently superficial. (Seijts, Crossan, & Gandz, 2016, p. 10)

You can read more about leader character and education in my forthcoming book, Education for Sustainable Happiness and Well-Being. However, today I would like to share some of my current thinking about the relationship between leader character and new pedagogies. Over the past year, I have been inspired by reading books, articles, and blogs by innovative educators. I believe that teachers who are using new pedagogies such as Genius Hour, flipped learning, innovation classes, inquiry-based learning, real-world project-based learning and so forth are actually developing leader character, even though this term has not yet been used by them. Quotes from various innovators below give us a glimpse of this story and its relationship to change.

The biggest game changers in education are, and always will be, the educators who embrace the innovator’s mindset. These teachers and educational leaders look at change as an opportunity, not an obstacle, and they constantly ask: “What is best for this learner?” With this mindset, they provide new and better learning experiences for our students every single day. (Couros, 2015, pp. 227-28)@gcouros

The students who are taking your courses need to know how to think for themselves. They need to know how to discover their passions, work with others, behave like professionals, and use social media effectively and appropriately. Even without a course description titled Innovation Class, you can impart those skills and help your students build character traits that will serve them well. (Wettrick, 2014, p. 148)@DonWettrick

Another innovative Genius Hour teacher, Sheri Edwards, says that she asks her students to create, contribute, communicate, consider, cooperate, collaborate and curate successfully. What could be more important for success in this century? (Krebs & Zvi, 2016, pp 27-28)@mrsdkrebs @gallit_z

I enjoyed Genius Hour. I think it taught us that we as seventh and eighth graders can change the world with our genius. (Krebs & Zvi, 2016, p. 84)@mrsdkrebs @gallit_z

Inquiry-based learning (especially at the high school level) is about providing time for students to grow as learners, individuals, and creators. They may not be a straight “A” student, but their inquiry project will blow you away. (Juliani, 2015, p. 63)@ajjuliani

In the coming weeks I will be writing more about leader character and new pedagogies. Please send me examples of how you see new pedagogies developing leader character:

The first part of this blog is an excerpt from my book: Education for Sustainable Happiness and Well-Being. It is available for pre-order through Routledge.

Action Canada. (2013). Future tense. Adapting Canadian education systems for the 21st century.
Couros, G. (2015). The innovator’s mindset: Empower learning, unleash talent, and lead a culture of creativity. San Diego: Dave Burgess Consulting.
Crossan, M., Seijts, G. H., & Gandz, J. (2016). Developing leadership character. New York: Routledge.
Gandz, J., Crossan, M., Seijts, G.H., & Stephenson, C. (2010). Leadership on trial: A manifesto for leadership development. London, ON: Ivey Business School.
Juliani, A. (2015). Inquiry and innovation in the classroom: Using 20% time, genius hour, and PBL to drive student success. New York: Routledge.
Krebs, D., & Zvi, G. (2016). The genius hour guidebook: Fostering passion, wonder, and inquiry in the classroom. New York: Routledge.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press.
Seijts, G.H., Gandz, J., Crossan, M., & Reno, M. (2013). The dimension and elements of character. Leadership Character Insight Assessment (LCIA).
Seijts, G.H., Gandz, J., Crossan, M., & Reno, M. (2015). Character matters: Character dimensions’ impact on leader performance and outcomes. Organizational Dynamics, 44, 65-74.
Van de Ven, A., & Johnson, P. (2006). Knowledge for theory and practice, Academy of Management Review, 31(4), pp 802-821.
Wettrick, D. (2014). Pure genius: Building a culture of innovation and taking 20% time to the next level. San Diego: Dave Burgess Consulting.

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