How Adults Succeed: The Hidden Power of Character

Accountability Books Personal leadership


Key Point: I am working through some of the books on Bill Gates’ summer reading list. One of them is How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough. Tough believes “character” has to do with practical values that help people succeed: The ability to work hard toward a goal and stick to it in the face of adversity and setbacks, the ability to rebound after failure, the inclination to do one’s best even in the absence of obvious external rewards, and the ability to delay gratification.

Tough goes on to reinforce the importance of the education system teaching and reinforcing character. I couldn’t agree more. You can have all the technical or academic skills, but if you do not have the character (attributes, characteristics, values) to execute, you will struggle mightily in a results driven environment.

In my two books, The Character Triangle, and The Character Triangle Companion, as well as in my weekly blogs, I too emphasize CHARACTER. Those that follow my writing note that I focus on self-accountability, respect and abundance as the core elements to focus on regarding character development. I do believe while attracting and selecting talent, it is an advantage and even imperative to hire on CHARACTER AND COMPETENCE. However I feel that we must be relentless on continuing to develop BOTH character and competence in employees. Just because a person has historically proven or demonstrated character, does not mean it will continue to develop.

As an example, an individual who has shown self-accountability as a trait, can be shown how the trait can evolve as complex problems emerge. Another example involves the value of respect. When one learns to apply the skill of being able to navigate a very difficult conversation, the trait of RESPECT advances. If one assumes that they already have the value of respect, with no further development required, they will short change themselves.

Character and its traits are on a continuum. It is not just about whether you “have it or not…” It is about where you are on the continuum. My argument is that the formula for how children succeed also applies to adults. It is a never-ending process.

Character Moves:

  1. Do you believe in personal character development? If so, what is your personal character development plan? What tools and skills are you putting in your quiver to progress on the character continuum? For example, what is your anti-blaming formula? Goal setting system? Overcoming resistance framework? Habit forming system? Be able to articulate your continuous character development plan and process. If you can’t, you likely don’t have one.
  2. As a leader, how are you helping others develop their character and technical work competence? If you believe that people who work for you can’t develop their character or rely on the belief they already “have it in their DNA,” you may be disappointed. Being a leader involves caring and showing/ teaching others. It is a never-ending, relentless process for you and others around you.

Hidden power of the Triangle,



How Do You Stereotype Others? Be Honest

Community Respect


Key Point: We all have a lot of work to do addressing stereotyping. I learned an invaluable lesson when I attended a diversity workshop conducted at a Fortune 50 company in the early ‘90’s. It was quite advanced work at that time. The classes were set up to include representation from every possible race, gender, sexual orientation, and religious belief… You name it. A large paper sheet with the heading of each group was posted on the walls of the classroom… For example; Black, Hispanic, Gay, Jew, you get the picture. We were then instructed on those little yellow Post-it Notes, to personally write down positive characteristics of each group from our individual perspective. After taking some time to gather our thoughts, we scattered around the room, putting up our advanced insights on diversity. Being in a “diversity” class, of course we were all “respectful” in our Post-it Note exercise. Under “blacks” were comments like… “Gifted basketball players,” “rhythmically terrific…” Gays were described as “artistic,” “flamboyant,” etc. At the end of the exercise, with the wallpapers full of “positive comments,” participants were asked to go to the papers and take off anything that was NOT accurate… And as you might have guessed by now…NOT ONE comment remained. Geez… Us very “enlightened” people had a long way to go regarding understanding our inherent prejudices and stereotyping. It has been nearly 25 years since that exercise in a Denver classroom… How much have we progressed?

Claude Steele, one of the world’s leading social psychologists, has written an important book called Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (Issues of Our Time). In this very readable and well researched “identity tour,” Steele outlines the powerful risks and limitations of “identity threat” to all of us. We in the western world have obviously made some macro gains on broad based stereotyping and matters related (interracial marriage, homophobia, etc.). However, most of us have much more relentless work to do at a personal level to fully appreciate the subtle, insidious threat and impact of identity/stereotyping operating in our backgrounds and daily living. I strongly encourage you to read the book to fully appreciate this. (BTW, it is on Bill Gates’ 2013 must read list).

Character Moves:

  1. Recognize that the DNA of every possible group is in each of us or is part of us in some way. When we open ourselves to that understanding, we take on a more inclusive view of the world and ourselves.
  2. At the same time, as Steele provokes in his book’s conclusion, we all have unique identities and ideally should become more deeply self-aware and embrace them. Use them as a bridge to better understand each other with greater empathy and tolerance. Contrary to becoming “color blind” and perhaps counterintuitive, we might all be better off to embrace becoming more “color and identity rich.”
  3. Appreciate that identities are obviously important but NOT unalterable. We are also shaped powerfully by situation and in combination with deeper identity self-awareness, identity and stereotyping is less limiting and perhaps even an accelerant.
  4. Don’t assume that you’re so enlightened that you don’t need to learn more about this in your self-awareness journey. What kind of stereotype “Post-it Notes” are in your head?

Whistling Vivaldi in The Triangle,



Talk Less by Talking Better

Empathy Personal leadership Respect


Key Point: If I had an opportunity to create a behavior change that would have an immediate positive impact on people working together, it would be: “Talk less by talking better.” And frankly I think the behavior of inefficient talking (and listening) is at its worst in bunches of really smart people. Why? Because “smart” people think they already know what you’re saying and have figured out your intent. So, often they jump to a conclusion, with their words aimed at agreeing or proving you wrong (or proving themselves smarter). We would be so much further ahead dialogue wise, if we took the time to talk better (and therefore really listen) by SINCERELY asking clarifying questions.

People on transmit as a default operating process often fire away with their opinions. They can talk by or over others. But those who tend to say nothing until forced to weigh in on a topic are not very helpful to contributing to meaningful dialogue either. Just because someone is quiet doesn’t mean they are necessarily listening any better than the yappers. In fact, this hiding behind “I’m just an introvert” is disingenuous. I’ve been around lots of teams in many countries and organizations of all sizes. Most of us could do better in fostering much better dialogue. Here’s how:

Character Moves:

  1. Become exceptionally skilled at asking SINCERE listening and CLARIFYING questions regarding the content of the dialogue. As an example: What are you hoping to accomplish with your proposal? Why do you think about the situation that way? Could you help me better understand the principles behind your proposition? Etc. (If you haven’t learned the STP tool I offer for free on my website, you may be missing out on a very useful framework for dialogue.)
  2. People really appreciate being understood. That often is more important than whether people eventually agree or disagree. But it is difficult to be understood when people believe they already know your situation, objectives, intent and proposition without digging further into the content. That’s because we are often incomplete in telling the whole story and need great listeners to make the content sufficiently comprehensive. When people become superb as a team, asking and capturing responses to great clarifying questions, the dialogue and decision-making improves dramatically.
  3. It is more important to become known for the great questions you ask to bring crystal clarity to a subject than whether you talk too much or not. It is how you talk to help yourself and everyone listen and understand better that enriches dialogue and effective team building.

How you talk (and listen) better in The Triangle,



Learning From ‘Orange is the New Black’

Accountability Books Well-being


Key Point: When we get ourselves in hot water… Only we can get ourselves out. The book, Orange is the New Black, follows Piper Kerman’s true story about the year she spent in jail. Kerman is a Smith College graduate and by most standards, a privileged young woman. Under the foolish umbrella of adventure, she illegally participated as an international money mule for a drug cartel. She quit the narcotics business, moved on to a “normal” life, only to be jailed on a federal offense some five years later. (The book is now the basis for a very popular original Netflix TV series as well). This is a story that goes behind the scenes of incarceration, but in the end it is about Piper’s resilience and determination to get out of the mess she created for herself. While many people can help, the answer to redemption is always most dependent on ourselves. We are accountable.

Have you heard of San Patrignano? It is a renowned drug rehabilitation center in Italy.

Its philosophy: “People grow by facing daily challenges with their colleagues and their sector manager (professional educators). This is how critical situations and the fragilities of the individual emerge so that they can be analyzed and dealt with. During rehabilitation, each resident is given more and more responsibility, in both their specific sector and in the many activities they carry out at the community (sports, artistic and cultural activities). Over time, they in turn become tutors for others in need of help. In this way, community residents rediscover, day after day, the pleasure of feeling useful for themselves and for others, experiencing new forms of gratification that are the very opposite of the illusory gratification offered by drug use. The rules of community life are those of normal civil coexistence, in respect of oneself, others and the environment.”

Admission into this incredible facility (which is totally free) is essentially based on the commitment of the individual to address the root cause of their addiction and follow a reliable path out.

Character Moves:

  1. For most of us, thank goodness, the challenges we face are much less daunting than prison or addiction. But on a smaller scale we may find ourselves in our own definition of “hot water.” While we must and should seek guidance and help, we all know deep down that the answer to getting out of our hot water is in our own acceptance and resolve. And science gives us a little guidance for getting out: (See step 2).
  2. Steps after you determine you want “out:” A. Start small: Break your goal into bite size chunks. B. Step small: Start with manageable and attainable victories… Build on each. C. Make habits: Turn small steps into a routine. D. Get up after you fall: It is usually an iterative process of trial and error. E. Focus on your goal: Don’t work on too many things at one time.
  3. Be thankful your and my hot water is not forcible incarceration (prison)… Or voluntary (rehabilitation center)… But most of us have our own personal hot water that requires our resolve and commitment. Sometimes stories like Orange is the New Black or the memoirs of recovering addicts in San Patrignano are just the push we need to get off our own little pity pot and do something we’ve always wanted to.

No hot water in The Triangle,



Tension, Love and True Leadership

Empathy Kindness Respect


Key Point: One of the profound insights from our friend Jana before she passed away, as highlighted in my previous blog, was “tension hurts.” I just had an opportunity to participate in a deeply personal LEADERSHIP self-assessment. If I had to summarize at least one thing I learned from that process, it is exactly what Jana observed, “tension hurts…” Not the good tension that gets us ready before a “big game,” (you pick the metaphor for “game”). The negative tension that piles on, collects and starts to feel heavy and triggers anxiety… Eventually even anger. One antidote is to do what Jana suggests regarding her learning from cancer…

“I have let go. All those details, little problems are a waste of time. When stuff comes along that starts to clutter up my head, tense up my body, I say ‘whatever,’ let it go, and move on. Life is short, life is important, clutter is useless.”

Another antidote is NOT to let it go (when you can’t seem overlook it). Instead, candidly talk about the seemingly little things that have piled up. If you can’t let it go, it’s better to deal with it. But this takes courage, skill, directness and an openness to effectively talk about it. The giver has to be genuine and the receiver interested.

In either case (letting go or confronting)… Overcoming hurtful tension requires LOVE. Yup… There’s that word again. Is there a place for LOVE in leadership?

The following is from the controversial blogger, Umair Haque, in his recent HBR article, How and Why to Be a Leader (Not a Wannabe).

“True love, the real thing, big-L love — is every bit as much painful as it is pleasant. It transforms us. And that is the surest hallmark of a true leader. They have a thirst not merely for love — but to love; a thirst that cannot be slaked merely through accomplishments, prizes, or honors. It can only, only be slaked through transformation; and that is why true leaders must, despite the price, through the pain, into the heart of very heartbreak itself, lead… And yet… Love, finally, is all: All we have, when we face our final moments, and come to know that life, at last, must have been greater than us if we are to feel as if it has mattered… Even a perfect machine is just a machine… If we are to lead one another, we will need the heresy of love…”

Character Moves:

  1. If you want to lead, you have to learn to LOVE. Loving is being able to “let it go” AND accepting the unpleasantry of having to “confront it.” It takes exceptional self and “other” awareness in determining which action to take. Negative tension hurts. That principle guides the choice.
  2. A true leader is committed to transformation and growth. And that requires the teeter-totter balance between letting go or direct confrontation. Either way it is authentic and only works when it involves a true act of LOVE… Because you deeply care. And to me that is one defining characteristic of true leadership.

Tension doesn’t hurt in the Triangle,



‘Cancer Has Changed Me… How About You?’

Accountability Well-being


Key Point: Do not wait for cancer to change you. Change now, today, this moment! Learn from others who have it and want to share their love. A friend posted this, so please read the following as a tribute to her.

I am thinner, eating a vegetarian, almost vegan diet. I am shorter with these two collapsed vertebrae. I move more slowly and cautiously to keep the back and nerve pain in check. I can’t sit or stand for extended periods of time. I keep my head up, as it strains to look down.

I have changed with Cancer. I accept help whenever offered. I ask for help when I need it. Gone is the “I can do it all myself” attitude.

I have slowed down. Although I have been traveling all over the map, it has been at a slower pace and I enjoy the pace. I make sure that I get my siesta time, flat on my back time, every day, wherever I am, whatever I am doing. I am pacing myself so I can make the most of every day. I really don’t want to miss anything. I am packing in as much as possible.

I have let go. All those details, little problems are a waste of time. When stuff comes along that starts to clutter up my head, tense up my body, I say “whatever,” let it go, and move on. Life is short, life is important, clutter is useless. Tension hurts.

I have stopped expecting the worst. Worrying won’t change anything. Worrying won’t prepare me for the worst. I have been at my worst and have found the strength. When the worst happens, we all deal with it and get through it. We find the strength.

This wonderful woman died the other day. As with way too many, it was far too soon. And as with many who have fought the Big C and “lost,” this is a tribute to her victory.

Character Moves (with Jana’s help):

  1. Accept help when it is offered. It is abundant and generous behavior to embrace it.
  2. Ask for help when you need it. NO ONE can go it alone. Get rid of the “I can do it myself attitude.” (All you executives out there… This is especially for you).
  3. Tension hurts! Let all the little problems go. Reframe the way you look at things. You don’t need to win and be right all the friggin’ time. Clutter is waste. Move on.
  4. Stop expecting the worse. Worrying won’t change anything. When s#%^ happens, we usually find the strength. FEAR = False Expectations Appearing Real!
  5. Three more from me: Do it NOW! Why wait? Be nice… You’re worth it. Forgive. Cleanse yourself of the toxicity of blame.
  6. And one more from Jana: Sloowww down. Be present more. Pace yourself. (I need this reminder big time).

Jana… Forever in The Triangle,