Spilled M&Ms© 4 – The Consequences of Character [FP]

It probably has become apparent from the last few posts that one view of our Journey of Life could separate it into three distinct eras:

-Era 1, childhood, when we threw our M&Ms;
-Era 2, youth, when we would occasionally spill our M&Ms; and
-Era 3, adult, when we hope we have achieved some level of maturity and wisdom and choose our M&Ms with care.

The M&Ms in these images are the character traits embodied in our practiced behaviors, those that are seen by others in our environment.

At times these are not so pretty, especially when one observes Era 1 behaviors being displayed by someone we thought would be in Era 3.  The issue here is that these Eras are not just defined by chronological age, but more often by emotional age, our EQ or emotional intelligence.  And it is very disconcerting, with unexpected consequences, when the person we are observing is in a position of leadership.

Dr. Tim Irwin is a corporate psychologist whose recent book, Derailed: Five Lessons Learned from Catastrophic Failures of Leadership, catalogues some of the broader important consequences of character, expressed through these practiced behaviors.  There is an excellent interview article as well.

His work documents the stories of six recognized leaders, corporate CEOs who were fired by their boards, all for the same reasons.  What is important is that these are the same reasons why we all fail as well.

A common thread, what Dr. Irwin calls the “Dimensions of Character,” lead to a conclusion of critical importance for every one of us in a position of influence:

Character Trumps Competence.

We are all persons of influence, whether we are pals, peers, parents, professionals, professors, or presidents (yes, I did that on Purpose…) and we certainly have to be competent in what we do.

But at the end of the day, Character still Trumps Competence; it’s Fundamental Principle 12.  And the failure of character is why people derail, often taking others with them, and possibly organizations, too.

Dr. Irwin identified five fairly predictable stages of derailment:

1 – Lack of Self-Awareness.  People are missing the fundamental ability to monitor their own behaviors.  As Dr. Irwin put it, “… they don’t have the ability to sense their own internal state … their motives, their thoughts and feelings … to be self-aware.”  In other words, lacking this character trait they cannot sense what other character traits are surfacing, for whatever reasons, and are not able to control them.  They tend to spill their M&Ms, intentionally or not.

2 – Arrogance or hubris.  In one example, Robert Nardelli, as the new CEO of Home Depot, commandeered an elevator in the parking garage and had it programmed to go only to his personal office level on the top floor.  The elevator became a symbol of how out of touch he was with the workers, who described him as “arrogant and dismissive of people.”  This ultimately helped contribute to his being unable to establish employee’s trust and respect.

Stage 2 seems to me to be the first stage that results from a choice of behavior.   More often than not in this stage M&Ms are not spilled, they are thrown.

3 – People ignore the warning signals.  They do not listen and/or disregard feedback from others, becoming “truth-starved.”  They not only cut off information that would help them recognize situations clearly, but also help them recognize destructive behaviors.

Dr. Irwin’s description above appears to be a more passive Stage 3.  I have also experienced this stage in a more aggressive way, where Stage 2 arrogance causes a violent rejection of input, with accusations of “disloyalty” for not accepting the leader’s version of “reality.”

4 – Rationalization.   This is what Dr. Irwin calls the “killing ground of character,” the behavior where people lie to themselves by saying things such as, “I’m too important to fail” or “I add the greatest value to the organization, so my contribution is the most important.”  I have also experienced this in the form of “The reality I see is the only reality that counts.”

5 – The Actual Derailment.  Here, people lose their standing in some important way, although I would add that it could be a toss-up as to whether or not they recognize it and accept it, due to hubris.  A very recent example of this is Bob Filner, former Mayor of San Diego.  Others in the public arena would include Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner, and Lance Armstrong.

It reinforces in my mind how important the responsibilities of parenting and mentoring and coaching are to the initial and continued development of a person, as these activities all directly or indirectly address the character traits and behaviors that are needed to avoid the first four stages above.

Dr. Irwin’s conclusions that pertain to successful organizations and the leaders who lead them reinforce as well as inform the direction I have been heading in these posts:

The glue for any organization (including a family unit) is trust: with it what an organization can accomplish is incredible; without it, the organization is very often dysfunctional.

Dr. Irwin identifies the two characteristics of the leader that permeate the organization:

Competence.  Yes, leaders, like the rest of us, have to be competent.  They have to know what needs to be done, and to know what they are doing.  They have to be effective at doing it.  And,

-Character.  “When leaders are authentic, humble, courageous, and effectively self-managed (Dr. Irwin’s Four Dimensions of Character), then people will listen to what they have to say. … When one or more of those four qualities is absent, that leader often fails … regardless of their level of competence.”

So, ultimately, it is about Fundamental Principle 12:

Character Trumps Competence.

Simply put,

Arrogance says, “I have the right to make all the responsible decisions.”

Humility says, “I have the responsibility to see that all the right decisions are made.”

With a leader claiming the former, I would question my chances of adding value to the organization; with a leader demonstrating the latter, I would sense that adding value is expected, because the health of the organization is at the top of the priority list.

What’s in your bag of M&Ms?


About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
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2 Responses to Spilled M&Ms© 4 – The Consequences of Character [FP]

  1. Marion Graham says:

    Great blog Jim. I reposted this on Facebook! M


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