Personality and Character Ethic is a concept well explained by Stephen Covey. Our personalities are what others observe when we interact with them, things like our words, deeds and attire. Our character is the sum of our invisible, underlying principles, values and beliefs.

Summary by The World of Work Project


Character Vs. Personality

Stephen Covey proposes that there is a distinction between Personality and Character, and uses an iceberg analogy to describe them.

Personality and Character Ethic can be described with an iceberg analogy
Our characters are deeper and more complex than our visible personalities.

Our personalities are the bit above the water, what we present to the wider world. These include what we say and do, how we dress, how we present ourselves and how we interact with others. To some extent these personalities are shallow. They can be a bit of an act that is disconnected from our core selves.

Our character, however, is the bit below the water. This is the part of us made up of our principles, beliefs and motivations. It comprises traits such as integrity, fidelity, courage, compassion, contribution, responsibility and justice. Our personal values are reflections of our true beliefs and very much shape our characters.

Character, Personality and Leadership Development

Covey states that leadership and self improvement literature used to focus on helping people improve their characters. This process involved introspection, discipline, consideration, personal development and sometimes personal change too.

However, around the start of the 20th century much literature shifted towards focusing on helping people change their “personality”. This change shifted the focus away from changing your core self for the better. The focus instead became changing how others perceive you in an effort to aid your relationship with them.

the character part of Personality and Character Ethic was emphasised more in the 19th century
There used to be more focus on character before the 20th century.

Covey contends that there are many advantages to improving your personality and your ability to interact with others, but they may also just be short term fixes and, in our words, they may be perhaps slightly duplicitous.

Covey says the real key to lasting improvement remains fixing the core character ethics that sit beneath the surface.

Improving Personality, Improving Character

There is some place for improving your personality in the world of work. This can be achieve through things like managing the world’s perception of you.

You can adjust the way you dress, you can adjust your telephone manner, you can self-promote and increase your visibility, you can “schmooze”, you can tell stories about yourself and shape a reputation, you can espouse behaviors and values aligned to how you wish to be seen, you can learn the new phrases and you can say all the right things about how to lead and behave.

All of these activities can help you get ahead, and you can do all of them without looking in the mirror and needing to change yourself. The PVI Model provides more detail on some of these things.

It takes effort to change and improve your character.

Improving your character though takes more effort. To do this you need to be willing to invest time in personal growth. You need to ask difficult questions of yourself, to be able to admit that you’re not the finished article, to challenge your ways of working and beliefs, to let go of things that are not serving you well and learn new ways of thinking and being that will serve you more in the future.

To really develop this way, which is how we think leaders and manager should develop if they are to be successful, you’ll need to read, to think, to challenge yourself and to perhaps find yourself outside of your comfort zone. It might be uncomfortable, but it’s in these spaces where we really learn and grow, and where personal change for the better happens.

If you get this right, then you will become the person you want to be as an individual and leader and your actions will be natural, not forced or adopted. You’ll be better able to build trust with others. You’ll also be in a position to be a better, authentic leader, acting in a way that’s true to who you are. 

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Learning More

Personality and Character Ethic is an important concept. To help develop an understanding of where we are in relation to it, we need to develop our self awareness. To develop our character, it might be helpful to explore our personal values. You can listen to our podcast on self-awareness below.

The World of Work Project View

It’s probably pretty clear that we’re very much in favor of focusing personal and leadership development on character as opposed to personality. We believe that it’s only by being honest in who you are as a leader or manager that you can do well by others and find personal fulfillment. And we believe this means that who you really are is hugely important. Much more important that simply who you present yourself as to the wider world.

We also think that if there is a disconnect between someone’s personality and their character, that they will ultimately experience strain and discord. Pretending to be something you’re not requires memory and emotional labor and, over time, this gets wearing and hard to keep up. Over a long time, this strain could lead to stress, anxiety or other challenges.

Lastly, we think that artificial and polished personalities only work for a little while anyway. In our view, over time it’s usually pretty easy to see through someone who’s pretending to be something they’re not.

Our Podcast

Our Podcast is a great way to learn more about hundreds of fascinating topics from around the world of work.

This post on Personality and Character Ethic has been informed by Stephen Covey’s work from his hugely influential book: “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.

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