The World of Work Project

Personality and Character Ethic

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 Podcast

Character Vs. personality

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

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 in that they can be a bit of an act that is disconnected from our core selves.

Our character, however, is the bit below the water, our principles, beliefs and motivations. Our character 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 how to improve your character ethic, but that around the start of the 20th century much literature shifted towards focusing on personality. This change shifted the focus away from changing your core self for the better, to changing how others perceive you in an effort to aid your relationship with them.

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 in our iceberg analogy.

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. You’ll need to read, to think, to take training and perhaps to have coaching. If you get this right, then you will become the person you want to be and your actions will be natural, not forced or adopted. And from this space you’ll be a better leader, and you’ll be acting in a way that’s true to who you are. 

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 in leadership that you can be a truly great leader, 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.

Sources and further reading

Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.

This post has been informed by Stephen Covey’s work from his hugely influential book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People“. To learn more, please read the original source, which of course covers far more than just this topic.


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