Board of Management

“How do you know you are hiring the right leaders?” This was
the question posed in 2016 by the Board of Management at
Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) to Sonia Côté, then Director
General of Executive Programs and Leadership Development
at CRA. Like other Canadian federal government departments, CRA uses well-established key leadership competencies (KLCs) that serve as the basis for candidate selection,
learning and development, and performance and talent
management. While Côté was confident in how candidates
were assessed against the KLCs, she grasped that evaluating
competencies was necessary but not sufficient in selecting
the right leaders. This prompted her investigation into
character leadership.
There are many reasons individuals and organizations
decide to elevate character alongside competence in
personal leadership and organization practices, such as
when selecting candidates for hire. Research has established
the importance of developing character for individual wellbeing, both personally and professionally. Therefore, it not
only benefits organizations but offers benefits to individuals
within the organization. Further, character supports
sustained excellence in organizations. By sustained excellence, we refer to individuals performing at the highest
levels both in the short and long term. Character leadership
also fundamentally influences the culture of excellence in an
organization. Finally, character informs areas such as risk
management, compliance, and conduct because character
serves to pivot away from the notion of bad people doing bad
things toward the notion that there are many people with
weaknesses in character, and this weakness in character
leads to poor judgment, as revealed in high profile examples
such as Volkswagen, Wells Fargo and Enron. For example, an
individual who lacks self-awareness and vulnerability will
have their Humility compromised. This weakness in Humility
is often why individuals fear speaking up and taking risks;
because they fear being judged. Lacking Accountability or
Courage can relegate individuals to being bystanders in
situations that merit involvement. Lacking Temperance
can deny the patience and calm needed under pressure to
be steady and foster the clarity of thought required to
prioritize and take appropriate action. Strength of character
provides the ultimate form of resilience that is central to
well-being and the pursuit of excellence.
In this article, we build on prior research that has
provided the academic underpinning for what leader
character is, why it matters to both individual well-being
and sustained excellence, and how character can be
embedded alongside competence in HR practices. We focus
on the process of elevating character alongside competence
in the executive selection process at CRA. We offer insights
from that process and consider the short-term and expected
long-term results of such an initiative along with an agenda
for future research and implications for practice.
Although leader character is essential for those in the
position to lead, we emphasize its role in fostering the
disposition to lead. Disposition to lead means that even
without having a leadership position, a person brings the
best of themselves to all situations in the form of thought
leadership and exemplary behaviors, thus it is important
even for individuals without supervisory responsibility.
Organizational Dynamics (2019) xxx, xxx—xxx
$ This research did not receive any specific grant from funding
agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.
Available online at
j ournal home page: n
0090-2616/© 2020 Published by Elsevier Inc.
The seminal research of Christopher Peterson and Martin
Seligman identified a set of character strengths that stood
the test of being universal, reflecting different cultures and
even different religions. Our concept of leader character
builds on this foundational work and relies on the Leader
Character Framework developed by a team of researchers
from the Ivey Business School, shown in Fig. 1.
M. Crossan, A. Byrne, G. Seijts, M. Reno, L. Monzani, and
J. Gandz, “Toward a Framework of Leader Character in
Organizations,” Journal of Management Studies 54, no. 7,
(2017): 986—1018.
The framework, based on extensive research in philosophy, psychology, sociology, and management, identifies the
dimensions of leader character that are ubiquitous and
collectively influence individual well-being and sustained
excellence in organizations. All of the dimensions of character are important, as we subsequently describe, even
though many individuals and organizations tend to privilege
some dimensions over others. Strength of character refers to
someone who is highly developed on these 11 character
dimensions, recognizing that since historically there hasn’t
been a clear understanding in organizations of what leader
character is and how to develop it, there is significant
opportunity to strengthen leader character in organizations.
The Definitions of the specific character dimensions are
provided in Appendix A. The following foundational underpinnings to the framework help to explain what leader
character is and why it matters. We also contrast character
with competence to help explain why they may be treated
differently when it comes to selection.
1 There are 11 dimensions of character with a set of
observable behaviors, referred to as elements. While
these behaviors are all virtuous, a few of these virtuous
behaviors can also be viewed as an expression of values,
such as being even-handed (associated with the dimension of Justice); a few are also personality traits, such as
being conscientious (associated with the dimension of
Accountability). There are a defined set of dimensions
that inform character, whereas competence is typically
assessed relative to a job context. Thus, competence will
differ from one organization to the next, from one job
to the next, and from one level of an organization to
another, whereas the 11 character dimensions are
relevant for all individuals and all organizations, both
professionally and personally.
2 At the center of the character framework is Judgment, or
what Aristotle referred to as “practical wisdom.” Judgment has its own set of behaviors that underpin it, such as
being situationally aware, cognitively complex, and a

  • Models
    ORGDYN-100752; No. of Pages 14
    Please cite this article in press as: M. Crossan, et al., Elevating leader character alongside competence in selection, Organ Dyn (2020),
    Figure 1 Leader character dimensions and elements
    2 M. Crossan et al.
    critical thinker, but great Judgment relies also on the
    10 dimensions that support it. This character-infused
    Judgment explains why character is needed in all
    contexts and applies to all organizations. Judgment relies
    on leaders being able to access and rely on any of the
    dimensions of character as needed. While a person needs
    to develop all dimensions of character, different
    situations will demand reliance on specific dimensions;
    for example, a high level of Temperance would be needed
    to remain calm when under pressure.
    3 All virtues can operate as a vice when not supported by
    the other dimensions. Thus, Courage without Temperance
    becomes recklessness. Even Integrity, which few would
    imagine could operate as a vice, could be dogmatic and
    self-righteous without Humility and Humanity to support
    it. In contrast, competence does not carry this same risk.
    Having a high level of competence in one area is not
    viewed as a risk when a person does not have high
    competence in another area.
    4 The elements of character need to be exercised to
    develop them. This has been a significant blind spot for
    organizations who often assume that valuing a dimension,
    such as Integrity, will, by its value, solicit it. Such an
    assumption is equivalent to expecting someone to run a
    marathon without training for it. Becoming someone who
    is authentic, candid, transparent, principled, and consistent takes intelligent and intentional exercise. Although
    the character dimensions can be isolated for the purpose
    of understanding and developing each one, they are
    ultimately and ideally interconnected. Thus, not attending to weaknesses can foster imbalances such that what
    could have operated as a virtue becomes a vice. This is
    different from competencies, which can be distinct in
    their development and execution in a specific job
    context. And weaknesses in one competence do not
    necessarily undermine another competence.
    5 Character is not something people are born with; rather,
    it is a set of habits that develop or atrophy. We are always
    “becoming while we are busy doing” –— becoming more or
    less accountable, more or less courageous, etc. Without
    the conscious exercise of character, there is every
    likelihood that people may become less patient
    (Temperance), less compassionate (Humanity), and less
    vulnerable (Humility), often as a result of the subtle,
    unseen, yet powerful influences of context –— which
    includes the context of organizations. Whereas competencies tend to have a significant knowledge and skill
    component associated with the work context, and they
    are often developed in programs designed for the specific
    competence, character is constantly evolving, both
    personally and professionally. Thus, a person’s work
    and life experiences fundamentally shape character,
    and the story about who someone is and why they have
    become the person they are is unique to each person.
    In her experience in human resources (HR), Côté had not
    encountered another leadership framework that so
    explicitly linked potential shortcomings of character to
    achieving organizational excellence. She strongly supported
    the notion that character dimensions can become vices when
    used in excess or when deficient; in her role as head of
    executive services, Côté had observed that these deficiencies were often present when leaders derailed or were
    stagnant. For example, she observed that many executives
    lacked the self-awareness to understand that their high
    level of Drive without strong Humanity and Humility
    negatively influenced their Judgment and decision-making.
    Thus, she and her colleagues investigated how they could
    elevate character alongside competence in selection at the
    The CRA serves millions of Canadians every year. Its goal is
    to be trusted, fair, and helpful by putting people first. The
    Agency delivers more than CA$31.8 billion in benefits to
    Canadians, and it administers over CA$498 billion in taxes
    on behalf of governments across Canada. The CRA interacts
    with millions of Canadians, on a regular basis or at least once
    a year at tax time.
    Acknowledging that it needed to do more to meet the
    expectations of Canadians, the CRA introduced public
    consultations in 2018 to help inform the Agency’s service
    transformation. Public consultations were a part of the CRA’s
    people-focused approach to service and delivered on
    commitments made by the Minister of National Revenue
    on October 29, 2018, when she announced the CRA’s first
    Chief Service Officer (CSO). Under the CSO’s leadership, the
    CRA began focusing on better understanding people’s needs
    and expectations to improve service experience and deliver
    better outcomes for Canadians.
    In April 2019, the Honourable Diane Lebouthillier,
    Minister of National Revenue stated:
    Our Government is committed to ensuring that the CRA
    puts people at the center of everything it does. Over the
    past three years, we have introduced changes that are
    leading to real results for Canadians. With these public
    consultations, we are taking another step in listening
    to Canadians and responding to their concerns,
    expectations, and desire to improve how the CRA delivers
    The executive community plays a crucial role in service
    improvements atthe CRA. The Agency currently employs over
    400 executives across Canada and a total population of 43,000
    employees. As part ofits staffing practices and guidelines,the
    CRA follows an executive (EX) qualification standard that
    stipulates that, at the entry level, candidates’ KLCs must be
    assessed through a structured interview, structured reference
    checks, and a third-party validation of the candidate’s KLCs.
    Experience is assessed atthe screening phase, and knowledge
    is usually evaluated as part of a written test orincluded in the
    structured interview.
    The Clerk of the Privy Council, the senior civil servant in
    the Canadian government, approved the new KLCs for
    federal public service EXs in March 2015. The KLCs are
    aligned with the Clerk’s vision for a public service that is
    collaborative, innovative, streamlined, high performing,
    adaptable, and diverse. Each competency is defined in
    behavioral terms for specific leadership roles, increasing
    in complexity as individuals move up the ranks (see Table 1).
    Most federal departments and agencies, including the CRA,
    have fully endorsed the KLCs.
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    ORGDYN-100752; No. of Pages 14
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    Elevating leader character alongside competence in selection 3
    Candidates who apply to EX positions are familiar with the
    KLCs and are often trained by professional coaches and
    mentors to ensure candidates grasp the KLCs and are able
    to provide examples of behaviors in relation to each competency in an EX interview. This often creates a rehearsed,
    one-sided delivery with candidates listing accomplishments
    and examples of KLCs they have demonstrated in the past.
    There is very little interaction with the staffing board
    members conducting the interview, leaving the interviewers
    wanting to know more about who the candidate is and how
    their leadership has developed over time –— one of the gaps
    the character interviewing process can address.
    Côté had been exposed to the idea of elevating character
    alongside competency in leadership development and practice, so she decided to explore character leadership in a
    workshop with 400 CRA EXs in 2016. CRA’s senior leadership
    had some exposure to leader character and were supportive of
    the initiative; however, Côté, like many individuals who
    introduce leader character in their organizations, felt like a
    pioneer. Elevating character alongside competence is a new
    frontier for most organizations. The science that informs
    leader character and the practical experience of organizations, like CRA, provide important insight and confidence in
    character leadership; yet, it takes character –— Courage,
    Humility, Humanity, Accountability, etc. –— to introduce a
    new set ofideas to an organization thatis already aggressively
    pursuing an agenda full of initiatives and demands.
    Côté extended the following invitation to CRA EXs:
    As you may know, leadership development remains a
    priority atthe Agency and in the Public Service. As a result,
    in support ofthe development of our currentleaders and in
    orderto pave the way for ourfuture leaders, CRA is hosting
    itsfirstEXForum(EXF).The EXFwillbethe opportunity [not
    only] to generate discussion around the needs of the EX
    Community and leadership ofthe future at CRA, but also to
    generate self-awareness and reflection on leadership style
    and growth.
    Leader character was well received at the Forum, and
    Côté and her HR team saw the opportunity to enhance
    leadership selection by elevating character alongside
    competence in the EX-01 selection processes. The team felt
    it was time to explore a new way of hiring that would enable
    interviewers to not only know about a candidate’s
    experience, knowledge, and KLCs but also discover who a
    candidate is with respect to leader character. The team sent
    out a request for proposals (RFP), seeking to embed character in their executive leadership recruitment practice.
    CRA defined the scope of work as follows:
     Provide strategic advice on how to integrate characterbased leadership successfully in the CRA organizational
     Review existing EX assessment tools used at CRA for recruitment purposes and identify opportunities to integrate
    character-basedleadershipin additiontotheassessment of
    KLCs [and] enhance these assessment tools to allow CRA
    to assess character-based leadership and KLCs in the
    recruitment of leaders at the EX-01 level.
    The first author undertook the project which was
    designed in four phases, as depicted in Fig. 2.
    The first undertaking was to determine the scope of work and
    review documents. The HR team decided that wherever
    competence was mentioned in the selection process or
    documents, the document or process would be reviewed.
    The team reviewed the following documents and processes:
     Selection profile (the content in the job posting that
    related to the selection process)
     Job poster
     Screening criteria and the report template for the screening board
     Interview questions, including the questions given to
    candidates in advance of the interview, additional
    questions provided to the interviewers on the screening
    board, additional topics for questions, and an interview
    assessment grid
     Communication to referees, reference check forms, and
    the reference check summary grid
     External assessment report in cases where candidates
    undertook a third-party assessment
    After reviewing the documents and processes that had
    been identified as needing to embed character alongside
    competence, the consultant offered recommendations that
    were reviewed with the HR team. The HR team agreed that
    the Leader Character Framework was a scientifically robust
    framework and adopted it as a framework for character
    selection. They also adopted the “Leader Character Insight
    Assessment” (LCIA — see Appendix B) as a foundational
    tool against which leader character would be measured

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