What is the role of character in ethical decision-making? Through making and executing managerial decisions, your choices and decisions help establish who you are as a leader and what kind of organization you work for. In other words, in addition to being about both principles and consequences, ethics is also about character: the individual traits and qualities that define what kind of person someone is and who they hope to become. This suggests that in addition to reflecting on our specific choices as we make them, we must also evaluate actions in terms of how they help define who we really are and how others will see and understand us.

Intentionally Pursue Your Best Self

There is a long tradition of thinking about ethics in this way that goes back to Plato and Aristotle. In this approach, virtuous character is not simply a disposition or feeling; it is cultivated and made a part of the individual through exercise and action — “the actualization of a possibility.”1  This suggests that understanding our character involves anticipating our best self and intentionally pursuing a life that will lead us to become that person.

As such, it is vital to consider proactively what your personal vision is for your character as a manager and leader: who you really are and who you hope to become. A widely read columnist once asked for readers 70 years old and older to submit “life reports” outlining what they did well — or not so well — and what they learned along the way.2  In contrast, reflecting on your personal vision could be understood as a life report in reverse: what you hope your life report will contain. But such an exercise is more than a wish for the future; it can help you shape that future.

Viewed this way, your personal vision of your character can help you anticipate the defining moments of your professional career, where your values are tested, and where your skills as a responsible leader will be most profoundly challenged.

Defining Moments

Popular press headlines, with their all-too-frequent accounts of corporate misconduct, remind us that it is apparently too easy to succumb to the pressures of organizational life, sacrificing ethics for expediency or personal gain. Clarity regarding one’s values and priorities can serve as a bulwark against making unethical choices.

That said, a personal decision to simply steer clear of patently unethical choices is a relatively impoverished way of viewing character and personal vision. Oftentimes a leader’s most difficult and troubling choices involve “right versus right.” And these choices, though perhaps less stark or sensational than the scandalous business decisions that make the headlines, can be critically important in both establishing and exemplifying character. Organizational life is filled with many seemingly mundane, right-versus-right decisions; yet these can constitute “extremely important choices. They can have powerful and often irrevocable consequences for the lives of the men and women who must make the decisions and for the organizations as well.”3  Such decisions often arise without forewarning or fanfare but can nevertheless constitute critical inflection points for your character and personal values. How will you prepare for these unanticipated defining moments of your future life and career?

Character in Context

It is tempting to view such preparation as a largely solitary, introspective activity, a steeling yourself against the world. Yet this misses an important aspect of developing your character. While some introspection and self-examination can certainly be useful, a method of character development that begins with yourself and ends with yourself overlooks an important feature of developing your sense of character and personal vision: a deep appreciation for and engagement with the “concrete circumstances in which you happen to be embedded.”4  An engagement with your personal, professional and familial circumstances together with a healthy appreciation for the larger societal and historical context can introduce additional inputs into the definition and formation of your values.

In other words, character development involves more than a personal journey of self-actualization and self-fulfillment. As such, your personal vision may include a breadth of broader values such as service, perseverance and self-mastery;5  commitment, stewardship and trust;6  creativity, community building, practical realism and fun7  — all values that can and should manifest themselves in both your professional career and your larger set of relationships.8  Undoubtedly, you can think of additional underlying values and ideas that arise from your own experiences, shaping your own particular character and personal vision.

Articulate a Personal Vision Statement

Clarifying your character and personal vision can be an aspirational activity, but it is important to connect that aspiration to your current everyday life, focusing on how your personal vision can influence your decisions today. In doing so, it is helpful to have an authentic understanding of your current values and motivations. Seeking input from others can be an invaluable exercise in both helping you better understand who you are and seeing how you can evolve from the person you are to the person you would like to become.

A statement encapsulating a personal vision for one’s character can take many forms. Following the logic of the life report mentioned earlier, one approach might be to craft your statement of personal vision as a desired future reflection, as if your future self is looking back on who you have become. You might begin by stating, “In the year _____, when I am _____ years old, I want to be able to reflect on my life and affirm that ….”

Looking back, how will you have lived? What principles and values will have guided your decisions and actions? What legacy of responsible leadership do you hope to leave behind? What will those closest to you — your family, trusted colleagues, friends and business associates — have learned from you? And what about those with whom you were only casually acquainted? What are your aspirations for how all those individuals might understand your character?

A careful, purposeful consideration of these questions can produce a vision of your own character that can in turn help shape that character as you grow and progress as an individual and a leader.

The preceding excerpts Darden Professor Jared D. Harris’ technical note Making Ethics Personal: Character and Your Personal Vision (Darden Business Publishing).

Professor Harris is academic director at Darden's Institute for Business in Society.

  • 1David L. Norton, Personal Destinies: A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 15.
  • 2David Brooks, “The Life Report,” The New York Times, 28 October 2011, A31.
  • 3Joseph L. Badaracco Jr., Defining Moments: When Managers Must Choose Between Right and Right (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1997), 5.
  • 4David Brooks, The Road to Character (New York: Random House, 2015), 21.
  • 5Ibid.
  • 6John C. Bogle, Enough: True Measures of Money, Business and Life (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009).
  • 7Michael Novak, Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life (New York: The Free Press, 1996).
  • 8Clayton M. Christensen, James Allworth and Karen Dillon, How Will You Measure Your Life? (New York: HarperCollins, 2012).
Making Ethics Personal: Character and Your Personal Vision
Learn more about character and leadership in the Darden Business Publishing technical note
About the Expert

Jared D. Harris

Samuel L. Slover Associate Professor of Business Administration

Harris is an expert on both ethics and strategic management. His research centers on the interplay between ethics and strategy, with a particular focus on the topics of corporate governance, business ethics and interorganizational trust. Harris has written extensively on the topics of executive compensation and other governance-related topics.

Harris worked as a certified public accountant and consultant for several leading public accounting firms in Boston and Portland, Oregon, and served as the CFO of a small technology firm in Washington, D.C. He consults with several top financial services companies on the topics of strategic management, ethics and compliance.

He recently published The Strategist’s Toolkit, a primer on strategic thinking, with Darden Professor Mike Lenox. He also co-authored the recently published paper “Model-Theoretic Knowledge Accumulation: The Case of Agency Theory and Incentive Alignment” in the Academy of Management Review and a forthcoming paper titled “A Comparison of Alternative Measures of Organizational Aspirations” for the Strategic Management Journal.

B.S., M.Acc., Brigham Young University; Ph.D., University of Minnesota