Character matters today more than ever – but in business it always has

DOES Britain need to reform its character? According to a new centre being formed at the University of Birmingham, and launched this week at the House of Lords, emphatically so. The Jubilee Centre of Character and Values, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, has a mission of developing character in our schools and in our wider national life, including companies.

A focus on “character” may seem obscure to many, rather making the centre’s point. We confuse it with matters of personality and identity. But character has a very specific meaning: it is one of the pillars of a traditional liberal education. Since the days of Plato in fifth-century Athens, the three Cs of a liberal education have been: the study of a canon of great works; the mastery of a curriculum dealing with the arts of language and number; and the development of a character able to act with virtue whatever life may throw its way.

Rudyard Kipling evokes the ideal of character in his poem, If: “If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,/ If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,/ But make allowance for their doubting too;/ If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,/ Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,/ Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,/ And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise…”

Such an ideal has fallen from favour in Britain today, along with the other components of liberal education, but it is a form of practical wisdom that still matters enormously, especially in business. That might have surprised the ancient Greek philosophers, who had little time for commerce, but the business world, perhaps more than any other sphere, values the full range of a liberally-educated mind. Like the liberal arts curriculum, business demands not just the arts of language, of logical deliberation, discussion and persuasion, but the numerate arts as well. Like the ancients, but unlike many students of the humanities today, it sees that numbers are a rich way of describing and understanding the world, one the verbally dextrous cannot afford to ignore.

And character is also vital to a business career. Business life is uncertain, its priorities shifting with new technology and popular taste, its participants at the mercy of hirings and firings, projects that fail and others that unexpectedly succeed. In such a world, the personal steadiness that comes with character’s self-mastery can make all the difference. In the same way, the ideal employee is not simply someone who will do exactly what his or her boss tells them, but an individual with the character to take responsibility without going rogue.

I wish the new centre success. Business is an intensely human profession, with humane concerns. Its continued success relies on individuals with the character to live up to its high standards.

First published: City A.M., 18/5/12

The School of Freedom: a liberal education reader, edited by Marc Sidwell and Anthony O’Hear, is published by Imprint Academic.

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Filed under Business, Human nature, Liberal education

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