Book Review: ‘Return on Character’

Breaking the myth that character doesn't pay
July 21, 2015 Updated: August 11, 2015

Fred Kiel is the kind of person whom you actually want to receive advice from—especially in the sometimes-frightening landscape of corporate America. His new book “Return on Character” is more than a simple instruction manual on becoming a better leader; it provides a bit of hope to those who are losing faith in the way big businesses operate.

In a time of corporate corruption, Kiel helps his audience look past the negativity and pessimism in the workforce and discover the good leaders who are out there and willing to support their employees. After nine years of gathering extensive research and interviewing 84 CEOs and their more than 8,000 collective employees, Kiel sorted out two key groups of leaders.

The Virtuoso group includes the beloved leaders who tell the truth, make responsible choices, forgive mistakes, and truly care for those beneath them. On the opposite side are the aptly named “Self-Focused CEOs” (think Mr. Potter from “It’s a Wonderful Life”).

Part of Kiel’s credibility comes from his 40 years of working as an adviser to executive leaders, but his real authority comes from his background as a former Self-Focused CEO who decided to make a change.

For Fred Kiel, the future that he hopes for is bright indeed.
However, this is not a book about Kiel’s personal journey—nor is it a book about the 84 CEOs who participated in his study. “Character” is a book about the leaders who may not even be born yet, or who are alive and have not yet reached their full potential. It is about the future of leadership, and for Fred Kiel, the future that he hopes for is bright indeed.

The book is organized into three parts: how people become the leaders they are, how their leadership style affects the organization, and how anybody can attain Virtuoso status.

In the first section, Kiel offers a brief yet insightful look into the workings of the human mind, which helps to explain why others behave the way they do. It affirms that Virtuoso CEOs are those who understand the link between their own past experiences and their present behavior. Ironically, the Self-Focused CEOs do not self-reflect, and their leadership style suffers greatly for it.

In the second section, Kiel not only highlights the role that a CEO’s character plays on a company’s success, but he also places responsibility on that CEO’s executive team. This section is especially interesting for the various quotes that Kiel includes from his interviews. Compare “It is difficult to feel satisfied at this job when you are just a number,” to the enthusiastic “Most of the people I work with are great to work with and are very values oriented.” Thanks to the honesty of the study’s participants, Kiel proves that the executive team’s character is just as important as the CEO’s.

What makes “Character” especially relevant is its final section. Now that Kiel has walked the reader through the data surrounding his leadership character studies, he invites the audience to engage in six steps to become a Virtuoso leader (yet these steps can apply to any aspect of personal change). Each step stresses the importance of self-awareness as well as recruiting the help of a mentor—two common themes that permeate this book.

“Return on Character” is not a dry read. It is a vessel of useful information captained by Fred Kiel, who knows how to engage as well as inform.

‘Road to Character’
By Fred Kiel
Harvard Business Review
272 pgs; $30

Chelsea Scarnegie, from the Chicago area, has a degree in writing.