The Character Edge for Success

Optimizing achievement for individuals and organizations.

Posted Oct 12, 2020

Psychologists have been interested in character—good and bad—for over a hundred years. But the advent of positive psychology in the late 1990s provided both impetus and direction to the scientific study of human positive character attributes.

In particular, the late University of Michigan psychologist Christopher Peterson and the University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman made character a central part of their conceptualization of positive psychology and the focus of much of their research into what enables an engaged and meaningful life. In 2004, they published a seminal volume that described 24 character strengths, categorized into six moral virtues, that based on their research, they believed to be universal in humans. [i]

Peterson and Seligman’s ideas spurred a great deal of subsequent research that demonstrated the important role of character in optimizing both achievement and mitigating against pathology. Angela Duckworth’s concept of grit provides an example of the former. Grit, defined as the passionate pursuit of long-term goals, has been found to be predictive of achievement in many domains, from early education to sports, to military training. [ii] A study by Seligman and associates illustrates the role of positive character in both reducing negative symptoms like depression and enhancing good outcomes like positive affect. [iii] There is now a vast scientific literature on character and its impact on individual adjustment and achievement.

Much of my own research over the past 15 years has focused on the role of grit and other character attributes in a soldier's performance and adaptation. I frequently share the results of this research with audiences of military leaders, educators, corporate leaders, and sports teams, both professional and collegiate. These people have in common the desire to select, train, and develop soldiers, students, workers, or athletes who excel at difficult and sometimes dangerous tasks.

The response to my discussions with these constituents is consistent and powerful. In their experience, character is the difference-maker. Who truly thrives in their endeavors? These experts acknowledge the role of talent and technical competency in success but observe that positive character differentiates those who excel consistently from others. One National Basketball Association general manager described to me the overarching importance of character to the formation and management of his team, and he makes personnel decisions based on character, both positive and negative. I have heard the same from military generals, educators at every level, and corporate executives.

This juxtaposition of scientific findings and practitioner experiences is remarkable. All too often, even the best psychological research has little impact other than adding a line to the author’s CV. My doctoral dissertation in experimental psychology examined the paradoxical effects of electric shock on the performance of rats in an alley. In terms of scientific rigor, it is my best research, but, sorry to say, it was of zero benefit to the real world. In contrast, researching character is more challenging. There is less experimental control, plus teasing out cause and effect relationships is quite difficult. But the science of character matters a great deal to people working and leading others in often challenging contexts.

I have learned several things from my years of studying character. We all have both character strengths and character weaknesses. Some of us are better at the strengths of the heart (love, kindness, and forgiveness) while others are stronger in the strengths of the gut (grit, courage, integrity) or strengths of the head (love of learning, curiosity, creativity). Learning about our unique character profile allows us to more effectively leverage character strengths to help us achieve our goals.

I have also learned how important character is, or should be, to organizations. High-performing organizations emphasize character and nurture positive character both among individuals and leaders as well as forming a positive organizational climate. High character organizations tend to win and to win consistently over time. I have learned how life’s challenges give impetus to character change, and how positive character provides a toolkit to overcome these challenges.

Image made available by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.
Gurkha knife, a Nepalese all-purpose tool.
Source: Image made available by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

The combination of the growing science of character and the practical knowledge about character drawn from leaders in the military, education, sports, and the corporate world suggests an interesting analogy. Character provides an edge, an advantage, that binds with talent to enable greater success in life’s endeavors. 

I have traveled, trekked, and climbed extensively in Nepal. The rural Nepalese carry a knife called a Gurkha army knife by Westerners, which is used as an all-purpose tool to aid in chores ranging from tending fields to construction projects. To maintain optimal effectiveness, the tool must be kept clean and its edge sharp.

Character is akin to the cutting edge of the Gurkha knife. Keeping it sharp provides an edge in whatever task is at hand, whether that is achieving a long-term goal via grit and determination or adapting and perhaps even flourishing despite significant challenges (such as the current pandemic) by drawing on character strengths of hope, self-regulation, kindness or other positive character attributes.

Can a person or organization of questionable character be successful? The answer, alas, is yes, at least for a period of time. But over time, unscrupulous behavior erodes trust, and when trust is eroded, the person or organization suffers. This may be especially true in high-stakes, dangerous occupations such as the military, law enforcement, and firefighting. A current example at the organizational level, often sparked by the actions of individuals, is the impact of loss of trust in law enforcement agencies. It is difficult for a police chief to blame individual officers for instances of brutality when there is a pattern of this behavior over time.

At some point, the people will lose trust in the organization itself, when they realize that its leaders do not focus on recruiting, training, and supervising individual officers to treat people fairly without respect to socioeconomic status or ethnicity. And, once trust is lost, regaining it is a daunting and lengthy task. Can high character individuals and organizations lose? Yes, of course. The world is very competitive. But their positive character, combined with competence, allows them to win consistently over time. In this way, character provides an edge. Positive character builds trust, and trust is the foundation for excellence in virtually all domains of human endeavor. [iv]


Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

[i] Christopher Peterson and Martin E. P. Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (New York: Oxford University Press), 2004.

[ii] Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (New York: Scribner, 2016).

[iii] Martin E. P. Seligman, Tracy A. Steen, Nansook Park, and Christopher Peterson, “Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions,” American Psychologist 60:5 (2005): 410–21, doi:10.1037/0003-066X.60.5.410.

[iv] For an in-depth exploration of the role of character in individual achievement and resilience and in organizational excellence, see the newly released book The Character Edge: Leading and Winning with Integrity by Robert L. Caslen, Jr. and Michael D. Matthews, St. Martin’s Press, 2020.