The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes

Behavior Change, Character, and the Human Condition

“A more fundmental source of success or failure, among even those with extensive knowledge or skills, is in who we are - our ethical way of being.”

Terrance D. Olson | June 12, 2014
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A small girl walks alone on a pat through the winter woods. The photo is associated with each of us walking the path of an ethical life, which is an unpopular path.

When we do things that create problems for ourselves or others, a futile question that often gets asked is: “Why did you do that?” But how often is there a helpful answer to that question—an answer that would help solve the problem at hand? Corporate managers, parents, coaches, educators, ministers—often ask that question when confronting the destructive attitudes and behaviors of the people they are connected to or working with. But asking why things go wrong when we are assuming the problem lies in the person (and not in the situation or in circumstances external to the individual’s actions) may simply provoke excuses and the shifting of responsibility for “why” things have gone awry. Consider whether these why questions would not be the best starting point to helping people change: Why did you start using drugs? Why are you jealous of your sister? Why did you cheat on the exam? Why did you not follow through on your assignment? Why did you lie to your manager? Most answers to these questions sidetrack us from solving the problem instead of giving us a starting point for solutions. While a given individual may lack the skill or knowledge necessary to solve or prevent a problem, a more fundamental source of success or failure, among even those with extensive knowledge or skills, is in who we are—our ethical way of being.

It is not "that people are your most important asset. The right people are"

Jim Collins (2001), in his research on companies who, in his analysis, go from good to great, corrects a common assumption about employees. It is not “that people are your most important asset. The right people are” (p. 51). What makes right people right? It is in who they are—ethically and in personal character. Rollins summarizes that companies who continually maintain success, “. . . placed greater weight on character attributes than on specific educational background, practical skills, specialized knowledge, or work experience” (p. 51).

It would seem, then, that to maximize the benefits of training in knowledge and skills, managers or educators or parents or religious leaders need to start with the right material—the right kind of people (including themselves). That means people who are living true to an ethical sense of how to do right by themselves and others. Only then will the knowledge and skills they are to be offered be acted upon in beneficial ways. But character education can invite people to become the right people. It would be the starting point for any programs designed to strengthen individuals and their relationships in corporations, families, athletic teams, and congregations. The responsiveness (or lack thereof) to the presented ethical foundations would reveal who among the recipients of such programs will be helpful in fostering quality relationships and success in the organization, team, or family. Such programs would have to teach, model, and invite change, rather than manage and manipulate. And the willingness of the audiences to live by their personal ethical sense of how to serve their own and others’ best interests would reveal whether who they are would be a benefit or a liability to the audiences they are called to serve.

The beneficial effects of gaining knowledge and skill begins in a person's ethical way of being

Corporations, families, athletic teams, youth resiliency programs, family life educators and religious counselors seek changes in the people in their target audiences. The changes sought for are those that enhance the quality of life and refine the moral purposes of those organizations. Character/ethics education (practically and ethically speaking), should be the foundation of – not an “add-on” to – any programs designed to enhance the knowledge, skill, and quality of life in personal and community life. The beneficial effects of gaining knowledge and skills begins in, and are symptoms of, a person’s ethical way of being. Only then will the knowledge and skills we gain be tools to foster the moral climate in any setting. Inviting people to live true to conscience in matters of how we relate to others and represent our community, our family, and our workplace is task one.


Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...And Others Don’t. New York: HarperCollins.