Which Comes First, Character or Culture?

Published by Carrie O'Donnell
on Mar 28, 2019

This quote by Anne Frank really resonated. I have been thinking a lot about character, particularly as it relates to culture in business and in our educational institutions.  With the pervasive culture of cheating, lies and obfuscations that we are seeing in our country’s “leaders”, it seems more important than ever that we create a culture that promotes a moral character.

At O’Donnell Learn, I set out to create a culture that would provide a corporate home for our 300+ professionals located remotely across the country and world.  In addition, we have embraced a set of values that have become our compass for decades. For example, “always learning” is one of our values. Our team has created a series of practices that embody that value, including biweekly best-practice sharing virtual “roundtables” and “20/20” meetings at the end of every engagement that enable us to learn from our success and our failures.

The amazing–and honestly unanticipated–output of our devotion to a value-based culture has been its resulting effect on our character. I am a better person–kinder, more thoughtful and collaborative.  Our people are more engaged, more likely and better prepared to rise to the challenge and exceed expectations.

I have witnessed the effect of culture on character in an educational setting as well.  The motto at the Hyde School in Bath, ME is “Be The Best You Can Be”.  This is not trite or taken lightly. The faculty, students and families at Hyde embrace this motto with a series of practices called the Discovery Process–a series of processes designed to build character.  The result is transforming. Floundering young teens enter Hyde; young men and women with moral conviction graduate from Hyde with a commitment to be their best.

This culture is so powerful that it has transformed three middle schools in PA. Fifteen years ago, a principle at one of these schools visited Hyde and decided to bring the Discovery Process to his school.  It has had amazing results such as a 40% drop in disciplinary incidents at one school for 3 years running. Read his blog here.

  1. I see some common threads amongst these experiences

  2. A dedicated culture that is based on values

  3. Guiding principles that become the tenets of that culture

  4. Structured processes to promote the culture

So, after putting this under the microscope, which do you think comes first, character or value? I don’t have scientific evidence to answer this question, but I am going to go with Anne Frank. I believe that all of us are born with basic goodness. As we evolve, the good side of our character doesn’t always rise to the top. But, by instilling character education into our learning, and building a culture the promotes character, you can help character prevail.  I challenge you to make it happen at your organization!


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