Michael J. Kerrigan

Character Building Project

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I could not think of a more uplifting message to share with the readers of the Character Building Project during the Christmas season than the following address of my friend and neighbor, David Rathburn, the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Grove City College. While currently undergoing the traumatic challenges of stage three cancer, David has kept the faith that he learned many years ago from his parents and his college community.

When I was a student here I didn’t have very much money, so I found numerous jobs to allow me to buy gas and late night food at Pizza Villa – a place long since closed that few around here probably remember it right by the Guthrie Theater.

I shoveled snow (and we had a lot of it in the late 70’s), I wrote sports stories about Grove City athletics for the Butler Eagle and Sharon Herald,… Continue reading

Recently, I viewed a movie that has me thinking about the current state of ethics and leadership training.

Waffle Street, from James Adams’ 2010 memoir of the same title, tells the true story of a bright young MBA who participated in some of Wall Street’s unsavory practices, took the fall for his company’s wrongdoing, and found redemption as a server at a waffle restaurant. A line taken from the movie has me wondering…

What we do is legal, therefore it is not unethical; if it were unethical, it would be illegal.

Here is the story… Although he was basically a good guy, Jim Adams nevertheless succumbed to pressures and engaged in unethical practices common in the financial world of the 2000s, spending six years “talking people out of their money.” When the iffy nature of the $200 million investment he put together became public, his company threw him under… Continue reading

Looking back over my thirty plus years as a Washington Lobbyists rarely have I witnessed the decline and dysfunction of the Congress, as maybe the case today? No doubt this decline is associated with the lack of approval and trust in Members of Congress.

However, several factors in addition to the decline in leadership, have also contributed to the ineffectiveness of our political leaders, namely:

            The coarsening of our public discourse

The degree to which ideological purity intrudes on political pragmatism

The growing importance of money in politics

The refusal of individuals to collaborate for the common good

Voltaire’s aphorism, “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” was once a sentiment in the Congress that encouraged going along with imperfect legislation in order to accomplish the public interest. Today the center cannot hold and that sentiment has given… Continue reading


In view of the above title, perhaps we should be assessing what schools of leadership at colleges and universities are teaching. I offer the following assessment based upon the ideal definition of leaders… those who are both ethical and effective. This character definition of leadership excludes the greater number of our countries leaders, those that maybe effective, but as Dr. Lerner of Tufts University states… “Leaders who show little evidence of possessing admirable attributes of character.”

Rich Lerner also notes that one of the key components is providing opportunities for students to get involved in leadership are through the moral action of character experiences. After hundreds of peer reviewed character publications, Rich believes character develops through mutually influential relations between an individual and multiple and interrelated settings of his or her life. *

My own assessment is that leadership scholars have not sufficiently incorporated the study of character development… Continue reading


The point made by Dean Stam* of The Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy is compelling. That is, character and leadership are not isomorphic and history and the contemporary national and world landscape are replete with examples of the fact that good character may exist in the absence of conventional conceptions of leadership and, as well, there is certainly a plethora of leaders who show little evidence of possessing admirable attributes of character.

As Mike Matthews has been studying for more than a decade at West Point, the challenge for educators is learning how to produce individuals who reflect desirable attributes of both character and leadership. Mike has certainly been the nation’s (and perhaps the world’s) leader in this scientific quest, and he has made considerable progress in identifying the character virtues co-varying with features of desirable and effective leadership. Moreover, through his being a champion and intellectual… Continue reading

One of the more influential readers of my posts recently stated, “There have been many effective leaders of relatively low character, and high character people who were not effective leaders.” He also stated “ Leadership as I see it, comprises a set of skills that can be learned at most any time.”

In my view, character can also be learned but slowly and carefully. I subscribe to teachers of the distant pass, such as Aristotle and Plato who taught that, whether teaching leadership or character, it is a long, hard and broadly based process.

One of America’s preeminent management consulting companies takes a slightly different view, as Accenture believes, ”leadership does not require formal authority or personal charisma and that every person has the capacity to lead effectively with integrity and that this capacity can be developed over time through discipline practice.”*

I was pleased that the Accenture Leadership… Continue reading

In previous posts I have made clear that both leadership and character development are legitimate academic undertakings. I have also stated that the former has outpaced the latter, at least in terms of student participation, funding and breadth of publications

Notwithstanding this gap, I just received very magnanimous explanation of why the gap exists. Here follows an excerpt of that explanation from the Dean of one of the country’s elite leadership schools.

Character is harder, starts earlier. Leadership as I see it, comprises a set of skills that can be learned at most any time. Character is a (the?) critical attribute of a person’s underlying nature, which determines how one interacts with other people: morality, honor, thrift, honesty, reliability, etc. If you think leadership is hard, try fixing character…oh wait, you are! There have been many effective leaders of relatively low character, and high character people who were not effective… Continue reading


In recent posts, I have been drawing parallels between the Leadership and Character Industries. Teaching how to lead (where the money is) offers another area where Leadership studies have outpaced Character studies.

Students who want to be leaders have a range of options from which to choose and can engage in a number of undergraduate activities (i.e. student government, sports and campus clubs, etc.) in addition to leadership courses.

Here are but a few of the scores of academic offerings which can be found on college campuses across the country:

UVA’s Batten School of Leadership & Public Policy

Yale University’s Leadership Institute

Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership

Northwestern’s Center for Leadership

University of Iowa Certificate of Leadership Studies

Rice University Study of Leadership

In addition to the hundreds of schools with majors in Organizational Leadership, there are MBA’s on Leadership, as well as professional leadership associations and Institutes such… Continue reading


Last post I suggested ethics and effectiveness were two criteria of good leadership. Also discussed was the impact of Machiavelli on leadership. Probing deeper into another insight of Machiavelli, in this instance, his endorsement of the art of deception… (”You must be a great liar… a deceitful man will always find plenty who are ready to be deceived,” *) how then do leadership scholars deal with lying in the context of their ethics criteria?

While lying may be useful to get ahead and is commonplace in today’s culture, one would think lying is a point of divergence between leadership and character scholars. Recently, I came across a study that may tell it all, namely: “Nobody Likes a Rat, On the Willingness to Report Lies and the Consequences Thereof.”**

Do you think we would need the Securities and Exchange Commission if corporations never misstated their financial statements? As… Continue reading

Scanning the daily news confirms widespread pessimism that we are suffering from a crisis of confidence in those who are charged with leading our nation’s political, business and cultural institutions. Levels of trust in our leaders are at an all time low perhaps because many of today’s leaders may place self-interest ahead of the public interest.

In studying character development I have discovered leadership development has much the same aims. Leadership development implies developing good leaders that are both ethical and effective. I agree with the view that leadership is judged on only two criteria: ethics and effectiveness. Perhaps character development should be judged in a similar fashion?

I have sadly concluded that after 30 plus years of lobbying in Washington D.C., many Members adhere to Machiavelli’s The Prince, one of the more famous books on politics and leadership. In my view, the influence of leaders has been diminished… Continue reading

I find Amazon reviews helpful in purchasing books. In the case of The Devil’s Chess Board, Amazon reviews, especially the few two and three star ones, were particularly informative. To cite a few excerpts from these reviews…

“Count Talbot among the lists of conspiracy theorists”
“Talbot is as manipulative as he claims Dulles is”
“Too much editorializing and use of malicious adjectives”
“Hardly a neutral perspective”
“Flights of literary embellishments”
“Authors agenda was far too blatant”

Given the fact that the author was founder of Salon and received laudatory reviews of his work by the mainstream media, this buyer was forewarned before plowing through this doorstop size book.

I could cite plenty of the author’s words to affirm the opinion’s of the negative reviews: one example makes my point; characterizing Dulles as having the “knife-cold psyche of a murderer.” Some of the more egregious parts, in my opinion, were in… Continue reading

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