Leaders need character as much as business acumen

photo of Dominic Stephen Barton

Dominic Stephen Barton, managing director of consulting firm McKinsey & Company, encouraged graduating students of the Schulich School of Business to focus on building their character as much as their business acumen to be good leaders.

“We’re now living in some of the most interesting times in human history,” said Barton, who was at convocation ceremonies last Thursday to photo of Dominic Stephen Bartonreceive an honorary doctor of laws degree. “That’s going to put huge demands on all of us, especially new grads, to be the most effective leaders we can be.”

Dominic Stephen Barton

A leader in the field of corporate responsibility and responsible capitalism, Barton has made a career of being ahead of the curve. During the 1990s, when he volunteered to move to McKinsey’s South Korean office, many of his closest peers and mentors believed it would be career suicide. Now, the region is at the epicentre of global capitalism. His ideas about refocusing capitalism for the long-term, published in the Harvard Business Review, seem particularly appropriate for today’s volatile global economy.

In his address, Barton predicted that the next 20 to 30 years would be historic for a variety of reasons, from the rise of emerging economies in Asia, Africa and South America to the rapid changes in technology to increased strains on natural resources.

“These aren’t just issues for academics and governments to work on,” he said. “They’re issues that all of us as business leaders need to think about because they affect us as well.”

Barton added that many of the established paradigms about how business is done – “what business we should get into and the role of business and government in social society” – will need rethinking. These changes will, in turn, have important implications for how tomorrow’s leaders approach their responsibilities.

“It’s not so much about what you do as a leader – how you spend your time, align your organization, and lay out strategy,” he said. “It’s about who you are as a person – your character.”

But rather than some innate quality, character is like a muscle that needs to be exercised and developed, said Barton. He advised graduates to develop three attributes: be resilient, find purpose and, above all, be interesting.

“You are going to be leading in one of the most interesting times in history,” he said. “The requirements that we need from you to make this a successful century are high, so I not only wish the best, we need you to be the best leaders you can possibly be.”

York’s convocation ceremonies are streamed live and then archived online. To view Barton’s convocation address, visit the Convocation website.