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The Ladder Of Success

Guest post by Dr. Allan Kolp, co-author with Peter J. Rea and James K. Stoller of Exception to the Rule: The Surprising Science of Character-Based Culture, Engagement, and Performance.

“We might spend our whole life climbing the ladder of success, only to find when we get to the top, our ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”

These words, which open our new book, Exception to the Rule, offer a cautionary note. The caution is not against climbing. And the caution is not against climbing the ladder of success. The caution is to make sure you choose the right wall against which to place the ladder of success.

Choosing the right wall invites us to consider the metrics of success. Two laudable metrics are profitability and service. Clearly a business will not be around long if it is not profitable. However, most people would agree that profitability is necessary, but not sufficient, for a good life. Adding some element of service augments the value of a business. Helping people in some way is always a good thing. Profitability and service are good metrics, but they do not inherently lead to meaningful lives. Meaning and purpose would be the third, and most important, metric.

When we introduce meaning as a metric of success, we get to the heart of what finding the right wall for the ladder of success is about. Meaningful lives are usually grounded in virtue. We base our book on the classical virtues and show how these can become the foundation of a healthy, innovative culture that leads to high engagement and enhanced performance. The classical virtues—courage, compassion, justice, wisdom, trust, temperance and hope—become not only good for business, but are the basis for a character-based life, as Aristotle taught long ago.

Following Aristotle’s Lead

We follow Aristotle’s lead in suggesting the virtues are the highest metric of success. To live and conduct business in a character-based manner leads to a wonderful by-product, what often is called happiness. But it’s really more than happiness. A character-based life is a climb up a ladder of success that normally brings a sense of well-being, meaning and a sense of contentment.

This echoes what David Brooks says is our “eulogy virtues,” the kind of life we want when we reach the top of the ladder of success. Brooks contrasts eulogy virtues with what he designates “resume virtues.” It is right that we are concerned with resume virtues as we climb the lower rungs of the ladder. But we argue if we also are intentional about basing our life and work on the virtues, we can be more sure we have our ladder leaning against the right wall. When we reach the top, we can be successful, as measured in traditional ways. We can also be satisfied with a job well done and a life lived fully and well.

Dr. Alan Kolp is holder of the Baldwin Wallace chair in faith and life and professor of religion. Currently, he serves on the board of directors of The International Thomas Merton Society.  Kolp was the co-founder with Peter J. Rea of the Center for Innovation & Growth (CIG), a campus-wide, co-curricular effort to infuse an entrepreneurial and innovative mindset in all students.


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