The One Thing You Need to Know: Situation Trumps Character

The other day I had a bag of trail mix in my car. The kind with a little chocolate in it. In the rush of the morning I grabbed this snack as breakfast, and told myself I’d skip the chocolate and eat the nuts and dried fruit.

Of course, I vastly overestimated my willpower! Soon I was searching for the chocolate bits exclusively until they were almost gone.

It reminded me of a powerful lesson from business school in the Leadership and Corporate Accountability class. Professor Garvin, a bright, grounded leader from Maine with enough quotes to dominate Instagram, shared a simple yet profound maxim for managers: Situation Trumps Character. 

The message was clear. In a difficult situation, many people respond out of character. Be it pressure, threats, fear, or confusion, external factors can erode a moral compass. We often think “I would never do xyz.” Yet when I reflect upon the options in challenging times, and put myself in the specific situation, I can’t always be so sure I wouldn’t sin by silence versus blow the whistle. 

Two strong options help balance situation and character. 

First, make it easy to do the right thing. This means clear channels of communication. Recognition versus punishment for employees who speak up. Checks and balances and solid decision making processes. Auditing and compliance. Values training and story-telling to reiterate importance of company norms. Often times as a manager I would ask myself, am I creating situations where we all can succeed and build a sustainable business? Are incentives aligned with long term growth? Do my employees know I care about them and want to hear their difficult feedback and concerns?

Second, make it easy to build strong character through establishing habits. Good habits are just as important to build as eliminating bad habits. Drinking ten glasses of water. Meditating each morning. Reviewing risks to the business and brand on a regular basis. Asking employees and customers for feedback. 

According to yoga philosophy in the epic battle tale, The Bhagavad Gita:


Watch your thoughts, they become your words.

Watch your words, they become your actions.

Watch your actions, they become your habits.

Watch you habits, they become your character.

Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.


What habits can you help your employees build today? How are you holding yourself accountable?

The “watching” referenced above begins with thoughts. How aware are you of your thoughts? How often to you catch yourself in a train of thinking? Can you compassionately say, “wow, I’m boring myself” and let the though go? 

Begin a mindfulness or meditation practice today, be it sitting, walking, or watching the breath. Not sure where to start? I teach business leaders how to focus and harness their minds for greater success and joy. Contact me at and we’ll design a custom program for you.


May you create open and effective situations today for you and those around you to do the right thing.

Oh, and leave the trail mix at home :)


Be well,