insight magazine

Ethics Engaged | Spring 2020

Character: What CPAs Can Learn From Aristotle

Knowing who you are is how you become a better you, a better leader, and a better CPA.
Elizabeth Pittelkow Kittner CFO, GigaOm

Character is important. The components of character have been studied for centuries and are the focus of several philosophers’ and researchers’ work. Character drives your consistent application of values in both familiar and foreign situations, and it is recognizing your strengths and shortcomings. Character is defined as “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual,” which makes character a critical part of who you are and how successful you can become.

One of the most referenced descriptions of character comes from Aristotle, who saw positive character virtues existing on a spectrum between two extremes: deficiency and excess. In other words, our strengths can become weaknesses when taken too far or when ignored.

Interestingly, research first published in 2014 by Amy Y. Ou and her colleagues from NUS Business School, National University of Singapore, concluded that virtuous behaviors lead to more success in business. They found humility and modesty in a CEO are virtues that lead to stronger organizational performance, perhaps because virtuous behavior facilitates positive relationships with the people around you.

Are you static on who you are, or are you consistently looking for ways to improve yourself? Character drives how we act, how we are perceived and, ultimately, how successful we and our organizations can become in the long term.


If you want to become a better you, a better leader, and a better CPA, you can work toward making your virtues habitual as Aristotle recommended.

1. Do your best (even with the little things). For example, be on time to meetings. People may not notice your timeliness, but they will notice your untimeliness. Showing up on time is respectful of others’ time and demonstrates self-discipline. How do you feel about the person who constantly shows up to meetings late? You may wonder what else that person is not doing well. And be cautious of shortcuts. “It takes too much time to do the right thing,” or, “No one is going to be hurt if I modify the results,” are common justifications for speeding through tasks today. We live in a society that values efficiency and quickness to results. However, these types of justifications jeopardize our work and reputation and can become a slippery slope to other vices.

2. Be purposeful. In finance and accounting, we have a basic responsibility to accurately report numbers and to help nonfinancial minds analyze the data for decision-making. Spend your time on the items that matter most and make a difference in what you are doing. For example, improve a process, teach a colleague a new skill, or provide information you have to clients or colleagues that will help to make their jobs or lives easier. Remember to practice humility in your role and share the credit for your successes.

3. Demonstrate courage. Practicing empathy and showing courage can help you work through crucial conversations earlier rather than later. In business, courage often looks like speaking up when it is difficult. Courage is respectfully challenging ideas and helping work toward the greater good and better decisions. Courage is also letting others challenge your ideas, which means you need to create an environment that welcomes open communication. Maya Angelou said, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.”

4. Be accountable. Take responsibility for your work and own up to mistakes instead of sharing or passing blame. These behaviors will garner trust from your colleagues and clients. A strong work ethic is also motivating and inspires others to do more, too. Other ways to express accountability might include doing more than the minimum in your commitments or meeting deadlines early.

5. Choose kindness. When you are feeling a negative emotion like frustration, anger, or annoyance, it can be tempting to take out your feelings on the people causing the negative emotion or the other people around you. This behavior perpetuates the negativity. When we choose kindness and gratitude, we can change the environment around us, and we can encourage virtuous behaviors in others. In a work setting, publicly recognize people for their good contributions, and explain to them and to others why their work matters. In any setting, if a stranger is unkind to you, be kind in return. Give them the generous assumption that they may be experiencing a tough circumstance you do not see.


Character-building starts in youth and evolves continuously. We are works in progress. I encourage you to find people who inspire you and pursue them as formal and informal mentors. Use them to counterbalance your interactions with negative people, learn how you are perceived, and cultivate your character.

Continuing to increase your self-awareness, values, and integrity, and testing them through new experiences is how you learn who you truly are, where you need to grow, and how virtuous you can be.

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