screen capture of Caroline O'Looney interviewing UofSC president Bob Caslen via the internet

Discussing character with UofSC President Bob Caslen

Public relations senior Caroline O'Looney interviews president about his approach to leadership

In October 2020, St. Martin’s Press published The Character Edge: Leading and Winning with Integrity, by former West Point superintendent and current University of South Carolina President Robert L. Caslen, and Michael D. Matthews, a professor of psychology at West Point.

Drawing on their respective careers in the military and academia, Caslen and Matthews offer concrete examples of character-in-action to illuminate an otherwise abstract ideal. They also recommend tools for self-improvement and for the strengthening of organizations, whether in the military sector, the business world or higher education.

To learn more about the book and about President Caslen’s thoughts on character, the UofSC Office of Communications and Public Affairs asked the university’s Center for Integrative and Experiential Learning to recommend a student who could interview the president for the following Q&A. The center, which oversees the university’s Graduation with Leadership Distinction program as well as other initiatives, selected senior Caroline O’Looney.

O’Looney is a public relations major and the marketing and communications intern at the Center for Integrative and Experiential Learning. “I was excited to do this interview because I wanted to learn more about our university’s leader and how he views leadership and courage,” says O’Looney, who plans to graduate in May 2021 and pursue a career in her field. “I also enjoyed getting to speak with President Caslen and learn more about him as a person and leader.”

What was your inspiration for writing the book?

I was in charge of military operations in Northern Iraq during the surge of 23,000 soldiers. I had responsibility for any character issues for senior-graded officers and non-commissioned officers. I found myself relieving them or writing letters of reprimand more times than I wanted to — 78 times in a year. There are 52 weeks in a year, so that’s one and a half letters, or leaders that have been removed out of command, a week. I started saying, “What’s going on in our organization? What’s happening? Why are we removing all these people?”

Most of the problems were character issues of moral impact that occurred inside the operating base, and in engagements and interactions with each other. I realized that it not only had an impact on me individually, but it also had an impact on the effectiveness of the unit. If you lose your leader for moral issues or character issues, it has even more of an impact because it is a breach of trust. When you lose trust, you lose effectiveness. So, it became an effectiveness-in-leadership issue. It didn’t matter how competent they were. You could be incredibly competent, but if you lost character, if you lost trust, you lost effectiveness as a leader. It’s as simple as that.

You know a lot about character development and what it means to have good character. How do you implement some of the things you write about in your book into your personal life?

That’s a great question. I really believe that leaders must have character in their personal life, and leaders must lead organizations of character. They are really two separate things.

As someone enters an organization like the University of South Carolina they come with a set of values they’ve developed over their lifetime to that particular point — developed by their family, their friends, friends in the classroom, on athletic teams. All of those have helped develop a sense of character. You can inventory that character, see those values and see how well they are internalized.

I really believe character is the internalization of a value set. They become part of your very essence. When you face a compromising situation, you don’t necessarily have to think about what right or wrong is. Your natural reaction in that compromising situation would be the manifestation of the values you have internally that just kind of come out.

If I’m holding a cup of coffee, filled to the top, and someone hits my elbow, what is in my cup is going to spill out. Those values I have internalized when someone rubs me the wrong way — those will spill out. I can see and appreciate what those values are. You want those values to illuminate the absolute best of you — selflessness, honor, integrity, a value set like that. It’s not just the moral set of values; it’s also, in my opinion, the physical set of values — perseverance, tenacity, grit and resilience. When you are facing adversity like we all faced this past semester with the pandemic, it takes a degree of character, defined by the values of tenacity, resilience, perseverance and grit to persevere.

Character is about doing the right thing at the right time when no one is looking, because that is really where your character is mostly defined.

UofSC President Bob Caslen

And what specific aspects of character do you try to implement as the president of UofSC?

I think it’s extremely important that we define what our character is as a university. We developed a strategic plan, and strategic priority No. 4 really talks about the culture of our university. That culture is defined by values, and those values include diversity, equitability and inclusiveness, where everyone has the full opportunity to flourish and thrive.

The leader has to define what those values are. The Carolinian Creed is a great example of a creed that expresses a set of values that we all aspire to, that we all want to believe in, and that we all want to internalize. That helps to define the culture that is necessary at this particular university at this particular time. As a leader of the institution, you have to talk about the values because you have to permeate that value set throughout the entire organization.

One of the things I’m going to do when we come back for the spring semester is take all of our deans, directors, staff and leaders to an off-site and talk about the culture at the University of South Carolina. What is our character? What are the values we aspire to? How do we communicate those values? How do we instill them throughout the entire organization in students, faculty and staff? How do we reward successful behavior? How do we modify behavior that is not acceptable, so that we can create that climate where, according to priority No. 4 in the strategic plan, everyone feels like they are a valued member of the organization, and feels there is a safe space to operate as they feel like they can and should within the organization?

Internalize the values yourself as a person and create the climate within your organization that you’re in charge of. That is the responsibility of the leader.

To students at our university, what should be their one take-away from the book? Or, if they had to read one particular chapter, what would it be and why?

I would encourage them to do that inventory (from Chapter 1) and see what character values they can relate to and what they aspire to. The other thing I would tell today’s youth is to really think and reflect on the values you demonstrate in your public life and to see whether or not those are the same values that you live and express in your private life.

We have this thing called social media, for example. You can get on there and be anonymous. You can say and do things you would never do in public. You’ve got to ask yourself, if you are the type who would say and do things anonymously, when it will not be attributed to you, what does that say about your character? Character is about doing the right thing at the right time when no one is looking, because that is really where your character is mostly defined.

Leading from the front really means you’re in the crucible with everyone else, sharing hardships. You are not only there with them inspiring, but also you are there to understand the challenges that they are going through.

UofSC President Bob Caslen

Would you say any approaches to your job changed after leaving West Point to come to South Carolina?

It was easier at West Point to talk about character. Our mission statement at West Point was simply “We educate, train and inspire leaders of character.” We developed students at West Point with the intellectual program, a military program, a physical program and a character program. But notice the mission statement did not say ‘We educate, train and inspire leaders who are intellectually competent, or militarily or physically competent.” We inspired leaders of character. You can be No. 1 in your class academically, but if you fail in character, you fail in leadership. So, it was easy to talk about character, and easy to put people in character development situations.

It’s not as easy here. Even though character is so tremendously important, the emphasis is on intellectual development. Simple as that. Our mission is to transform students’ lives, and we do that through intellectual programs. I personally believe so strongly in character. I think part of intellectual development has got to be embraced around a community of character, which is the values we collectively embrace, principally defined by our Carolinian Creed, and the other values that we internalize.

Do you think there is a way to more fully implement character into curriculum?

One of the programs we have is this cross-college leadership program. When you’re in that program, you’ll graduate with that leadership acumen. When it comes time for commencement and you put your robe on, you’ll have a special cord that signifies that you are a graduate with the leadership acumen. Quite frankly, I want to study that more. I want to see how that leadership program is really focused on developing leaders.

The Army football story from Chapter 2 in your book really spoke to me — how you found the right coach to build the team. As the person who appointed the new coach at West Point, what qualities did you see in him that you thought would work well with college-age student athletes?

There are three things that I think are important. The coach has got to be a leader. A leader inspires people to perform at levels they never thought they could. A leader gets you out of the average, gets you hungry, and inspires you to pay the price for success. That’s number one. That’s tremendously important.

Second, the leader realizes that the team is better when they are a team and not a bunch of individuals. What does it mean to be a team? It means the team is more important than me. It’s a mindset. If the team is more important than me, than I will selflessly serve the team and do what is necessary for the good of the team. I will lay it on the line for the team. It’s not about me, it’s about them.

The third thing that the leader, or the coach, must do is the most important ingredient in any organization. It’s the thing that holds it together. That ingredient is discipline. In football, you get the ball ten to twelve times a game. If you’re going to win, you have to put at least thirty points on the board, which means you’ll have to score at least half the time you get the ball, either a field goal or touchdown. If you’re going to score half the time you get the ball, you cannot have turnovers, fumbles, interceptions or penalties that stop long drives. So, the coach has to coach discipline. Discipline is not just on the practice or playing field. Discipline is in the locker-room. Discipline is in the study hall. Discipline is ensuring you meet the standards you are supposed to. Discipline means I will pay the price that is necessary. That’s discipline.

In regard to the ongoing pandemic, how do you utilize courage and character when making decisions about our school? What would you say to faculty and staff about making decisions about their classroom, their colleges or whatever they are in charge of?

The way I look at it, I need to lead from the front. I have to share hardships, which means I cannot sequester myself in my office, or I cannot isolate myself in quarantine. I have to be among students, I have to be among the faculty, I have to be able to communicate to them. I’m in a high-risk group of getting COVID, at age 67, but I still felt it was necessary to lead from the front.

Leading from the front really means you’re in the crucible with everyone else, sharing hardships. You are not only there with them inspiring, but also you are there to understand the challenges that they are going through. You can look them in the eye and really know in your heart what they are going through.

It’s also important to know students. There are a number of students and faculty members that are having difficulties with the pandemic. It’s important to get with them to understand some of their challenges, and then, as the president, to be able to put resources into programs that are necessary to address some of those challenges.

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