Fred Kiel
Fred Kiel, author of, ‘Return on Character: The Real Reason Leaders and Their Companies Win’

We’ve all been taught the golden rule – “treat others as you want to be treated”. Our parents raise us with the best intentions – they tell us to be nice to one another, and not to step on others to get ahead. But is that actually good advice? Is it better to have high moral character and put others first, or is it a dog eat dog world where nice guys finish last? This week we speak with Fred Kiel, co-founder of KRW International, leadership researcher, and author of the new book, Return on Character: The Real Reason Leaders and Their Companies Win. In this book (and episode), Fred summarizes seven years of research on the connection between the character of the CEO and return on assets. As part of this research, Fred and his team embarked on a landmark study of more than 100 CEOs and over 8,000 of their employees’ to determine once and for all if the character of a leader really has an impact on a company’s financial success.

Prior to focusing on business advising, Fred founded a successful private practice in Minneapolis which became the major employer of professionals in that market. His interest in business advising eventually won out, and a bit over two decades ago, he sold his practice and co-founded KRW International.

Fred has served on the boards of several philanthropic organizations, including Augsburg College Youth and Family Institute, Graywolf Press, Walk-In Counseling Center, and the Lyra Concert. He currently serves on the board of the Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center. He also served on the adjunct staff of the Center for Creative Leadership for nearly ten years and served two terms on the Board of Psychology for the state of Minnesota.


“We are born to be both self-concerned and to be concerned for the common good. Which one of those sides ‘wins’ is dependent upon our environment and our experiences as we grow up.”

– Fred Kiel

Quotes from Fred:

[shadowbox]“Con artists are those people that have a high level of emotional intelligence but very little integrity.”

“Human infants are in fact born to be moral. We are social animals. It’s so wired into our DNA that the first thing a human infant does upon birth is try to connect with it’s mother.”

“If leaders honor the 4 moral principles in their leadership behavior, those are the leaders that will get the better long term, sustained business results.”

“The strong character leaders are ones that had good role models earlier in their life. Whether it was their parents, a sibling, a boss, or a mentor – they followed after people who were of strong character.”[/shadowbox]

What we learn in this episode:

  • What does it take to be a strong leader?
  • What does it mean to be moral?
  • What are the 4 moral principles?
  • What are the two eulogies that you have and how do you want to shape them?


Return on Character: The Real Reason Leaders and Their Companies Win

Fred Kiel TedX Talk

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Comments (3)
  1. Great guest as usual. But the repeating comments “I believe/I don’t believe that” and “I like/I don’t like that” really bothered me. Lots of the points were not up to your preference. Much like it doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in relativity or evolution. A theory doesn’t prove it more reliable or less so based on someone’s preference; especially when it’s obvious that the host didn’t get the point at the first place. Although such comments are fine privately, I don’t think it helps further the discussion.

    Also, many examples that the host gave to prove his point are fallacious. For instance, I don’t think it’s fair to say that Steve Jobs doesn’t care about people. How can apple come up with such beautiful human oriented designs without one of their foremost thinker caring about people? He probably deserve lots of other criticism, but it’s definitely a stretch to use him as an example of immorality.

    Overall for the podcast, there are too much personal perception that are not carefully thought through during many of the conversations. I like the personal touch of the show but I wish they’re better weighted and delivered so as to help deliver the wisdom of the guests. The passion is contagious. But since it’s called Smart People podcast, perhaps sometimes it’s important to keep it rational.

    I hope this doesn’t sound too harsh. I’ve been listening to the show since day one and I’m always impressed by the amazing pool of guest. As the tag line goes, it really satisfies my curious mind 🙂 I only wish the interaction between the host and the guest can be polished more to bring the best out of the conversation.

    • Based on what I have seen, heard and read, Elon Musk is an exceptional human being in terms of talent, intellect, integrity and fairness. I feel like the light chosen to represent him in this interview was unfortunate, and at least somewhat inaccurate, as I doubt anyone more familiar with his philanthropic aspirations would group him along with “…eccentric, kind of whackos that don’t necessarily connect with the human.”

      On the contrary, as a complete stranger to Elon Musk, I feel a deep human connection with him, his teams, and to those things they are trying to accomplish. It seems to me that many of his companies/projects were established, perhaps primarily, because he has ‘concerned himself with the human aspect’ of things. I hope the interviewer will reconsider his position on this matter.

      In addition, I agree with the constructive criticism offered by Ling. As another ‘day one’ listener, I value the podcasts continued efforts to improve both the quality and content of the interviews. Please do keep up the good work!

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