Unleash the Power of Moral Character


Frank Sonnenberg, an award-winning author and advocate for personal values and responsibility, has written 11 books, including his latest, BECOME: Unleash the Power of Moral Character and Be Proud of the Life You Choose[/amazon]. Named one of “America’s Top 100 Thought Leaders” and one of “America’s Most Influential Small Business Experts,” Frank’s influence extends through his writing, consulting, and his popular blog, FrankSonnenbergOnline.

In our interview about his latest book, we explore Frank’s insights on moral character and how individuals can lead fulfilling lives by embracing strong values. He shares his journey and the essence of living a life of integrity, offering practical advice from his latest book.


Frank, your book emphasizes the transformative power of moral character. Can you share a personal story where you witnessed a leader’s moral character directly influence their team’s success or failure? 

Some folks think it doesn’t matter what management style you use as long as you achieve your goals. They assume that being an authoritarian, tyrant, bully, control freak (use any label you want) won’t come back to haunt you one day. The truth is that real power isn’t the result of controlling people; it’s created by empowering folks and forging commitment, leading by example, and providing meaning and purpose. By its very nature, there’s no need to force people into compliance. When people follow orders, they go through the motions…but when they have a vested interest in the outcome, they follow their heart.

I consider myself extremely blessed to have reported to David A. Tierno, former Senior Partner, Management Consulting Group, Ernst and Young (EY), for over a decade. Dave was an incredibly effective leader, but what made Dave so special was how he achieved success. Some people talk about honor and integrity; others lead by example. Dave never had to pull rank or resort to command and control to get results. He led Ernst & Young’s Management Consulting Group to new heights because he was knowledgeable, admired, trusted, and respected. I haven’t worked for Dave in over 30 years and I, like so many others, would still move heaven and earth for him.



You discuss the importance of being true to oneself over managing public perception. How can leaders practice authenticity in environments that heavily reward performance and outcomes? 

People care so much about their popularity, their appearance, and their status. They care about what people think, whether others approve, and how they measure up. What’s more, people buy things to appear successful and even lower their personal standards to gain acceptance. That’s a hefty price to pay. But how are you viewed by the person you spend the most amount of time with — yourself?

We spend so much time worrying about our image, and so little time thinking about who we really are. Are you a good person? Are you proud of the way that you live your life? Would you want to be friends with yourself? Would you be happy if your kids followed in your footsteps?

The problem arises when people become fixated on being liked, causing perception to overshadow reality. In this scenario, you cede control of your life to others. While you hold your character in your hands, your reputation is at the mercy of others. As John Wooden, the legendary college basketball coach, said, “Be more concerned with your character than with your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” The point is, if we invested more time and effort in strengthening our moral character, we wouldn’t need to worry about the impression we’re making. So, any time someone asks you who you’re trying to impress your answer should always be “myself.”




Standing up for what’s right can be a lonely journey, especially for leaders. What advice do you have for leaders who find themselves isolated because of their values? 

It can be lonely to stand up for what’s right. Quite frankly, it’s hard to remain true to your values when you’re pressured to abandon them, to call out bad behavior when everyone looks the other way, and to tell the truth when you know you’ll become the object of scorn. You may get bullied, ridiculed, cancelled, and even punished for doing the honorable thing.

It’s easy to compromise your values, lower your standards, and look the other way, but the penalty of doing so is enormous. Actions have consequences. Inaction does, too. As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” The fact is, it’s better to stand alone with honor than to compromise your values to fit in.

This all comes down to acceptance versus self-worth. Some people are more interested in being accepted and winning the approval of others than in doing what’s right. The downside of acting that way is losing respect for yourself.

Be a role model who leads by example every day. Be the person who lives with honor and integrity, commands everyone’s respect, and makes decisions based on what’s right rather than what’s convenient. It won’t always be popular, and it won’t always be easy, but you can take great pride in knowing that you’re setting the standard for excellence. Follow your conscience; you have to live with yourself for the rest of your life.



Trust is a cornerstone of effective leadership. From your experience, what are the first steps a leader should take to rebuild trust in a team where it’s been lost? 

Many people ask if trust can be repaired. The quick answer is yes, but don’t expect to achieve success overnight.

When people engage in greedy, reckless, or dishonest behavior, they often show little remorse for their actions; instead, they’re angry about getting caught. Their initial response is typically to launch a high-profile PR stunt to repair the damage. Other times, they may abruptly alter their behavior to demonstrate credibility. This approach often backfires as people can easily see right through the facade; becoming more suspicious than trustful of the “new you.” The reality is that these transgressors are more focused on repairing their reputation than genuinely changing their ways. Such strategies often fall short because trust can’t be demanded or fabricated; it must be earned.

An alternative way to repair your reputation is by taking baby steps — consistently doing small things that win back everyone’s confidence and trust. The key is to live with honor and integrity and do what’s right — not because you expect to gain anything — but because it’s the right thing to do. And in doing so, you’ll begin to reclaim your reputation, inch by inch.

When someone consistently displays ethical behavior, you can predict their future conduct with some degree of confidence. However, if inappropriate behavior is displayed at any point during the process, it casts a shadow on the relationship. It goes without saying that when you do what’s right, you won’t be forced to defend what you did wrong. It takes a lot more effort to restore trust than to establish it from the start.



In your view, how can leaders ensure they’re not just achieving professional success but are also leading meaningful lives that contribute positively to society? 

When you consistently act with honor and integrity at all times, not just when it’s convenient, you’ll distinguish yourself and your organization from those who are self-interested or solely motivated to make a quick buck. This isn’t achieved through smoke and mirrors, but rather through honorable behavior exhibited every day.

If you hire exceptional people, train them well, inspire them, and then get out of their way, they will produce outstanding results. If you treat suppliers as integral members of your organization, foster an environment where everybody wins, and nurture relationships based on honesty, trust, and respect, they will reward you with commitment and loyalty. If you view customers as long-term assets rather than immediate sales transactions, and develop policies based on optimizing customer value, they will reward you with increased market share and profits. Last, but not least, giving back to the community not only makes an organization a good global citizen, but it’s also incredibly good business.

Being a good person or organization isn’t about doing any one thing — as much as it’s doing everything — the right way. Do you do what’s right or what’s convenient? Do you listen to your conscience or do what’s popular? Do you consider others or think only of yourself? If your thoughts, intentions, and deeds are heartfelt and beneficial to others, it will come back to you in spades. In short, while doing what’s right is good for others, it’s also beneficial for you.


With morality often seen in shades of gray, how should leaders navigate complex ethical dilemmas where the right course of action isn’t clear? 

You’re going to be tested throughout your life. You may be tempted to cheat to make yourself look good, stretch the truth to cover your behind, or do something unethical to get what you want. The challenge is that the right choice might not always be as clear as day. That’s when your actions reveal your true character.

It’s easy to say what you’ll do in theory, but actions speak loudest.

It may be easier to:

  • Sugarcoat bad news rather than tell it like it is.
  • Sweep a problem under the rug rather than address the issue head-on.
  • Look the other way rather than reprimand a star performer for unethical behavior.
  • Follow the crowd rather than remain true to our beliefs and values.
  • Maintain silence rather than speak up against injustice.

To make matters more complicated, your answer may not always be on full display. In fact, it may be a test in which you grade your own exam. No one will know how you performed — but you will.

If you choose the path of honor and integrity, there may be some negative consequences. In fact, you may fall short of the prize that you had your heart set on; you may be forced to tell your boss you’re not comfortable with his or her request; or, if you did something wrong, you may have some explaining to do.

The prize for being honest is that, even though you may not win all the time, you’ll be true to yourself and your values. As former Senator Alan K. Simpson said, “If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.”



Leaders often sacrifice personal goals for their professional ambitions. What guidance do you offer to those struggling to balance these aspects of their lives? 

Some people measure success by the wealth they’ve accumulated, the power they’ve attained, or the status they’ve achieved. Yet even though they’ve reached success beyond their wildest dreams, they still have an empty feeling — something is missing from their life. Purpose.

Here are a few scenarios that describe this emptiness:

Lonely at the top. I was obsessed with making it to the top. When I arrived, however, I learned that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I now realize that my continual pursuit of advancement seriously compromised my ability to spend quality time with my family and build meaningful relationships with friends.

Enough is never enough. One of the ways I kept score in life was to compare my toys to my neighbors’. It felt good for a while, but each “high” just didn’t last. I now know better — there will always be people with more and less than I have.

Pleased everyone except myself. I never made a move without first seeking the approval of my friends and family. They’re happy, but I’m miserable. I now appreciate that my opinion matters too.

If these scenarios sound familiar, it may be time for a course correction.

Success in life begins with purpose. When you achieve clarity, you’ll gain a new perspective on your life. When you find your purpose, you’ll feel good about who you are, what you stand for, and where you’re heading. When you discover your purpose, an inner peace will replace the need to seek approval. And friends and family will begin to sense a new you: someone who is happy, motivated, and self-assured — a person with a mission. And they’ll be right!


You mention the importance of feedback for personal development. How should leaders solicit and respond to feedback, especially when it challenges their self-perception? 

How can you address weaknesses if you’re blind to your flaws? How can you have meaningful relationships if you build walls around yourself? How will you know if your ideas are sound if you don’t let people challenge them?become

  • Are you too busy to listen?
  • Do you shut people out to protect your feelings?
  • Do you surround yourself with “yes” people?
  • Do you get defensive when people offer feedback?
  • Do you think negative feedback is another way of saying, “You failed”?
  • Are you a know-it-all?

When you resist input, ignore feedback, select ideas from the chosen few, and live behind closed doors, you’re going nowhere fast. You’re stifling your ability to learn, destroying your ability to grow, and shutting your eyes to reality. Some folks believe that if you don’t know your weaknesses, you don’t have any. The reality is, closing your eyes to problems doesn’t make them disappear. They’re right under your nose even if you’re unwilling to face them.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re an experienced old-timer, top executive, rising star, or master teacher, you always have something to learn. Most people who make it to the top of their game do so, in part, by viewing feedback as an opportunity to better themselves — rather than as criticism or a cause for embarrassment. Therefore, don’t fear what you may learn about yourself, worry about what you don’t.


Considering the legacy a leader leaves behind, what key actions do you believe contribute most to a lasting and positive impact? 

Sometimes we feel the world is so large and complex that it’s impossible for any one of us to make a difference. When something comes up that requires action, we think, “I’m only one person. What can I do anyway?” The result is that we sit back and wait for others to make the first move — that is, if anyone else is willing to make the effort.

You don’t have to do something life-changing to make a difference. Your deed can be as simple as making someone feel special, reaching out to a lonely person, helping a troubled kid find the right path, or comforting a friend who needs a shoulder to cry on. The fact is that you may not be able to change the world, but you can change the world around you — one good deed at a time.

When you look back on your life, will you gauge success by the power that you attained and the wealth that you accumulated? Or will you measure the degree to which your life was rich in character and purpose? Will it matter that you led an honorable existence, made a difference in people’s lives, and left the world a better place for your children? The truth is that a meaningful life isn’t measured by what you accumulate, but by what you give to others.


For more information, see

BECOME: Unleash the Power of Moral Character and Be Proud of the Life You Choose[/amazon].

Image Credit: Suzanne D. Williams

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