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Fred Kiel

Fred Kiel

Fred Kiel

Co-Founder, Author of Return on Character, Eternal Optimist, and Big Dreamer


Dr. Fred Kiel, Co-Founder, Author of Return on Character, Eternal Optimist, and Big Dreamer

Orville Frederick “Fred” Kiel was born on May 15, 1940, in Rapid City, South Dakota, the youngest of five children of Orville Manford Kiel and Anna Mabel Shoemaker Kiel. His family were rancher farmers who instilled in him a commitment to being a true steward of the land, resulting in a lifelong love of the natural world and an interest in conservation and sustainable agriculture.

A true son of the Midwest, his educational journey began in a one-room schoolhouse (Alfalfa Valley 19) in Grindstone, South Dakota. Dr. Kiel attended Augustana Academy, then the University of Minnesota where he earned an undergraduate degree in psychology and a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology.

Always animated by curiosity and optimism, Fred began his quest to “help leaders connect their heads to their hearts” in the 1970s as a pioneer in the field of executive coaching. As he would later recall, “counseling executives in those days was about hiring a psychologist to go in and talk one-to-one with managers to help them with work adjustment and work-life balance, be less abrasive, or other workplace performance issues.” Recognizing the shift in executive counseling from business fix-it cases to the career development of high-potential leaders, Fred began challenging senior executives to improve their leadership skills. He developed a rigorous data-gathering and customized development process that provided executives with transformative feedback.

In 1991, with Kathryn Williams and Eric Rimmer, Fred co-founded KRW International, adapting his data-gathering and sharing model to guide executives in their journey to accelerate business success through principled leadership. Working with Fortune 500 executives, he and his team advised individuals who became CEOs of complex, high-value businesses, leaders of nonprofits, and family offices.

This would remain a theme throughout his work. Doug Lennick, a dear friend and colleague, asked Fred to help him develop a psychological explanation of how people score high on emotional intelligence while also scoring low on integrity. This insight led Fred and Doug to develop the concept of “moral intelligence,” which they defined as “the mental capacity to determine how universal human principles should be applied to our values, goals, and actions,” in their influential first book Moral Intelligence (Wharton Business School Press, 2005). Through interviews with business leaders, they identified connections between moral intelligence and higher levels of trust, engagement, retention, and innovation. Moral Intelligence 2.0 (Financial Times Press)followed in 2011.These books have been translated into seven languages and are used as core texts in many university courses on business ethics.

Fred’s most significant achievement, however, was his third book, Return on Character: The Real Reason Leaders and Their Companies Win, published in 2015 by Harvard Business Review Press, a pioneering work in the field of character science. Based on the insights of his seven-year study of CEOs and executive teams, he established a correlation between “the keystone character habits (integrity, responsibility, forgiveness, and compassion)” of senior leaders and positive financial outcomes, employee engagement, and risk reduction. He codified this research into a concise ethos of “who you are matters more than what you do.” Leaders set the culture, and the culture creates the value, both to shareholders and customers. Fred closed his book with a call for a change in global leadership norms such that leaders everywhere—business, government, science, politics, religion—are expected to be and become individuals with strong character habits. “Leadership character should be fundamental to business education programs and performance evaluation processes. Business schools are misguided. They emphasize training MBAs in the business skills but never even glance at the other side of the equation—who are you as a person? How do you treat other people? What does your heart tell you? Would your decision making improve if your head and heart were connected?”

He was also a co-author of Coaching at the Top, a 1995 article in the Consulting Psychology Journal, and a contributing author toThe Wisdom of Coaching – Essential Papers in Consulting Psychology for a World of Change, published in 2007 by the American Psychological Association.

A prolific writer both professionally and privately, to the delight of his children and grandchildren, Fred self-published a children’s book, Tales from the Grindstone Forest, illustrated by his young son Jordan. The Tales were inspired by stories from his youth set in a magical forest filled with lovely and loving animal friends. His prose is both lively and animated while also pausing to invite the reader to hear and feel the magnificence of the natural world.

Fred’s love of people, conversation, and the land prompted him to build the Sacred Clay Country Inn in Lanesboro, Minnesota, his favorite place on Earth, in 2005. Constructed with the work and support of local and Amish carpenters and craftsmen, Sacred Clay (the name inspired by the clay beneath its hills and by Isaiah 64:8: We are the clay and you, Lord, our potter) sits on a verdant hillside overlooking Duschee Creek. Fred described Sacred Clay’s mission as “helping people become more fully human—to experience both their head and heart, a place for personal renewal.” In addition to serving as an anchor and oasis in the lives of his children, grandchildren, and friends, Sacred Clay was a place for weddings, family reunions, and a haven for guests to enjoy each other and nature at its best. Fred promoted and supported musicians, artists, Amish artisans, and craftspeople at Sacred Clay. His commitment to land stewardship and conservation led him to support sustainable farming and organic dairy practices.

Fred was strongly committed to community service. In 1976, he was appointed to the first licensing board of psychologists by the governor of Minnesota. Fred served on the boards of several philanthropic organizations, including Augsburg College Youth and Family Institute, Graywolf Press, Walk-In Counseling Center, Lyra Concert, the Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center, and the Lanesboro Chamber of Commerce. 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.

Fred was a joyful, optimistic, hopeful, kind, generous, and funny father, grandfather, friend, and colleague. He is deeply loved and sorely missed.


Return on Character book by Fred Kiel

Return on Character: The Real Reason Leaders and Their Companies Win. Fred Kiel; Harvard Business Review Press, 2015. Also published in German and forthcoming in Romanian.

Moral Intelligence book cover

Moral Intelligence: Enhancing Business Performance and Leadership Success. Doug Lennick and Fred Kiel. Wharton School Publishing, 2005. Also published by regional publishers in Brazil, Turkey, Germany, Poland, Russia, Korea, China and Portugal.


Don’t Bet on Workers’ Selfishness – The model of “economic man” is not only passé but also counterproductive. Business Week Magazine, October 6, 2008

Breaking the Boundaries In Executive Coaching – Kathryn Williams, Fred Kiel, Marilyn Doyle, and Laura Sinagra. A chapter in Executive Coaching: Practices and Perspectives. Davies-Black Publishing, 2002

Coaching at the Top, Fred Kiel, Kathryn Williams, Eric Rimmer, and Marilyn Doyle. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 1996

Selected Return on Character Media Coverage

Harvard Business Review. Measuring the Return on Character.” April 2015

Washington Post. “Good People Make Good Leaders.” September 2015

Strategy + Business. “Everyone Profits from the Return on Character.” Summer 2015

Forbes. Why Investors Rank New Businesses By Leader Quality.” April 2015

Fortune. “In business, nice guys finish first. Yes, really.” April 2015

The Globe and Mail. “Caring and Respectful Equals Successful.” May 2015

The Irish Times. “Character traits in business leadership – flaws and excellence.” June 2015

Rotman Management Magazine. Interview. Fall 2015

Inc. Magazine. “Forgiveness: A Key Tool for Business Success.” Dec 2017

Media Appearances

Selected Lectures and Presentations

  • Human Capital Institute Keynote. Learning & Leadership Development Conference Keynote. September 2018
  • Character Recognition Awards luncheon. Learning and Leadership Development Conference Keynote. May 2018
  • Harvard Partners Meeting Keynote. Character: The Foundation for Emotional Intelligence. June 2017
  • ECI Annual Conference Keynote. The Unique Impact of Executive Character on Business Results. April 2017
  • Allianz NA Human Resources Annual Conference. How CEOs’ Brains Create and Destroy Value. September 2010
  • Connections-Character and Business Results. UNC Charlotte Belk College of Business, 2007
  • Leadership and Moral Intelligence. The Wharton School Global Alumni Forum, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, August 2006
  • CEOs and Moral Competence. 16th Annual Nobel Peace Prize Forum, 2004


  • B.A. – Psychology, University of Minnesota
  • Ph.D. – Counseling Psychology, University of Minnesota