When we talk about leadership development, the focus is often on people skills, communications skills, vision, intelligence, business acumen, even boldness.
Yet none of that will make a leader without the foundational leadership quality of good character: Character is fundamental to effective leadership because good character builds trust, and without trust, people will not follow you. Without followers, obviously, one cannot lead.
However in this age of individuality we rarely talk about what defines good character. In his book “Return on Character,” Fred Kiel defined a leader of good character as someone who scored high on integrity, responsibility, compassion and forgiveness. This definition becomes clearer in his description of a leader with dubious character: Someone who tells the truth about half of the time; who cannot be trusted to keep their promises; who often passes blame to others; who punishes well-intentioned people for making mistakes; who is bad at caring for others.
Another way to define good character is to ask what makes a person trustworthy, as we already defined that good character enables trust. So, what makes someone trustworthy?
- They do what they say they’ll do – i.e. they keep their promises. They deliver
- Their behavior is reliable because over time they have shown consistent behavior and responses to similar situations
- They are truthful and deeply honest
- They make well-considered choices by being open to counsel and the perspectives of others
- They are brave in that they always do what is right, even when it is hard
- They look out for the common good, rather than just serving their own desires
If you scored yourself on the above behavioral standards of “good character,” you likely did not hit a perfect score. Don’t despair. Good character is more nurture than nature. John Maxwell, the leadership development expert, identified four key building blocks to develop strong character:
- Self-discipline & moral courage: To do what is right, even if you don’t feel like it – i.e. to practice the self-control to balance your own desires with the needs of others and the courage also to face the fears, risks and dangers of standing up for what is right.
- Core values: A clear sense of the values that guide your behavior every day.
- A sense of identity: Truly knowing yourself and your beliefs. The second stanza of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” perfectly captures this concept:
“If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too;”
- Integrity: The practice of aligning your actions, feelings and thoughts with your values.
Good character is not just for the noble hearted. It is a choice. In fact, it is a series of consistent choices over a length of time. Our character is formed every time we face a defining moment that challenges us to sort through our core values and principles. If we are willing to use our self-discipline and self-control to try and do the right thing – each and every time – during those defining moments, over time these decisions will shape our personal and professional identities. So character is not just talk. It is not just a matter of knowing who you are and what your values are. Your character -the balance of your values, virtues and vices -expresses itself through your actions. And that is the foundation of leadership.
In summary: Character is an essential trait for leadership. Character builds trust and credibility, promotes loyalty, and as Fred Kiel’s research for “Return on Character” proved, even leads to an increased average return on assets.
So intelligence, talent and all those skill-based competencies are irrelevant to leadership without character. That is also why the totally self-serving & talented may sometimes get ahead initially, but eventually not rise to the top as they are seen as untrustworthy and people will not follow them, however good they are. As US Army General Norman Schwarzkopf said:
“Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy.”
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