Developing Leadership Character (Pt. 1)

Originally Posted:

In assessing leaders at any level in an organization, we must always ask three questions:

  • Do they have the competencies to be a leader?  Do they have the knowledge, the understanding of key concepts, facts, and relationships that they need to do the job effectively?
  • Do they have the commitment to be a leader?  Yes, they aspire to be a leader, but are they prepared to do the hard work of leadership, engage with others in fulfilling the organizational mission, achieve the vision and deliver on the goals?
  • Do they have the character to be a good leader and strive to be an even better one?  Do they have the values, traits and virtues that others – shareholders, employees, customers, suppliers, regulators and the broader society within which they operate – will use to determine if they are good leaders?

Figure 1:  Leadership Competencies, Character and Commitment

We have documented previously the types of knowledge, skills, understanding and judgment that leaders need, grouping them into four competencies – strategic, business, organizational and people[1].  Underpinning these competencies is general intellect (see Figure 1).  We have also talked elsewhere about the importance of leaders having the commitment to lead and the problems that are caused when people in leadership roles no longer want to do the hard work of leadership and become disengaged from what is happening in the organization, while they still enjoy the status, privileges and perks of office.  In this article, we want to focus on leadership character, not because it is necessarily more important than competencies and commitment, but because it is the most difficult to define, measure, assess and develop.  Our intent is to define those dimensions of leadership character that are most important in today’s rapidly changing and turbulent business environment, and suggest how character can be developed.


Why Character Matters

In any bookstore you will find dozens of books on leadership style, far fewer on leadership competencies, and fewer still that address leadership character.[2]  For some reason we have lost sight of character.  Perhaps this is because our educational system and organizations are so competency focused; perhaps because we just don’t know what to think about character; perhaps because character seems such an old-fashioned word; perhaps because we are reluctant to discuss examples of poor character with our colleagues in the workplace, or because we believe we cannot assess character objectively.

Yet character is such a central, important element of leadership — particularly for the kind of cross-enterprise leadership that is essential in complex, global business organizations — which it should not and cannot be ignored.  Character fundamentally shapes how we engage the world around us, what we notice, what we reinforce, who we engage in conversation, what we value, what we choose to act on, how we decide…and the list goes on.

Our own research on the failures of leadership points to issues around character as a central theme[3].  Nowhere was this more obvious than in the financial crisis of 2008 – 2009, in which boldness or instant gratification triumphed over temperance.  People who knew that bad risks were being taken did not have the courage and/or confidence to speak up, and people without integrity sold mortgages to those who could not pay them.  They then bundled these mortgages into securities that were fraudulent and sold to others.  People with large egos, lacking in humility, oblivious to the harm they may have been be doing to others or the societies in which they operated, became very rich at the expense of millions who were the victims of the financial crisis and subsequent recession.  Yet, to this day, these same people seem unable or unwilling to accept any degree of responsibility for their actions.  Leaders of large, global companies knew about these types of practices yet did nothing to stop them.  Still others were unable to create the honest, transparent corporate culture that would enable them to be in touch with what was happening deep down in the organization.  All these behaviors and activities were, essentially, failings of character.

[1] For further information on these leadership competencies see “The cross-enterprise leader” by Mary Crossan, Jeffrey Gandz and Gerard Seijts, Ivey Business Journal, July/August 2008.

[2]Titles of books on leadership and character include Questions of character: Illuminating the heart of leadership through literature; The character of leadership: Nine qualities that define great leaders; and Inspiring leadership: Character and ethics matter.

[3] For more information see “Leadership on trial: A manifesto for leadership development” by Jeffrey Gandz, Mary Crossan, Gerard Seijts and Carol Stephenson with Daina Mazutis, 2010.