Developing Leadership Character (Pt. 2)

Originally Posted:

Defining Character

There is no consensus on a definition of character.  In fact there seems to be as many definitions as there are scholars whose research and writing focus on character.[4]  In our discussion of character, we focus on personality traits, values and virtues.


Traits are defined as habitual patterns of thought, behavior and emotion that are considered to be relatively stable in individuals across situations and over time.  Traits are not fixed.  For example, introverts may be able to learn how to behave in a less introverted way, while extroverts may learn how to control and moderate their extroverted behaviors when situations require it.

There are, literally, hundreds of personality traits from A (ambition) to Z (zealousness) that have been described in the psychology literature.  However, through statistical techniques such as factor analysis, five broad domains, or dimensions, of personality have emerged, and are now widely used in various forms in employee selection and assessment.[5]  The “Big-Five” traits are:

  • Conscientiousness
  • Openness to experience
  • Extroversion
  • Agreeableness, and
  • Neuroticism

These five traits feature prominently in tests or inventories and they have come to be known as the FFM, or the five-factor model, a robust model of personality.  Although the Big Five dominate the personality literature, there are various other traits that warrant consideration and measurement, such as self-confidence, ambition, perfectionism, dominance, rigidity, persistence and impulsivity.

Some personality traits can be inherited.  For example, studies have shown that identical twins that have the same genes show more traits that are similar than non-identical twins.  Traits, of course, also evolve through life experiences and deliberate developmental exercises such as coaching.


Values are beliefs that people have about what is important or worthwhile to them.  Values influence behavior because people seek more of what they value.  If they can get more net value by behaving in certain ways, they will.  Values therefore can be seen as the guideposts for behavior.  Some people value their autonomy very highly, some value social interaction, some value the opportunity to be creative, some value work-life balance, and so on.  Values may change with life stages and according to the extent to which a particular value has already been realized.  For example, a new graduate strapped by student loans may value a high starting salary.  That same person 30 years later may well pass up a high-paying job for one that paid less, but allowed him to live close to his grandchildren or somewhere with greater access to recreational activities.

An individual’s values are in large part derived from the social environment in which he or she lives.[6]  In Western democracies, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are some of the things we value.  Other societies value order, harmony, non-violence and equality.  If we are brought up with strong religious traditions, some of us develop values based on the teachings of those religions.  Similarly, our value frameworks may be influenced by our home life, fraternal societies we join, experiences obtaining an education, the companies we work for, our friends, and many other social influences.

An important sub-set of values consists of those with ethical or social dimensions, such as honesty, integrity, compassion, fairness, charity and social responsibility.  Such moral values may be strongly or weakly held and influence behavior accordingly.

Values may be espoused though they may not necessarily be manifested.  For example, it’s not unusual for people to experience value conflicts in certain situations.  When loyalty conflicts with honesty, when fairness conflicts with pragmatism, or when social responsibility conflicts with obligation to shareholders, people become conflicted.  And when their actions are inconsistent with their values, they either experience guilt, anger and embarrassment.  People try to minimize such cognitive dissonance by rationalizing or even denying their behavior, discounting the consequences of it or simply blaming others.


From the time of the ancient Greeks, philosophers have defined certain clusters of traits, values and behaviors as “good,” and referred to them as virtues.  Virtues are like behavioral habits – something that is exhibited fairly consistently.  For example, Aristotle wrote that: “We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Aristotle identified and defined twelve virtues: Courage, Temperance, Generosity, Magnificence, Magnanimity, Right ambition, Good temper, Friendliness, Truthfulness, Wit, and Justice.  The twelfth virtue is Practical Wisdom, which is necessary to live the “good life” and thus achieve happiness or well being.

Consider the virtue of Courage.  Traits such as openness to experience, self-confidence and persistence contribute to individuals acting in distinctive ways – for example, putting themselves on the line and acting in a courageous fashion.  Having values such as integrity, treating individuals with respect and achievement predisposes individuals to demonstrate courageous behavior.  Furthermore, a person with integrity tends to act in a different way than a person who lacks integrity, even if both individuals find themselves in the same situation.  Then there is a set of actual behaviors that individuals engage in – on a fairly consistent basis (meaning across situations and over time) – and that friends, colleagues and observers characterize or describe as courageous.  These behaviors may have become societal expectations.

The ten virtues of a cross-enterprise leader

We propose that cross-enterprise leaders who focus on the long-term performance of their organizations must demonstrate ten virtues (as shown in Figure 2)[7].

  • Humility is essential to learning and becoming a better leader
  • Integrity is essential to building trust and encouraging others to collaborate
  • Collaboration enables teamwork
  • Justice yields decisions that are accepted as legitimate and reasonable by others
  • Courage helps leaders make difficult decisions and challenge the decisions or actions of others
  • Temperance ensures that leaders take reasonable risks
  • Accountability ensures that leaders own and commit to the decisions they make and encourages the same in others
  • Humanity builds empathy and understanding of others
  • Transcendence equips the leader with a sense of optimism and purpose
  • Judgment allows leaders to balance and integrate these virtues in ways that serve the needs of multiple stakeholders in and outside their organizations.



Figure 2: Ten Leadership Virtues

But if you consider what may happen when leaders lack these virtues, the effects become more obvious (see Table 1 below).

  • Without Judgment leaders make flawed decisions, especially when they must act quickly in ambiguous situations, namely when faced with the many paradoxes that confront all leaders from time to time.
  • Without Humanity leaders are unable to relate to others, see situations from their followers’ perspectives or take into account the impact of their decisions on others.  Without humanity leaders will not act in socially responsible ways – they will alienate people.
  • Without a Sense of Justice leaders are unable to understand the issues of social inequality and the challenges associated with fairness.  Such leaders act in unfair ways and reap negative consequences in the form of poor employee relations or reactions by customers, governments and regulators.  People will rebel and find ways to undermine the leader.
  • Without Courage leaders will not stand up to poor decisions made by others and will lack the perseverance and tenacity required to work through difficult issues.  They will also back down in the face of adversity and choose the easy route.  But in doing so they only postpone the inevitable.
  • Without Collaboration leaders will fail to achieve those worthwhile goals that require more than individual effort and skills.  They don’t use the diversity of others’ knowledge, experience, perceptions, judgments and skills to make better decisions and to execute them better.  Friction among different stakeholders results and relations deteriorate.
  • Without Accountability leaders don’t commit to, or own, the decisions they make, and cannot get others to do so.  They blame others for poor outcomes and in doing so create a culture of fear and disengagement.  People stop caring, with potentially disastrous consequences.
  • Without Humility leaders cannot be open-minded, and solicit and consider the views of others.  They can’t learn from others, they can’t reflect critically on their failures and become better leaders as a result of those reflections.  They become caricatures of themselves.  Isolation results.
  • Without Integrity leaders cannot build good relationships with followers, with their organizational superiors, with allies or partners.  Every promise has to be guaranteed and the resulting mistrust slows down decisions and actions.
  • Without Temperance leaders take uncalculated risks, rush to judgment, fail to gather relevant facts, have no sense of proportion, and make frequent and damaging changes or even reverse important decisions.  Their credibility suffers.
  • Without Transcendence leaders’ goals become narrow and they fail to elevate discussions to higher-order goals.  They don’t see the bigger picture and hence their decisions may reflect opportunism only.  They don’t think outside the box or encourage others to do so.

Aristotle was clear in stating that virtues become vices in their excess or deficiency.[8] Courage in its excess is recklessness while in its deficiency it is cowardice.  Collaboration in excess, ungoverned by judgment as to when it will result in benefits, leads to numerous unproductive meetings and organizational inefficiency.  But without it, teamwork is difficult or impossible.  Too much humility may lead followers to question the leader’s toughness, resulting in a lack of confidence.  But without it, leaders make ill-advised decisions and are unable to learn.  Transcendence in excess can result in leaders becoming vacuous visionaries, unable to focus on the here and now and the more mundane decisions that need to be made.  But without transcendence, leaders focus on narrow, short-term goals.



Table 1:  Good and Bad Outcomes of Presence or Absence of Virtues

Temperance or Justice in excess may lead to extreme risk aversion and paralysis in decision-making; without them, reckless or grossly unfair decisions are made.  Even extreme Accountability may subvert required actions when the penalties for failure are unreasonable or extreme; but without it, empowerment and delegation are not possible.  Humanity in excess may lead to the neglect of shareholders’ interests; but in its absence, employee loyalty and commitment will suffer.  Judgment under conditions of uncertainty or ambiguity is the essential requirement of organizational leadership; but excessive judgment may lead to indecisiveness or dithering.  Even an excess of integrity can lead to self-righteousness and total inflexibility; but organizations could not function without rules and regulations that set boundaries.  The challenge for leaders, therefore, is to deepen or strengthen a virtue through reflection, and hence avoid turning a virtue such as Courage into the vice of excess (Recklessness) or a lack of it (Cowardice).

Psychologists, sociologists, organizational theorists and others who study behavior in organizations have been interested in traits, values and virtues associated with good leadership.  Virtuous leaders are influenced by their traits and values but they balance and integrate them in ways that are appropriate to the situations in which they operate.  For example, while leaders may be transparent by nature, they are able to keep a confidence or secret when it is appropriate to do so.  While they may be courageous, they will understand which battles to fight and which to avoid.

[4] This conclusion was reached by Jay Conger and George P. Hollenbeck in a special issue of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research (2010, 62, 4, 311-316) on defining and measuring character in leadership.

[5] Examples of such tests include the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Test, the 16 Personality Factors, the Personal Style Indicator and many others.

[6] Rokeach, M. (1973). The nature of human values. New York, NY: Free Press.  Schwartz, S. (1992). Universals in the content and structure of values: Theoretical advances and empirical tests in 20 countries. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 25: 1–66.

[7] Our thinking draws heavily on work by Peterson and Seligman “Character strengths and virtues” (2004) who identified six virtues (Wisdom, Transcendence, Humanity, Temperance, Transcendence and Courage) after extensive consideration of traits and behaviors empirically identified among leaders.  We have added four others that we feel reflect virtues considered to be important in cross-enterprise leaders (Collaboration, Confidence, Humility and Accountability) and modified Wisdom to the more commonly used Judgment.

[8] This follows the argument of Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, Book 3, Chapter 1.   While he was describing a limited number of virtues, we believe that his reasoning applies to our extended set.