Developing Leadership Character (Pt. 3)

Originally posted:

Character Development

Individuals can develop their own character strengths, leaders can help followers develop their character, and organizations can and should enable character development to take place.

How Character Develops

Some dimensions of character, specifically some traits, are inherited.  Virtues, values and many other traits are developed during early childhood, and modified as a result of education, family influences, early role models, work and social experiences, and other life events.

The early philosophers viewed character as something that is formed, subconsciously, through repetitive behavior that is either rewarded or by finding what works through experience.  The habit of character is formed along with a myriad of other habits which both enable and constrain us, and that can be both productive and counterproductive.  The interesting thing about habits is that we are often unaware of them.  There’s a famous saying that illustrates this point rather well – “Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny” (author unknown).

As Robert Kegan, a developmental psychologist, said, we need “to resist our tendencies to make right or true that which is merely familiar and wrong or false that which is only strange.”[9]  At the core of this capacity is character; hence, character shapes thoughts, words, actions, and so on.  Yet, habits may prevent the development of character.  For example, a strong ego that has been built to defend one’s identity makes it difficult to develop humility and thus be open to learning experiences.  So, when people believe that character is developed at an early age, they are in part correct, since there comes a time when habits are difficult to break.  It is not surprising then that it often takes profound life events to liberate us from the cages we have constructed for ourselves.

These “crucible” events have a significant influence on the traits and values that are part of character.  Some of these events force people to confront the impact of their trait-and value-driven behaviors, and their self-concept of virtuosity.  Being fired, having your work praised or criticized, being passed over for a promotion or being promoted when you didn’t think you were ready for it, finding yourself disadvantaged through a boss’s unfair assessment, or being accused of harassment, plagiarism or other forms of unethical behavior are all examples of events that can shape character.

Less dramatic but no less important are those events that reinforce good character.  The acknowledgement, praise, recognition or reward that come to people for doing the right thing or acting in the right way are critical to character development, especially when offered during an individual’s formative years.  Selection for a valued assignment or a promotion further reinforces such behaviors and hence, the development of character.

Even normal everyday occurrences offer the opportunity for character development, since it is not something separate from one’s job or life, but rather a part of them.  Reflection about why you might be impatient, excessive, stubborn or careless provides the raw material for examining and developing character.

Senior Leadership and Organizational Commitment to Character Development

There is much that senior leaders in organizations can do to develop leadership character in others.

Simply talking about character, making it a legitimate and valued topic of conversation, stimulates discussion and facilitates individual reflection.  When organizations develop leadership profiles and address leadership character in those profiles, they emphasize the importance of leadership and promote discussion of it, especially in the context of developmental coaching.  Conversely, when leadership profiles only address competencies and commitment, they implicitly, if unintentionally, suggest that character is not important.

Even explicit values statements in organizations often turn out to be nothing more than posters or plaques on the wall.  Unless they are formulated in the context of the work that people are doing, and in a meaningful way, they tend to be ignored.  Anything that senior management attends to is considered important; anything ignored is marginalized.  For the most part, people do not learn values and virtues by osmosis.  Values need to be addressed explicitly in the organization’s coaching and mentoring, reinforced through training and development, and actively used in recruitment, selection and succession management.

Personal Commitment to Character Building

Warren Bennis addressed the role of individual responsibility in becoming a better leader when he said:  “The leader never lies to himself, especially about himself, knows his flaws as well as his assets, and deals with them directly.  You are your own raw material.  When you know what you consist of and what you want to make of it, then you can invent yourself.”[10]  This is relevant to leadership character as much as it is to competencies and commitment.  It requires a degree of self-awareness, a preparedness to examine habitual behaviors and consider whether there may not be better ways of leading than the ones that have worked, more or less, for you in the past.  We limit our development as leaders by not having the discipline and courage to assess ourselves honestly.


Why Character Really Matters!

When it comes to leadership, competencies determine what a person can do. Commitment determines what they want to do, and character determines what they will do.

Character is foundational for effective decision-making.  Clearly, mistakes are made because of a leader’s shortcomings in his or her competencies.  More often, the root cause is a failing of character.  For example, not recognizing or not willing to admit that you don’t have the requisite competencies to succeed in the leadership role is rooted in character.  Not willing to listen to those who can do well because of the perception that it would undermine your leadership is a problem rooted in character.  Challenging decisions being made by others but which you feel are wrong requires character.  Dealing with discriminatory behaviors by others requires character.  Creating a culture of constructive dissent so that others may challenge your decisions without fear of consequences requires character.

The question is not really why character matters, but why it does not get the attention and respect it warrants.  For character to find the spotlight it deserves, leaders need to illuminate it.  We can see some light shed in organizational statements of values and leadership competencies, but the practice is not widespread.  We believe organizations should move beyond statements of organizational values to anchor leadership development in profiles that define what makes a leader good, in addition to defining what good leaders do and how they can lead better.

Character is not something that you have or don’t have.  All of us have character, but the key is the depth of development of each facet of character that enables us to lead in a holistic way.  Character is not a light switch that can be turned on and off.  There are degrees, and every situation presents a different experience and opportunity to learn and deepen character.  In particular, and for better or for worse, character comes to the fore when managing a crisis.  No one is perfect when it comes to character, and given that its development is a lifelong journey, we will rise to the occasion in some situations and disappoint ourselves and those around us in others.

Numerous examples come to mind where good people do inappropriate things!  They get derailed because they stop listening; they become overconfident in their decision-making skills; they become blind to important contextual variables; their emotions hijack their self-control, and so forth.  Even good people are fallible.  But since we tend to judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior it is easy to become jaded about character.  How could someone preach one thing and do another?   The point is that in this lifelong journey, we need to appreciate what it takes to develop the habits around character, and to enable the conversations within ourselves and with others that strengthen rather than undermine character.


Competencies count, character matters and commitment to the leadership role is critical to the leader’s success.  Our experience is that a renewed focus on character sparks the best in people and fuels them in their personal journeys to become better leaders.  We see the process of learning to lead as a journey that enables people to bring the best of themselves to support and enable others, ensure that the organizations they work with perform at the highest level, and in doing so, contribute to the society in which they operate.

[9] From the speech by Matthew Taylor on 21st century enlightenment

[10] Bennis, Warren (1989). On becoming a leader.  New York, NY: Random House Business Books.