Character and Competency and What They Mean to Leadership

Leadership can be described as the art of influencing, and the ability to influence is the result of a relationship that is built on mutual trust and respect between leader and followers. This type of relationship is achieved by starting with a foundation of character and competency. But aren’t character and competency generally the same thing? The answer is, not quite. The two do blend together or overlap to some extent, which is why many people think of them as one and the same, but there are also clear differences.

Character is often described as what you do or who you are when no one is looking. It is developed over a person’s lifetime, but can also change over time, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Because it evolves throughout a person’s life, character is deeply ingrained in and defines that individual. Some character traits cannot be directly identified with ease, but instead are identified through observing the thoughts and actions of the individual.

Competency does play a role in building a relationship of trust and respect, but it does not have the same weight as character.

Virtues, values, and traits that guide a person’s thoughts and behaviors are what delineate that person’s character. Traits are defined here as the habitual patterns of thought, behavior, or emotion that are relatively stable in individuals across situations and over time. Values are the beliefs that people have about what is important or worthwhile to them. Virtues are those traits and values that have traditionally been considered to be of high moral value. Character can consist of a combination of both positive and negative aspects of these elements.

Character can also be described as the set of capacities that a leader needs to meet the demands of reality. When we first meet someone our brain subconsciously asks the questions, “Is this a person that I could respect?” and “Is this a person that I could trust?” Character is important for effective leadership because positive character traits draw others into a trusting and respectful relationship with the leader. On the other hand, the display of negative traits in a leader cause people to disrespect or distrust that person.

A wide range of positive character traits are considered to be important for effective leadership. Some of the most important character traits for developing a relationship of trust and respect in a leader are the following:

  • Forward-looking / Vision
  • Positive outlook / Confident / Inspiring
  • Flexible / Resilient
  • Openness / Approachable / Personable
  • Principled / Integrity
  • Authenticity
  • Humility
  • Empathetic / Caring / Compassionate
  • Results oriented
  • Honesty

How is competency different from character? Competencies are the skills, abilities, or experiences that a leader demonstrates in performing their duties. As a prerequisite for a relationship of respect and trust, followers want to know that their leader is knowledgeable and capable. In short, the credibility of a leader is based on their competencies.

The major competencies of leadership include the following:

  • Communication skills – presenting, inspiring, negotiating
  • Problem solving and decision-making skills – prioritizing, weighing options, thinking deeply, considering risks
  • Skills in developing and coaching others – identifying potential, encouraging
  • Planning, organizing, and executing skills – project management, delegation, supervision
  • Interpersonal and relational skills – team building, relating, being vulnerable, openness, empathizing, understanding and managing emotions
  • Strategic thinking and visioning skills – forward-thinking, integrating information
  • Functional and technical skills – skills within a functional area, expands at higher levels of an organization

Competency does play a role in building a relationship of trust and respect, but it does not have the same weight as character. There is a common saying, “Hire for character, train for skills.” Skills are more easily added to a leader’s personal portfolio. In fact, character traits are often foundational to skills. For example, communication skills are an important competency of a leader, but communication is only effective when it is built upon character traits such as compassion, openness, humility, and vision. With the differences described between character and competency, it becomes apparent that, while both are important, a leader should first seek to build character and then build upon competencies.

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Ken Vaughan

Business Consultant & Leadership Coach at New Horizon Partners Inc.
(614) 776-5720

Ken is a business strategy consultant and leadership coach. His passion is helping companies and people grow and succeed. With an engineering degree and an MBA, he spent more than 20 years working in M&A and business development in the corporate world before founding New Horizon Partners, Inc. in 2002. His consulting practice works with a wide variety of industrial companies, helping them make good decisions about where and how to compete and building their leadership capabilities. To read other articles by Ken on business strategy and leadership, visit the New Horizon Partners website.
Ken Vaughan
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