Leadership is defined as influence. In the previous article on leadership we used the analogy of a “structure” to further describe leadership as the combination of character, emotional intelligence, mental intelligence, and subject-matter expertise. The combination of these four elements embodies our ability to effectively lead.
The 2012 edition of the “National Leadership Index,” published by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership, found that 69% of Americans felt that the United States is suffering from a “leadership crisis”. This leadership crisis is evident in government, education, and business—in fact, it’s everywhere we look. Some have concluded that this leadership crisis is a result of a change in character throughout our culture.
Character is defined as the sum of virtues, values and traits. Virtues are behavioral habits. Values are beliefs that people have about what is important or worthwhile to them. Traits are defined as habitual patterns of thought, behavior and emotion. Another way to define character is that character is what you do or who you are when no one else is around. Dr. John Townsend, a well-known leadership coach and business consultant, describes character more broadly as the set of capacities required to meet the demands of reality.
Some descriptions of leadership use the terms competency, commitment, and character. Competency describes what you can do, commitment points to what you want to do, but character defines what you will do. In other words, we lead from who we are.
Character is the foundation of effective leadership. Leadership is not commanding action, nor is it manipulative. Where a manager tends to tell people what to do, a leader accomplishes goals through mobilizing and inspiring people. Managing by command limits the actions of followers to only obeying instructions. Manipulation invites distrust, deception, and resistance. The ability to influence is based on the relationship or connection between leader and followers and, in turn, the relationship is based on the character of the leader.
There are hundreds of traits that define character and we all have a mix of them at various levels. People seek leaders who demonstrate strong positive character, especially in the following areas:
- Integrity, authenticity, trustworthiness
- Visionary, forward-thinking
- Inspirational, motivating, positive
- Candor, transparency
Character is the foundational element of leadership because it is pivotal in determining the relationship between the leader and potential followers. Without strong positive character, people are hesitant to follow; they lack the trust required to accept the influence of the leader.
Our character can be viewed in two realms – internal and external. The internal realm is comprised of our core beliefs and values whereas the external realm includes those character traits in evidence in our words and actions. These two realms are not always in complete congruence. Our followers respond to what they see and hear—the external realm of character or our apparent nature. Since followers only see the apparent or external character, this is the measure of character on which they must base their trust or lack thereof.
We can think of character in broad categories and see how character affects relationship, trust and the ability to influence. We have already mentioned integrity as fundamental. Leaders must be honest, credible, and trustworthy. Integrity means that we don’t twist facts for personal advantage, are willing to stand up for what is right, keep our promises, and speak the truth. Another key character category is our respect or value of people. Leaders must show humility, value the contribution of others, and care about others. This trait is the basis for emotional intelligence traits such as empathy, emotional mastery, and seeking understanding. A third key category of character is responsibility. Great leaders are self-confident, show courage, are accountable, and focus on the whole. In this they are willing to give credit and take blame; they are good communicators. And of course, great leaders are able to provide vision and motivation to change and move forward.
The word character comes from the Greek word, “KHARAKTER”, which is a chisel or marking instrument for metal or stone. Our character is our mark engraved or inscribed into something enduring. As described by Brent Filson, “we can mold mannerisms, but we must chisel our character.” We cannot learn character from a book or seminar. It is formed through repeated actions, often over a lifetime, until the behaviors become ingrained as habits and values.
We can intentionally mold our character with the following steps:
- Identify character traits to be improved
- Define the gap between where you are and where you want to be
- Find role models that demonstrate the trait well
- Identify situations where you can practice the improved trait
- Recruit a support group that can hold you accountable for practicing well the improved trait and not falling back into old patterns
It is through these sorts of activities that we construct a new way for our brain to process information in a given situation.
On this foundation of character we begin to establish leadership, with emotional intelligence the next key element in the structure. The next article in our leadership series will address how the relationships between leaders and followers are built on the foundation of character with the traits and skills of emotional intelligence.
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.