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Character: Is It Necessary In Leadership?

Layne McDonald. Ph.D.

Good leaders must first become good servants. — Robert Greenleaf

Character plays a vital role in leadership and one's career. Yet few leaders come to grips with its content and meaning and miss excellent job and career opportunities. We all know character when we see it, but few leaders know what it exactly is. They do not know what precise role it plays in getting results. Nor do they know what character plays in their careers. 

But character can make or break a career. For instance, an essential function of nature in leadership is to engrave trust in people. People who perceive a leader's character has severe defects will not likely trust that leader and so do not devote themselves wholeheartedly to taking action that realizes that leader's aspirations. Leaders who lose the trust of the people they lead are failures in the making. On the other hand, leaders with the people's trust can motivate to conduct extraordinary things. 

To understand the character and its relationship to leadership, let us first understand the charge acter's root, which comes from a Greek word, "CHARACTER," a chisel or marking instrument for metal or stone. Our character, then, is our mark engraved into something enduring. We can mold mannerisms, but we must chisel our character. Of course, we do not carry around a stone or a sheet of metal marked with our "character."  The enduring thing is the aggregate of the traits and features that form our explicit individual nature.

"Apparent" is the operative word. Our character exists in and of itself and as an appearance to others. The fact that nature exists in us and other people's minds holds a powerful leadership lesson.

To understand a character's role in leadership, describe three of the best leaders in history. Then, list three to five character traits that made each one the best.

Describe three of the worst leaders in history, and list three to five character traits that made each one the worst.

Make the same lists for the people in your industry and your organization.

Did you learn something new about leadership and character? If so, precisely what? 

I emphasize "new" because we understand the thinking processes that help us form feelings and judgments on nature in finding elements that compose character. Because we commonly make snap judgments about people and their character, we must know how and why we make those judgments to clarify and better use them in our leadership.

The ultimate character we must be concerned with, of course, is our own. Our nature influences our leadership, our jobs, and our careers. Few leaders connect employment and character in this way, let alone do something about it. You are doing so will give you a tremendous advantage in your career.

We know that it is much harder to see our character than for us to see the nature of others. At this point, however, it is unnecessary to try to understand what your character is. You need only realize that, for leadership purposes, your character is forged in values and manifested in relationships.

Values are the qualities that spur action. Moreover, values are tied to emotions. We feel strongly about the values we hold and look to others, and because of such feelings, we usually act on our values in one way or another.

Look at the character of the leaders you described. You told me values ó or lack of them.

(Whenever I ask people to describe a specific leader, they invariably cite values as the main elements.)

Which values did you admire in the leaders you chose? These might include honesty, integrity, persistence, compassion, wisdom, simplicity, and sincerity.

To help you do this, read the introduction to Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, in which the stoic philosopher and Roman emperor (AD 121-180) describes the character of the people who influenced his character. His description of Maximus illustrates my meaning:

"From Maximus, I learned self-government, and not to be led aside by anything; and cheerfulness in all circumstances, as well as in illness; and a just admixture in the moral character of sweetness and dignity, and to do what was set before me without complaining. I saw that everybody believed that he thought as he spoke and that he never had any bad intention in all that he did. He never showed amazement and surprise, was never in a hurry, and never put off doing a thing, nor was perplexed nor discouraged, nor did he laugh to disguise his vexation, nor, on the other hand, was the ever enthusiastic or suspicious. He was accustomed to doing acts of benevolence, ready to forgive, and free from all falsehood, and he presented the appearance of a man who could not be diverted from right rather than of a man who has been improved. No man could ever think that he was despised by Maximus or venture to think himself a better man. He also had the art of being humorous in a friendly way".

Choose five-character values that you particularly admired in the leaders you described. Then make those values into triggers for action in your leadership, acting one at a time. In other words, you will have five actionable value attributes that can help define how you lead. 

For example, let us say that one of the leaders you described was Maximus. His character included cheerfulness (that is a value!), dignity, honesty, generosity, openness, never complaining, and always being ready to forgive. You might choose "always being ready to forgive," but you could choose anyone, or a combination, of the others.

Make it actionable. In other words, think of someone in your leadership sphere whom you have a gripe with, someone you may have wronged or been wronged by, and act. Seek out that person and "be ready to forgive." See what happens. Do not expect any particular outcome; manifest that single character trait and let what happens to occur.

That is simply one example of turning a character trait into action. Choose any trait. Just be sure you described that trait and that it is something you want to emulate. In this way, you will begin manifesting character in your day-to-day leadership, and, equally important, you will be conscious of that manifestation that most leaders are not.

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