Character plays a vital role in leadership and one’s career. Yet few leaders come to grips with its content and meaning and so miss great job and career opportunities. We all know character when we see it, but few leaders know what it exactly is. They don’t know what precise role does 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, a key function of character in leadership is to engender trust in people. People who perceive that a leader’s character has serious defects will not likely trust that leader and so fail to 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 them to accomplish extraordinary things.
To understand character and its relationship to leadership, let’s first understand character’s root, which comes from a Greek word, “KHARAKTER”, 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 don’t 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 apparent individual nature.
“Apparent” is the operative word. Our character exists not only in and of itself, but also as an appearance to others. The fact that character exists both in us and in the minds of other people holds a powerful leadership lesson.
To begin to understand the role character plays 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.
Now make the same lists for the people in your industry and your own organization.
Did you learn something new about leadership and character? If so, precisely what?
I emphasize “new” because, in identifying elements that compose character, we come to understand the thinking processes that help us form perceptions and judgments on character. Because we commonly make snap judgments about people and their character, we must be aware of how and why we make those judgments, so we can clarify and make better use of them in our leadership.
The ultimate character we must be concerned with, of course, is our own. Our character influences our leadership, and through our leadership, our jobs and careers. Few leaders make the connection between career and character in this way, let alone do something about it. Your doing so will give you a tremendous advantage in your career.
We know that it’s much harder to see our own character than for us to see the character of others. At this point, however, it’s unnecessary to try to understand what your character actually is. You need only realize that, for purposes of leadership, 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 to hold, and because of such feelings, we’re usually acting on our values in one way or another.
Look at the character of the leaders you described. You probably described values — 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, 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 own 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 observed that everybody believed that he thought as he spoke, and that in all that he did he never had any bad intention; and he never showed amazement and surprise, and was never in a hurry, and never put off doing a thing, nor was perplexed nor dejected, nor did he ever laugh to disguise his vexation, nor, on the other hand, was he ever passionate or suspicious. He was accustomed to do acts of beneficence, and was ready to forgive, and was 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 ever venture to think himself a better man. He had also the art of being humorous in an agreeable 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 on one at a time. In other words, you’ll have five actionable value attributes that can help define the way you lead.
For example, let’s say that one of the leaders you described was Maximus, and you said his character included cheerfulness (that’s a value!), dignity, honesty, generosity, candor, never complaining, and always being ready to forgive. You might choose “always being ready to forgive,” but you could choose any one, 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 take action. Seek out that person and “be ready to forgive.” See what happens. Don’t expect any particular outcome; simply manifest that single character trait and let what happens happen.
That’s simply one example of how to turn a character trait into action. Choose any trait. Just be sure you described that trait, and that it’s something you want to emulate. In this way, you’ll begin manifesting character in your day-to-day leadership, and, equally important, you’ll be conscious of that manifestation — which the vast majority of leaders aren’t.