Character is a much-debated aspect of leadership. There are many who consider exemplary character to be important for good leadership. There are also many who don’t care, as long as a leader is delivering results.
Let us consider the trajectory of each argument:
• Important: Leadership with an integral moral code based on integrity, honesty and transparency will develop a culture that reflects this. In fact, the whole argument concerning the importance of character is about outcomes. Leadership with these character traits requires followers to consider values, standards, and behavior as significant in the way results are achieved.
• Not important: Leadership that considers a good and upright character as optional, will encourage followers who regard the end as always justifying the means. Values, morals, or methods do not matter. By definition, this type of leadership will develop an “anything goes” type of culture.
An interesting case study is the recent scandal consuming the Australian cricket team. Leaders decided that cheating is ok in the pursuit of success. A culture of spitefulness, abuse, and aggression develops in that sort of environment, or maybe this culture spawned cheating as an acceptable strategy. Not that all other national teams are paragons of virtue – far from it! Has the need to win at all costs resulted in the death of good sporting behavior? Thankfully there are still leaders in the sporting world who maintain a virtuous character.
Politics is a murky world that I’d rather not delve into too much. But leaders who lie, deceive, and besmirch, rather than show a passion for truth, integrity, and praise, do not endear themselves to many. Maybe that’s why voting often seems to be either, (a) the lesser of evils, or (b) policy regardless of leader.
In the business world, the character of leaders has the potential to impact many. Not only members of the leadership team, but all employees, customers, and suppliers. Leaders of good character will encourage a good culture. These leaders develop a way of working and relating that has a moral foundation. Those who interact with these leaders get to know and understand their basis of operating. Recruitment of new employees requires a standard based on good character, not just competence.
Character isn’t just a moral consideration. Character is also defined by how people serve, speak, and show-up. Character can be described as personality, pedigree, or practice. It is the “whole person”, not just what a leader does or achieves. Character is rarely aligned with charisma but is often associated with caliber.
There are many examples of leadership character being excused when results are good. It takes a lot of courage to challenge character even when results are outstanding. Thankfully, there are also examples of organizations where character is paramount in the way results are achieved.
Bringing the spotlight onto character cannot simply be achieved by adopting a competency model or defining a set of organizational values. Although both are excellent. When leaders of character are promoted, honored, and rewarded, organizations and everyone connected with them benefit. Keeping the focus on character will ensure high caliber leaders in the 21st century.