Responses to my recent post (Leadership in Challenging Times) reinforce the claim made elsewhere: the #1 characteristic of a good leader, as far as many people are concerned, is that you should feel you can trust this person. At some point in this leadership series I am contemplating, we can consider whether it is better to have someone who is incompetent but trustworthy or someone who is remarkably competent but occasionally plays hard and fast with the truth, but for now let’s assume that having a strong moral compass for decision-making is right up there. I can’t imagine that in an ideal world this would not be the case.
Keeping in mind that there will always be some overlap between the six loose categories of character traits in my recent post (Character, Conviction, Confidence, Competence, Commitment, and Communication), let’s explore what we mean when we say someone has strength of character. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we agree with all of his or her views, but we know what the person stands for and what values they bring to their decision-making.
We understand someone of good character to be open, honest, and trustworthy; they are authentic. This makes perfect sense, right, because how can you follow someone you don’t feel you can trust? That’s precisely why when you are in a new leadership role, the first thing you should do is find ways to engender trust. It doesn’t matter whether your new job is as a political leader, a foreman on an assembly line, the coach of a sports team, a university administrator, the CEO of a tech start-up, or a head chef, if you want to succeed at your job – which should mean accomplishing the goals of your organization, not making a name for yourself – then you need to have your people on side, motivated to do their best. Your people might be your employees, your constituents, your colleagues and students, your athletes, and/or your customers. They’re all the people for whom you are doing your job. And it is even more important to build trust with the people who report to you than the people to whom you report. They are watching; they are listening. What you say and do matter. What you don’t say and do matter, too.
We understand someone of good character to be empathetic to others. People in leadership roles who treat others with respect – people both above them and below them in the hierarchy of authority – are earning the respect of others through this action. Treating others with respect and gaining their trust also facilitates open communication, which allows a leader to know what’s really important to people being affected by decisions. It helps the right decisions to be made.
We expect someone of good character to have the courage to act with integrity. This isn’t always easy. Sometimes the easiest course of action is the course of least resistance, even when not acting is not the right thing to do. Doing the right things for the right reasons sometime takes courage. If you know that some employees have done something hurtful, but calling them out on it would be damaging to the reputation of the organization, not to mention awkward to address, the easiest path may be to sweep the incident under the carpet. The problem with this course of action, or lack thereof, is that someone else is not being protected, usually someone more vulnerable. And it is most likely to raise its ugly head again anyway. Accepting responsibility for a poor decision is a lot harder than doing the right thing in the first place, as problematic as that seemed at the time. (Pointing fingers at others instead of accepting responsibility is even worse.) The courage to do the right thing is crucial. It also allows you to set a positive work environment by example, where things like bullying and harassment are simply not tolerated. And this is the kind of environment a leader of integrity promotes.
There are many phrases we use to describe attributes that speak to strength of character: having good judgment, having good instincts, walking the talk, leading by example, etc. There is no doubt that being in a leadership role can put you in a spotlight, and you may occasionally feel that you are being held to a higher standard than others. If so, so be it. Being a leader – at any level – carries that weight of responsibility. Your success depends on the trust you build. One way to think of that responsibility is as a privilege. You are there to make a difference!
There remains the big question about the relative importance of the other five main characteristics of a good leader. This post hasn’t even mentioned obvious requirements like experience, skills, or motivation to do the job. But assuming that those aspects are covered, the type of character your leaders bring to their positions make every difference.
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