Leadership Development is Character Development


Leadership is a relationship between those who aspire to lead and those who chose to follow. Sometimes the relationship is one-to-one. Sometimes it’s one-to-many. But regardless of whether the number is one or one thousand, leadership is a relationship.

We’ve been conducting research on this relationship for over two decades. We’ve asked people to tell us what they look for and admire in a leader, someone whose direction they would willingly follow. We’ve asked this question in every type of organization. We’ve asked it of men and women, young and old, and individual contributors and executives. We’ve asked it around the world. You might expect we’d get a different set of responses over a twenty-plus year period.

What’s been most striking is that we don’t get a different answer. People keep sending the same message. They want leaders who are honest, forward-looking, competent and inspiring. What this adds up to is personal credibility. Credibility is still the foundation of leadership.

People want to have faith and confidence in their leaders. They want to believe that a leader’s word can be trusted, that a leader is personally excited and enthusiastic about the direction in which we are headed, and that a leader has the knowledge and skill to lead. If people don’t believe in the messenger, they won’t believe the message.

But somewhere along the way to the New Millennium notions of ethics, morality, honesty, character and personal discipline came to be viewed as quaint — at least by those from the me-first, free agent school of corporate strategy. People got sucked into the idea that leadership was all about extrinsic rewards, and they started offering very creative ways to attract talent to the good life. The intrinsic reasons for doing something important —really caring about the people and the purpose — too often got lost in the hyperbole.

Certainly the context of leadership has changed, but given what we’ve all experienced, we’ve come to see how necessary it is to be reminded of some fundamentals that do not change.

Fundamental No. 1: Character Counts

At a recent character education conference at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Thomas Likona, author of Educating for Character, began his talk with this anonymous poem:

Be careful of your thoughts, for your thoughts become your words;
Be careful of your words, for your words become your deeds;
Be careful of your deeds, for your deeds become your habits;
Be careful of your habits; for your habits become you character;
Be careful of your character, for your character becomes your destiny.

Strategy is not a biological imperative. It begins in our minds, gets expressed in words, and then gets translated into action. Over time those actions become who we are, and what you do repeatedly will determine the legacy you leave.

Teaching people to use the tools of commerce is necessary but insufficient to creating a healthy and prosperous society. The right tools in the wrong hands invite evil ends. The more we study leadership, the more we’re persuaded that leadership development is not simply about “how to’s.” It’s also about character development.

Fundamental No. 2: Individuals Act, Organizations Create Cultures

Organizations don’t act, individuals do. Organizations don’t save lives, individuals do. Organizations don’t create breakthrough products, individuals do. Organizations don’t defraud, individuals do. Leadership is personal.

It’s important to make this distinction, because ultimately everyone of us must take personal responsibility for what we do. Actions have consequences, and we all have to account for our own.

What organizations do is create cultures. Culture is the organizational equivalent of a person’s character. The behavior that is modeled becomes the behavior that is followed. This is good news and bad news. Good news because solid cultures can be built around ethical behavior. The bad news is that cultures can also be built around the opposite, at least for a while. It really does matter what you choose to believe in.

Fundamental No. 3: Our System Is Based on Trust

As a result of the corporate malfeasance, fraud, and deceptions that were revealed in 2001 and 2002, the outrage grew into a call for reform of the laws and rules that govern corporate accounting and stock options, along with demands to separate auditing and consulting. We’ve reached a point where an executive’s word is no longer sufficient. Legislation has been passed requiring CEOs of large publicly traded corporations to sign a document swearing their financial reporting is truthful. What was once implicit now has to be made explicit.

Whether you like these changes or not, they just prove one thing: our entire capitalist system is based on trust. It’s not based on an investment model that’s taught in business school. It’s not based on the price earnings ratio. It’s not based on an income statement or a balance sheet. It’s not based on any of these rational concepts, and it’s not based on the numbers. It’s based on whether people believe in the numbers and in the people who are supplying them. If people don’t trust those who handle their money, their livelihoods, and their lives they’ll just refuse to participate.

We’re all asking ourselves, When will this end? We can’t give you a date certain, but we can tell you that it’ll only come when people feel they can once again trust the system and the people in it.

Fundamental No. 4: The Legacy You Leave Is the Life You Lead

Much as compelling words are essential to uplifting spirits, exemplary leaders know that constituents are moved by deeds. They expect leaders to show up, to pay attention, and to participate directly in the process of getting extraordinary things done. Leaders take every opportunity to show others by their own example that they are deeply committed to the aspirations they espouse.

Leaders are judged by how they spend their time, how they react to critical incidents, the stories they tell, the questions they ask, the language and symbols they choose, and the measures they use. Nothing fuels the fires of cynicism more than hypocrisy, and leaders will need to be constantly vigilant about aligning what they practice with what they preach. If you dream of leaving a legacy then you’d better heed the Golden Rule of Leadership: DWYSYWD: Do What You Say You Will Do.

Fundamental No. 5: You Can Make a Difference

Despite everything that has happened over the last few years, people still want and need leadership. They just want leaders who hold an ethic of service and are genuinely respectful of the intelligence and contributions of their constituents. They want leaders who will put principles ahead of politics or profits and other people before self-interests.

Leadership matters. Success in initiating or responding to change, however, is inextricably linked to the credibility of those leading the efforts. Constituents will become willingly involved to the extent that they believe in those sponsoring the change. It is wise, therefore, for leaders to begin every significant change with a “credit check.” It’s not just “Do my constituents believe that the new CRM system will improve our performance?” Or, “Do they believe that this risky policy is for the greater good?” It’s also “Do they believe in me and my ability to lead this effort?”

Even so, unquestioned integrity is not enough. Leaders can’t do it alone. Neither can companies, communities, or countries. Everyone — leaders and constituents alike — shares responsibility for getting extraordinary things done. Leaders need constituents’ energetic involvement as much as the constituents need leader’s boldness of vision and courage of conviction. Leaders also need understanding. Responding to the demands of highly diverse populations is a social challenge and a personal struggle. Respect must run both ways.

Leadership should be everyone’s business. By making leadership our business and not just their business, we all contribute to the renewal of mutual trust and understanding. By making leadership about us and not about them, we all take responsibility for the doing what we say we will do. In this process we all become more credible.

Portions of this article are adapted from Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003. Copyright © 2003. James. M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner. All rights reserved.