Strength of character is one of the most important attributes of a leader, but how is character evidenced in day to day business? Certainly, effective leaders must have credibility, the trust and confidence of others, and key to credibility is a strong sense of integrity. Integrity is built on honesty and the consistent, steadfast adherence to established principles and standards. Strong leadership is dependent upon character, and character is certainly measured, if not defined, by integrity.
Perhaps the greatest risk to the integrity of a leader is temptation. In the eyes of employees, team members, students, constituents, and even family members, leaders are held to a higher ethical standard. Leaders are expected to conduct themselves in a manner that is measured and fair and beyond reproach. Of course in reality, leaders are fallible humans, subject to the same temptations, distractions, and vices as everyone else. But the perception and expectation that leaders will put principles before self-interest persists nonetheless. For this reason, a strong sense of personal self-discipline is critical. Self-discipline ensures we act and make decisions based on principle rather than preference.
This is one area where both our political and business leaders tend to fail us. We are bombarded on a daily basis with headlines that expose fraud, corruption, scandal, and abuse of power on some level. The politics of power and influence drive many of the decisions that are made, policies that are introduced, even promotions that take place. It’s quite a chess game, the posturing and positioning, and with the underlying design to sustain or grow someone’s position of power and influence.
Certainly not all leaders are self-serving. But the fact is that any lack of integrity we see in our leaders is extremely destructive to their credibility. We quickly lose faith in both their ability to effectively lead and perhaps the principles for which they stand.
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” — Abraham Lincoln
Whether a boss, an elected official, or an entire company or industry, the character of our leaders is always under a public microscope. Transgressions may be headlined on the nightly news for all the world to see or quietly whispered between co-workers around the water fountain. At either extreme, the unfortunate consequence is an erosion of trust. Trust is a product of character and integrity, the mortar in the foundation on which effective leadership is built. Without trust, how long will anyone continue to embrace their vision and follow their lead?
If character is built upon a foundation of integrity, discipline, and trust, it’s framed with resilience and covered in unwavering conviction and confidence. Leaders must be strong and undaunted. However, voice of confidence should not be confused with voice of arrogance. Confidence is driven by a firm conviction in a vision, mission, or goal (an external focus). By contrast, ego, pride, and an inflated sense of self-importance all breed arrogance (an internal focus).
How many times have we answered a daughter or son’s “Why?” with, “Because I said so!” As a parent I can personally relate to that, but it is a great example of a authoritative response based on position instead of conviction. If a decision is based on objective criteria, would not a better response be a confident explanation designed to educate and foster trust?
“Conviction is worthless unless it is converted into conduct.” ― Thomas Carlyle
Strong leaders do not communicate from a perspective of position or title. They don’t have to. Quite the contrary, their voice of authority comes from the strength of conviction of right and wrong, not strength of ego. It’s a subtle distinction, but one that is extraordinarily important.
Finally, strength of character cannot be complete without sensitivity to the needs of others. Empathy is essential to compassion, sensitivity, and understanding. Leaders must be willing to give people room to fail as well as succeed. Everyone needs encouragement and reinforcement when they struggle. That’s why we coach and mentor. Those strong of character do not delight in the failure of others, they are burdened by it. The real distinction, however, is that they feel compelled to help.