A person's character is the foundation of great leaders
This post is an excerpt from "The Leader Launchpad" (August 2020, Amplify Publishing) by Howard M. Shore.
Consider all the leaders you have encountered in government, schools, jobs and organizations. How many of them have you thought of as excellent or even above average?
Recently, I have been pondering why there are so few contemporary leaders I admire and perceive as great. What surprises me is that while they may be hardworking, determined, wealthy, smart and considered successful in many ways, I still do not see them as great leaders.
With so many books written and courses offered on leadership and leadership training, we still lack great leadership everywhere. The books have great content, and the training was valuable, yet something is missing! What’s become evident is that we may be focusing on the wrong attributes. Furthermore, there is no single, recognized standard as to what it means to be a great leader! You can go through the motions and activities of leadership and still fail as a leader.
Some people believe leadership is a title. But we do not need a title to lead, and we can have a title and not be an effective leader. This was well-illustrated by the high school students from Parkland, Fla., after the horrific mass shooting that occurred in 2018. Many students took leadership into their own hands and had a significant impact on our nation. The fact is that one can lead every day of their life.
Some people believe great leadership is about achieving outcomes. However, the focus on results has caused many leaders to go to great lengths to produce them at any cost. Notable examples in recent times are the Wells Fargo fake accounts, Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and Cambridge Analytica’s use of our records on Facebook. These are extreme cases, but to what extent do outcomes outweigh someone’s impact on others and society? Where does personal conduct come to present itself? Think about Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein.
We need to place weight on how leaders affect the trust and confidence of others along the way as we measure their accomplishments. While results are essential, we must place equal or greater importance on how one obtained the results, how that leader has impacted others, and how they have conducted themselves -- both publicly and privately.
After evaluating hundreds of leaders, I identified the critical attribute of some great ones: Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher and Warren Buffett. We are far more fascinated by them as people than by their accomplishments and the impact they have had on society. Our interest has more to do with how they conducted themselves over a lifetime. We call this character! They are not perfect, and each has had missteps and done things people disagree with, but these are people of tremendous character.
Let me share the five character traits I look for in leaders to define them as great. I think you will agree that Lincoln, Mandela, Thatcher and Buffett demonstrate these.
The first trait is integrity. Do the right thing always. Integrity is being able to put your self-interests aside and take the right action. Too many people choose their own interests without hesitation and then act surprised by the suggestion that anyone else would consider another choice. I tell my team members not to do anything they would be embarrassed to read about on the front page of a newspaper or on social media.
The second character trait for great leaders is humility. Be humble and curious; it is essential. People who lack humility think that only an elite few, if any, have contributed to their success. Great leaders realize that their success is a consequence of efforts by many others, if not all, the people in their lives. When you are humble, you continually examine others’ ideas and methods because you know you can always get better. To me, this is quite possibly the most potent character trait.
The third character trait for great leaders is expressing care. Show everyone that they are special. You must care for others; everyone deserves it. Too many leaders believe they are entitled to be cared for, but when it comes to giving care, they dole it out as if there is a class system, and then are surprised by the repercussions. Great leaders have the extraordinary ability to put themselves in the place of another, to empathize with what others are feeling and to understand others’ motives and desires. Weak leaders are oblivious to other points of view -- nor do they care about them.
The fourth character trait is consistency. Be reliable and predictable. When you have someone in your life you find unreliable and unpredictable, someone who has been known to demonstrate erratic behavior, how does that make you feel? Dealing with someone whose response is inconsistent causes stress and disharmony. Imagine spending every day consumed with worry about what the leader is going to do. So much time is wasted discussing what these people have done or might do next; it is unproductive. But when someone gives and keeps his or her word, is reliable and predictable, it allows you to feel free to operate at full capacity, be creative and confident, and reach your full potential.
The fifth character trait is influence. Have a positive impact on others. This last trait is important because it demonstrates that a leader is there to serve others, not themself. Poor leaders believe that others are there to help them. They try to figure out how to use people to their advantage.
Influence is the ultimate superpower. Great leaders go big or go home. Their influence is not just on a small team. They impact their communities and perhaps the world.
A person’s character is the only way to measure great leadership. Earlier in the chapter, I mentioned that we all fulfill multiple roles. Every employee may have to act as a leader at a given time. Therefore, we all must demonstrate good character. The beautiful thing is that we can choose whether we want to have integrity, be respectful, have humility, be consistent, be influential -- or not. In every interaction, we have a choice.
Lincoln, Mandela, Thatcher, and Buffett spent lifetimes choosing to demonstrate these traits; there is no reason you cannot make the same choices. Managers must set an example for their subordinates!