All Articles Leadership Careers Is describing leadership "character" the easy way out?

Is describing leadership “character” the easy way out?

5 min read


If you’ve been playing the in leadership space for more than a few minutes on Google, you know that one of the old saws about what makes a great leader is that it’s a fuzzy idea called “character.”

Don’t get me wrong, I happen to agree with that old saw, but it isn’t very informative in my work helping aspiring leaders actually learn to lead. In fact, for many of my clients trying understand what a good leader looks like, the answer “character” seems a lot like saying, “Well, you’ll know it when you are it.” I believe that this explains why the Peter Principle is alive and well just like it in 1969 when Laurence J. Peter wrote the book on it. With obscure guidance like this, emerging leaders are left to stumble around in the dark, and many get promoted to their level of incompetence before they figure it out. My own first management job many moons ago was just such as experience of being thrown to the wolves to see if I could survive. The answer? Eventually — after being eaten alive several times.

After years decoding and recoding leadership character to help people build their leadership identity I’ve come to believe that becoming a true leader — the kind of leader we would describe as having character — is actually a personal journey into one’s self. If you don’t figure this out at some point, and get on the journey of self-discovery, you fall prey to The Peter Principle sooner or later.

Looking for leadership character is our business culture’s version of self-help.

While unfulfilled women read “Eat, Pray, Love” for guidance on their inner journey, business executives (women and men, both) read “Grounded: How Leaders Stay Rooted.” While spiritual seekers follow gurus to India and Peru, successful entrepreneurs find each other on conscious capitalism retreats and mindful leadership summits.

These journeys look different on the outside, but on the inside, they’re extremely similar. Regardless of the path they follow, people on an inner journey are honest with themselves and take responsibility for becoming better human beings; they strive to be more impactful on the inside and on the outside; they do the work to know themselves well; they define success broadly to include the success of others.

But most great leaders spend their time leading. They gather information; they consult others; they make decisions; they do stuff. The work of leading is time-consuming and leaves little energy to describe the inner journey to others, much less decode it for them — until they retire and decide to “give back.” The best leaders do mentor younger folk, but the more accomplished they become, the less time and energy they usually have to devote to mentoring.

Enter executive coaching. Coaches are guides for the business leader who wants to do the work of the inner journey. They bring flashlights (a.k.a. coaching tools) into the dark spaces; they share clues from those who’ve traveled the road ahead; they create an objective and safe space for the business leader to take off his or her mantle of authority and get clear of confusion, frustration and failure, where the real character-building and leader-identity development happens. They hold an accountability space for those who want to be held accountable to the journey inwards.

But what of the emerging leaders who don’t get expensive executive coaches? More and more, executive coaches are brought in to do damage control on executives who didn’t receive good guidance when they were building up their leadership identity in middle management. Instead of helping leaders develop healthy habits for the rough road ahead, many executive coaches work to undo years of confusing messages and haphazard reinforcement middle managers received from a chaotic environment where survival meant mimicking others instead of delving inside themselves.

From a coach’s perspective, a crisis in executive leadership starts in middle management. This is why so many middle managers fail to sidestep the Peter Principle and bump into their level of incompetence too soon.

Doing the inner work of leadership is a personal journey that starts the moment you take responsibility for being who you are. It is challenging, humbling and exhilarating work that pays off at work, at home and everywhere in between. It’s also hard to describe to others, so rather than try, many of us just say that leadership takes “character.” As you can see, however, that’s the easy way out.

An invitation to middle management: Do you want to decode your own leadership character to see where you stand? Take the free InPower Peter Principle Diagnostic to see where you are vs. where you aspire to be.

Dana Theus is president and CEO of InPower Consulting, reframing leadership to decode personal power for emerging and established leaders. Theus is also a personal branding and executive coach as well as a regular contributor to SmartBlog on Leadership. Follow her on Twitter at @DanaTheus and on LinkedIn.

If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s e-mail list for our daily newsletter on being a better, smarter leader.