When we teach Leadership here at PCC, we explore and practice the skills necessary to be a good leader or supervisor. For example, setting clear or SMART goals is key to employee success. Communicating often, holding people accountable, and having performance improvement and other challenging conversations are also required to make the “good boss list.” Mastering these skills will not only make for an effective leader or supervisor but also help employees find success and satisfaction in their daily activities.
Mastery of those skills, as important as they are, is not as critical to a leader’s success as the other tack we take here at PCC, leadership traits or qualities. What are those internal characteristics needed for outstanding leadership? There are many:
Energetic Communicative Knowledgeable
Confident Persistent Honest
Dedicated Creative Caring
Humble Disciplined Passionate
Fair Flexible Humorous
Courageous Empathetic Trustworthy
Yes, that’s quite a list (and we could actually add several more!). Is it possible for a leader to be all of these things all of the time? That should certainly be the goal of every leader. There are times, however, when a leader fails to display each of these traits.
For example, on those days when a leader is sick, energy levels may be a bit low. Have a fight with the spouse? You may not feel like laughing at work. Kids go off the rails at school or abuse your parental trust? You may not be flexible at work with your employees (after all, sometimes managing people is much like parenting kids!). Have an accident on your way home from work, laptop crashed, or got beat up by a customer or even your own boss? You may not even want to go into the office the next day!
Life happens. When it does, you may be less than your best leader-self. Hopefully, though, it’s just a momentary setback and with a little time, you’re back to your energetic, light-hearted, flexible self.
There are, though, two leadership characteristics that are not negotiable. Two traits that, when violated, bring your entire leadership and even personal convictions into question. The first of these two traits is high moral character.
Often during leadership workshops, after listing all of the leadership traits above (including character and our second trait we’ll name later), I will ask which two are most important. Things like honest, caring, and trustworthy jump off the lips of most participants. No, no, and no. It takes a while but we finally hit our first key trait, character.
Hold on here. What about honesty and trustworthiness – aren’t they critical characteristics for a leader? Absolutely! But not as critical as being a leader with high character. Why? Because you might be honest but not a caring leader. You may be trustworthy and believable but not humble or persistent.
If, however, a leader has high character, then he/she will also be honest, trustworthy, caring, persistent, . . . You see, everything flows from character!
That’s why character must be uncompromising, because a lack of character ruins leadership ability. In other words, people will forgive a leader who has a low-energy day or sends out a poor communication. But have a lapse of character? Your entire leadership ability will be called into question – for a long time!
Sadly, business history is littered with low-character leaders. Who remembers Bernie Ebbers (Worldcom)? Dennis Kozlowski (Tyco)? Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling (Enron)? Just a few years ago, there were countless Wall Street, bank, and mortgage executives whose greed sent our entire economy into a tailspin. Most recently, lack of moral character allowed Wells Fargo to fraudulently set up thousands of fake accounts.
I am both amazed and dismayed that character as a key leadership quality is not a given for some people. Take a recent issue of Fortune, for example, which listed the world’s 50 greatest leaders. While I am a die-hard Cubs fan, I was disappointed to see Theo Epstein listed as the #1 leader in the world.
Not because of his ability to build and lead a championship baseball team. He is obviously incredibly skilled at this, winning two World Series with Boston and then again last year with Chicago. But after years of building teams, Mr. Epstein has just figured out that character is important!
“The Cubs, Epstein insisted, would acquire only players with outstanding makeup. Now character did not just matter. It was essential to Epstein’s blueprint to win the World Series.”
At 28 years old, Mr. Epstein was the youngest general manager in baseball history when he took that position with the Boston Red Sox in 2002. Fifteen years later, as President of Operations for the Cubs, he finally realized that character is the most important leadership quality.
So there’s hope! While business still has (and probably always will have) leaders who don’t protect their character and live by the highest standards possible, other leaders can grow and learn like Mr. Epstein. Let’s hope Mr. Epstein’s experience becomes a growing trend!
What do you think? Is character the most important quality? What would you put ahead of character?
Darren K. Ford
I've enjoyed a great career. Worked in many different industries with great coworkers and customers. I talk to a lot of people while drinking a lot of coffee. I read constantly. From all of this, I have much to say.