Character - The Unspoken Essence of Leadership - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #157

Character – The Unspoken Essence of Leadership

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In assessing leaders at any level in an organization, three questions are asked:

  1. Do they have the competencies to be a leader?
  2. Do they have the commitment to be a leader?
  3. Do they have the character to be a good leader?

This Idea focuses on leadership character because it is the most difficult to define, measure, assess and develop. Its aim is to define those dimensions of leadership character that are most important in today’s business environment and suggest how character can be developed.


The idea of character has been lost sight of. One reason could be that the educational system and organizations are completely competency focused, or perhaps because character seems an old-fashioned word. However, character is a vital part of leadership and it cannot be ignored. Character fundamentally shapes how we engage with the world around us, what we notice, what we reinforce, who we engage in conversation, what we value, what we chose to act on, how to decide, etc.

This research on the failures of leadership points to character as a central theme. However, there is no consensus on a definition of character. This article will focus on personality traits, values and virtues.

  • Traits: These are defined as habitual patterns of thought, behaviour and emotion that are considered to be relatively stable in individuals across situations and over time. Traits are not fixed, rather they evolve through life experiences e.g. childhood, education, families, etc.
  • Values: These are beliefs that people have about what is important to them. Values influence behaviour because people seek more of what they value. Examples of values include autonomy, transparency, creativity, the importance of work/life balance and so on. Values may change with life stages. An important sub-set of values consists of those with ethical or social dimensions, such as honesty, integrity, compassion, fairness, charity and social responsibility. Such values may be strongly or weakly held and influence behaviour accordingly. Some may experience value conflicts in certain situations, for example when loyalty conflicts with honesty.
  • Virtues: Virtues are like behavioural habits – something that is exhibited fairly consistently. Aristotle identified 12 virtues, for example: Courage, Temperance, Generosity, Magnificence, etc.

The writers propose that business leaders who focus on the long-term performance of their organizations must demonstrate 10 virtues plus an over-riding or über-virtue:

  1. Humility
  2. Integrity
  3. Collaboration
  4. Justice
  5. Courage
  6. Temperance
  7. Accountability
  8. Humanity
  9. Transcendence
  10. Drive
  11. Judgement

The thinking behind this draws heavily on work by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman who identified 6 virtues – Wisdom, Justice, Humanity, Temperance, Transcendence, and Courage. The writers have added 5 others that they feel are important in business leaders – Collaboration, Drive, Humility, Integrity, and Accountability, as well as modifying Wisdom to the more commonly used Judgement.

Aristotle was clear in stating that virtues become vices in their excess or deficiency – courage in its excess is recklessness etc. The challenge for leaders is to deepen or strengthen a virtue through reflection.

Why Character Really Matters!
Character is foundational for effective decision-making. Mistakes are made because of a leader’s shortcomings in his or her competencies. More often the root cause is a failing character. Challenging decisions being made by others but which you feel are wrong requires character. Creating a culture of constructive dissent so that others may challenge your decisions without fear of consequences requires character.

Character is not something that you have or do not have – the key is the depth of development of each facet of character that enables us to lead. No-one is perfect. For character to find the spotlight it deserves, leaders need to illuminate it. A renewed focus on character sparks the best in people and fuels them in their personal journeys to become better leaders.


There is much that senior leaders can do to develop leadership character in others. Simply talking about character and valuing the topic of conversation stimulates discussion and facilitates individual reflection. When leadership profiles only address competencies and commitment, they may suggest that character is not important. People do not usually learn values and virtues by osmosis. Values need to be addressed explicitly in the organization’s coaching and mentoring, reinforced through training and development, and actively used in recruitment, selection and succession management.



“Character: The Essence of Leadership: 10 character virtues of a good leader. How do you measure up?” Gerard Seijts, Jeffrey Gandz, Mary Crossan and Mark Reno. Developing Leaders, Issue 10, 2013

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Idea conceived

January 1, 2013

Idea posted

Jun 2013
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