Character & Leadership

Jeff Gandz, Mary Crossan, Gerrard Sejits and Mark Reno, of the Richard Ivey School of Business recently published an interesting article about senior leadership in the Ivey Business Journal.  They suggest that leadership has three dimensions – character, competencies and commitment. And courage consists of a great list of attributes – courage, transcendence, drive, accountability, collaboration, humanity, justice, temperance, integrity, and humility. Wow. A good leader needs to be ready to walk on water.

The article is well worth the read. But here is the thing – I think that character is not something that just magically happens.  Character is developed in the same way that competencies are developed – through awareness and personal response to life experiences.

If character is a key aspect of leadership, it needs to be front and centre in any conversation about leadership. But often, conversations about character end up sounding like sermons or a conversation with a physician starting with the phrase “you should….” .  Somehow character has a vaguely religious overtone that can quickly be preachy or paternalistic. Even worse, character coaching can often sound like somehow that I, the boss, am better than you, the employee. How do we build character, which is intensely personal, in the workplace environment?

My prescription for building character is three-fold.  One, walk the talk – role model the behaviour you expect, and apologize when you aren’t behaving up to standard. Two, catch them doing something right.  When you see an employee modelling “good character”, reinforce, reward and praise.  Finally, make character one of your criteria for promotion. Be specific about appropriate character related behaviours, and provide feedback.

Me?  I’m working on temperance – patient, calm and self-controlled. Patience has never been one of my strengths. What about you?


4 replies »

  1. Bravo for the pro’s at Ivey. Character seems to be the untouchable “third rail” of leadership assessment. It’s much easier to talk about the “countables”, i.e. the numbers, the demonstrable competencies, the experiences. But think of how often leaders thrive or fail because of their character.

    You hit the nail on the head when you wrote “character has a vaguely religious overtone that can quickly be preachy or paternalistic. ” It can be easily interpreted to fall into categories of judgement or style. And, I have fallen into the “who am I” to tell them ( fill in the blank) trap, because I’m not a stellar role model of that quality, either. The only thing I’d add to your list of three is “Practice”. Give feedback on character qualities. The more we do it, the better we’ll get. We won’t always get it right, but if our heart is in the right place, our intentions will be evident.

    What am I working on? Oh, a long list. According to Hogan, “excitable” is one opportunity. I tend to get overly enthusiastic then overly discouraged. I’m on the never ending quest for the even keel.

  2. Thanks for the comments. I agree that practice is key to everything (my three year old niece knows this).

    No kidding about the excitement followed by discouragement. I call this the shiny object syndrome… wild enthusiasm, followed by disillusionment and then the big downer….

    You must be my evil twin sister….


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