Character and Leadership

President George W. Bush, left center, joins f...

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[tweetmeme]A Washington politician is caught in a public lie about her past, a Pastor resigns his prominent position when his affair with a married staff member becomes public, a young Production Manager repeatedly fails to follow through on his commitments to people in his department. Do these situations have anything in common and what do they have to do with leadership?

What each of these situations have in common is character.  Do you believe that character has anything to do with Leadership?  Leadership traits are a popular topic these days.  Many people are fascinated with the topic of leadership because they long to be led by good leaders, they want to be good leaders, and because truly great leaders are rare.  You don’t have to look further than the local bookstore to find countless books on the topic.  Many blogs and LinkedIn group discussions are devoted to leadership.  One LinkedIn discussion asked group members to define leadership in one-word.  There were 1130 responses over the next 30 days.  Alex Putman summarized the responses with 14 terms in his Social T-rex blog.  Surprisingly, character was not on the list.  “The Book on Leadership” by John MacArthur does not list character as one of the twenty-six characteristics of a true leader.  MacArthur does however address character in chapter 1 even calling it “the one thing that matters most in leadership” on page 4.  When Dan Rockwell conducted a similar survey on his Leadershipfreak blog, character and integrity tied for first.

So why is character on top of one list and completely missing from others?  Character alone does not make one a great leader which may keep this trait from making some lists.  In my mind, character is a pre-requisite to being a great leader.  You cannot have some of the traits of leadership without character.  Being trustworthy as an example, requires having some character because it is one of the things people of character do.  Character is not something great leaders do though, rather it is something they have.  Most great leaders are known for what they do.  They influence, they motivate, they communicate well, they get results.  So while character is needed to be a good leader, it may not be at the front of your mind when you consider the critical leadership traits.

So why is character an important leadership trait if it’s not something leaders do and people often forget about it?  Character is a critical leadership trait because people lose the credibility to lead as their character erodes.  The politician loses credibility when caught in lies.  Unfortunately, this is prevalent enough that there is great cynicism towards Washington, but it is still true.  The Pastor who is caught in an affair resigns because he is unable to lead his church under those circumstances.  The Production Manager that does not follow through on commitments demotivates his department and gives others reasons not to follow through on their commitments.

Those of you who are young leaders or aspire to leadership, I urge you to strive for character.  Lead by example.  Follow through.  Do the little things well.  Your people are watching, even when the boss is not.

Martin Luther King, 1964

Image via Wikipedia

[tweetmeme]”The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

Also please see 3 Critical Leadership Traits: Character, Vision & Passion

Blogs mentioned in this post: Leadershipfreak, Social T-Rex

Another leadership blog: Inspirational Leadership & Values

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About Christian Paulsen

Christian Paulsen is an Executive Consultant with 20 years of Lean Manufacturing. Chris adds value to organizations by driving process improvement and bottom line savings. Chris intends to help others by sharing the lessons learned after a quarter century of operational leadership, marriage, parenting, and even longer as a Cubs fan. Your comments on this blog are welcome. You can also connect with Chris via LinnkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook in the right sidebar. Chris welcomes your comments. Christian's professional services are available by contacting him through LinkedIn (right side bar)
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19 Responses to Character and Leadership

  1. Pingback: Leadership 101 | Life's Lessons in the 21st Century « Five Little Rules

  2. Tim McMahon says:

    Character matters! Leaders must demonstrate a high level of corporate integrity. Without integrity, a leader can never develop trust. Without trust, a leader will never develop people. With developing people, a leader will never maintain a following. And without followers, there is no one to lead. It all begins with integrity.

  3. I really enjoyed this post, Christian. I often read on leadership, because I’m trying to be a better designer and leader. When I look back on my career I can see the leaders I followed out of respect and those I just humored. Some leaders liked to lead by fear, some by relating, but the ones that lead by example were few and make an impact on my life.

  4. Dennis,

    Thanks for your comments and for sharing your insight. Investing in yourself is a mark of effective leaders so you are on your way. Thanks again.


  5. Perhaps self-discipline and trained will-power are the most important ingredients of character. When trying to cultivate good habits, or to teach these to others, such as children, it is always best to teach by example, and to demonstrate the consequences of lack of discipline.
    Teaching others what could happen if one lacks discipline can be done by not rescuing them when they have made discipline and will-power muddles. One cannot call them mistakes – they are simply inattention to consequences.
    If one is caught out enough times through lack of self-discipline, one either loses the game or learns a lesson.

    Rosanne Dingli – author of puzzle thrillers

  6. Thanks, Rosanne. Your comments are appreciated.


  7. Oz says:

    I believe character has everything to do with leadership. You can’t lead without character. Leaders need to inspire, direct, and earn the respect of those following them. Having character helps to develop these aspects in a leader. I’ve worked for folks in the past who were in leadership positions, but lacked character. Those “leaders” didn’t have the respect of their employees and were often ignored or not taken seriously. Character is a hard thing to develop, though, if you don’t have it naturally. It is not impossible to learn character, but it often takes a motivation to change and grow to turn a bad one around.

    • Oz,

      Thanks for your comments and your insight. You are right in that people lose their motivation to follow when they lose respect for their leadership. They will then stop following, follow out of obligation or follow in spite of their leadership.

      Thanks again,

  8. Great post on Leadership and Character; Yes character does matter, it’s personal leadership or leading from the inside out that one should also follow.

    • Kathryn,

      Excellent point! People need to lead themselves even if they do not lead others. Character certainly matters in our personal choices that we make as we make decisions for ourselves as well as for others.


  9. It is obvious that one can be a leader without character but not a good one, and not for very long. Leaders are held to a higher standard or at least should be. We look to leaders to portray the best in us or why should we follow. They can make mistakes but when they do they can still portray the best by admitting and changing their behavior.

    • Diane,

      Leaders definitely need to be held to a higher standard. Most people admire leaders who can admit and learn from their mistakes. The best leaders are always growing and learning. People can and do grow in character as well as other leadership attributes. Thanks for your insight.

      All the best,

  10. Frank says:


    I agree that character and leadership should go hand in hand. Unfortunately, we all know that is not the case. I wonder what clouds the vision of the people who have the most influence on the lives of others?

    If I make a mistake from the bottom of the totem pole I don’t have as many brusies. If I fall from the top my injuries will be a lot more severe and may even cost me my life. (career)

    • Frank,

      It is very unfortunate when those in power lack the character that is expected in those roles. Missing this leadership trait keeps them from reaching their full potential. They may lose followers or they may chose to pursue the wrong vision without character. In the worst cases, we see politicians, CEO’s, and others forced out of office.


  11. My favorite book on leadership is Defeat into Victory. Field Marshall Slim had character!

  12. Pingback: 3 Critical Leadership Traits | Life's Lessons in the 21st Century

  13. 泳鏡 says:

    First of all, great looking site you have here and great post too. I would like to keep up with your posts but having problem subscribing to your rss.

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