Character — the Foundation of Leadership

Character Character Vennis the sum of a person’s habits and qualities. It is the center of a Venn diagram of your skills, knowledge, abilities, values, relationships, past experiences, habits, and personality. Developing good character helps develop a good reputation, which helps gain influence. Others determine whether or not you are a good leader, or have the potential to be a good leader, by observing common traits in the character of other good leaders. Developing good character traits is within your control.

In his book Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek tells a story about the order leaders in the military eat. He reports that without orders or instruction that enlisted military members eat before the noncommissioned officers, and noncommissioned officers before officers, according to rank. The reality is, those lessons are taught to junior leaders. As a brand new howitzer section chief, I decided to eat during a break in firing, before the rest of my section. I reasoned they could go to chow when we resumed firing, but I needed to be on the gun to supervise operations. As I neared the front of the line, I was approached by my platoon sergeant. He noted he had not seen several of my Soldiers yet. He sent me back to my gun without chow and directed me to eat after the rest of my section. The military trains leaders well, and learning to take care of troops is a key lesson that is taught.

The battery resumed firing before I was able to eat. I still had Soldiers going to chow. I did eat that evening. The last guy from my section brought me a plate of food because he knew I would miss chow during the fire missions. I learned the lesson of why leaders eat last. When leaders take care of their troops, their troops will take care of them.

DOD-2009-USMC by SSGT Greeson-flickr.jpgThat first lesson I learned during field feeding taught me the importance of taking care of those you lead. When your followers know you are taking care of their needs, they know they can focus on their tasks required to accomplish the mission. They know you have their back. That only happens when leaders receive trust from those they lead. Trust turns into respect. Respect creates disciplined organizations. Disciplined organizations accomplish great things in the face of adversity.

Anyone can build the kind of character that encourages others to follow them. Look at each element of character. To acquire any of those attributes, potential leaders need to act. Action is the key to leading others.

Knowledge

Leaders need education. Three pillars of gaining knowledge include institutional education, personal development, and real world assignments. Each provides different opportunities to learn.

Institutional education provides general information about the topics included in the course of study. The lessons learned in the classroom provide a background to help people think and reason when problem solving. One learns the theory behind the practice.Roberto-Saltori_Knowledge_Management-flikr.jpg

Real world assignments provide opportunities to apply classroom lessons. New graduates are given low level, simple issues to resolve. They are closely supervised to ensure they understand the expectations as they apply their knowledge. These opportunities allow people to apply their classroom knowledge and make mistakes on low-risk assignments in order to develop deeper understanding of underlying principals in their lessons.

Self development describes a variety of educational means. Examples include reading topical books and journals, asking for extra assignments to meet stretch goals, field trips to locations relevant to the work, and self selected training events or conferences. The smart young leader figures out what knowledge s/he needs to improve his or her performance and finds a way to gain that knowledge. Self development is viewed by more senior leaders as a key indicators of younger leaders potential for greater responsibility. It is demonstrative of their diligence.

Skills and Abilities

Most of the skills and abilities required of leaders have little to do with doing the work of the organization. Knowing how a machinist works a piece of metal, a warehouse employee finds a widget, or what day employment taxes need to be filed generally are important details for others. Knowing those things need to be done and finding the right people to do them is the leader’s job. Leadership requires skill to develop effective processes, the ability to apply influence to seniors, peers, and subordinates alike, and ensure resources are available.

Many have said that leaders lead people, and managers manage things. Someone can be a good manager and a bad leader. Leaders who are poor managers never become good leaders. Managing resources is an important skill so your followers have required resources to do their jobs.

Habits

I had a friend, Gerry Berry, who often said something like, “You always make time for the things that are important to you.” This would often come up when we would discuss doing something together outside of work; we being a few of us. It was rare that our little group of friends could always find the same day and time to do something with everyone. He would direct that line to those who had previous commitments as a way of reminding all of us about the importance of how we choose to use our time. Others determine what we value by the choices we make including how use of time.

Gerry developed an aggressive form of cancer while he was still young. He dreamed of building a barn for his wife and son so they could move the horses they loved to his home. Several of his friends developed a plan to build the barn before he died. At no time were all his friends present on the property at the same time. However, over the course of a week, everyone found some time to participate in some way. What do your habits tell others what you find important?

Experience

wing-cloud-sky-adventure-wind-old-593601-pxhere.com.jpgUnlike the other factors discussed above, we only have limited control of our experiences. A person may seek out experiences, but sometimes you have to be in the right place at the right time with an open mind and properly prepared for some experiences. There are plenty of experiences people can control and obtain. You can choose to hike the Appalachian Trail and gain that experience. You can choose to develop a speaking program and present it to several local civic groups to demonstrate expertise in a subject area. Not everyone can go to Harvard, but most people can complete college if they really want and have a college experience. Not everyone can perform in Carnegie Hall, but there are plenty of performance venues if you want to perform.

Trying new things and pushing yourself outside your comfort zone allows you to understand more things in life. You become more emphatic with the plight and victories of others. You learn and gain knowledge. You learn about abilities you did not possess and you learn about others. There are plenty of things you can do to broaden you experiences.

Relationships

I often heard an expression that one can tell much about another by the way s/he treats those who can do nothing for them. Too often we treat co-workers better than friends or family members and our bosses better than co-workers. We believe we have to display our best behaviors at work, and we should. If we go back to the integrity thought, our treatment of friends and family is really a reflection of what we do when others are not watching. Yes, you have to be on your best behavior at home.Leonora(Ellie)Enking-alesalbanianwaiter-flickr.jpg

People of character treat everyone with respect and dignity. That does not mean you have to agree with everyone all the time about everything. Actually, to give that impression is disrespectful and not helpful. How you disagree with others is a true indicator of your respect for another person. It is okay to agree to disagree. People notice the character of your relationships to determine whether or not they should develop one with you. People want and need to interact with others. People who value others, find others value them. You demonstrate your value others by paying attention to them. Ignore your phone. Your social media feed will wait until you are alone. Focus your attention on the person in front of you.

Be on time. When you tell someone you will meet them at a certain time, do it. Adopt the idea that being early is being on time, being on time is late, and being late is unacceptable. Never keep your boss, a client, a friend, or a family member waiting.

Do what you say you are going to do. If you fail to fulfill promises, no one will trust you. It is better to under promise and over deliver than miss a deadline.

Personality

There are lots of personality tests out there. People take them for many reasons. Your tested personality is irrelevant. Many personality test questions ask what you prefer. What you prefer does not dictate what you do. What you do matters, even if it is not your natural preference.

Learn to take charge of your preferences, control them, and do what is necessary in any given moment. There are times to speak and times to listen. There are times for action and times to wait. I think this ends with, “There is a time to every season under heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). These lessons are from ancient knowledge. Wisdom comes from learning when and how to apply them.

nature-forest-house-building-hut-village-1216943-pxhere.com-cropped.jpgThe foundations of character date back eons. Periodic reviews, such as this blog, keep lessons fresh in people’s minds. Each of us can change our behavior to improve our character.

Character is the foundation of leadership because it forms a solid base of power to influence others. Character is the focus of your knowledge, skills, abilities, values, relationships, and personality. People are predisposed to behave certain ways in situations based on each of these factors. Because people are self-aware, they can judge how their behaviors in each area affects their chosen path. People can choose responsible character building behaviors rather than their preferred responses. Successful leaders understand when and how to match their behaviors to those required for best results. Application becomes easier with practice and reflection. People make mistakes. Smart people learn from their mistakes. Work on your character in order to build a strong foundation as a leader.


Photo Credits

Venn Diagram by the author Creative Commons Attribution

Chow Line from US DOD by SSGT Greeson, USMC public domain

Knowledge Management by Roberto Saltori from flickr.com CC Attribution Reuse

Wild Blue Yonder from pxhere.com CC0

Nature Forest House from pxhere.com CC0 — cropped by the author

Doing Leadership

Many definitions of leadership include a phrase about process or action. Many leadership trainers authors and leadership gurus talk about the qualities of leaders. They discuss the importance of integrity, decisiveness, knowledge of people, processes, candor and character. What all of these boil down to however is action. The U.S. Army uses three words in its leadership doctrine, “Be, Know, Do”. Of these, doing is the most important is Do.

Emanuel_Leutze_(American,_Schwäbisch_Gmünd_1816–1868_Washington,_D.C.)_-_Washington_Crossing_the_Delaware_-_Google_Art_ProjectSteven Covey talks about emotional bank accounts in his books and blogs. He teaches that behavior results in either a deposit or a withdrawal into the account of another. The more deposits, the greater the credit and influence. An old friend, Gerry Berry, often noted that people always make time to do what they really believe is important. What we do, repeated over time becomes who we are.

Descriptions of good leaders include words like honest, decisive, loyal, serving, respectful and smart. Some say these traits describe the leader must be. To become those things you must do those things. To be considered honest, one must act truthful in word and deed. A loyal person stands behind, beside or in front of the one they are loyal to depending on the need. As one repeats these behaviors, one eventually becomes known as an honest person or respectful or loyal, but only through repeated behavior, action, doing.

In a recent leader seminar I attended, we discussed the trait of caring. One leader stood and shared a story of how he regularly learned about and addressed the needs of those who worked for him. He commented that he really did not care about most of the problems, but took notes and set reminders in his calendar to check back with each one on the progress of the problem. He made referrals and ensured junior leaders helped employees navigate available services. He commented he felt like he was faking it. When he was promoted out of his job, he was surprised the employees characterized him as a caring leader.

The reality is this leader may not have felt an emotional bond with his followers problems, but he did things to ensure their needs were met. Yes he used tools like calendars and notebooks to remind him of employee issues. These actions showed he cared. He could easily have told everyone he would help, that he cared, then forget. He showed them he cared by doing what he did, taking action.

Leaders know lots of things. One only gains knowledge by learning. Learning again is an action one does. There are generally three ways to learn. One is through a formal education system. Another is through self-development. The third is through experience. Learning requires action, doing.

So you want to be a leader. If you accept that leadership is a process then you understand that leadership is action. When you repeat certain behaviors, those behaviors become your character, a character of action. When you attend classes, read books and accept stretch assignments you learn, knowledge of action. If we study the leadership doctrine of, “Be, Know, Do,” understand the greatest of these is Do. What are you going to do today to do leadership?

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Image credit:  “Emanuel Leutze (American, Schwäbisch Gmünd 1816–1868 Washington, D.C.) – Washington Crossing the Delaware – Google Art Project” by Emanuel Leutze (German-American, Schwäbisch Gmünd 1816–1868 Washington, D.C.) (1816 – 1868) (Artist, Details of artist on Google Art Project) – KAHKUjVORM5STw at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Emanuel_Leutze_(American,_Schw%C3%A4bisch_Gm%C3%BCnd_1816%E2%80%931868_Washington,_D.C.)_-_Washington_Crossing_the_Delaware_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Emanuel_Leutze_(American,_Schw%C3%A4bisch_Gm%C3%BCnd_1816%E2%80%931868_Washington,_D.C.)_-_Washington_Crossing_the_Delaware_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

Focusing on Ethical Lenses

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Wall Street struggles with insider trading scandals. Capital Hill drowns in waves of corruption. The military suffers from being blown up by sexual assault after sexual assault. All these organizations have professed values. They have codes of ethics. They investigate allegations of wrong doing daily. In spite of their best efforts the same problems continue to plague them.

Each of these organizations teach ethics. Many of us have sat through classes teaching us what is right and what is wrong based on organizational principles. None of these classes explores the underpinnings of ethical thinking and are therefore doomed to fail.

In their book, When Generations Collide, Lynne C. Lancaster & David Stilman explore the differences between generations based on the differences of the history that defined the moments each grew up with. The thesis of the book is that understanding the forces that shaped each generation allows the others to understand the motivations behind the behaviors of each group of people. Young people are not lazy, but rather value their free time to associate with friends and family. Boomers think globally and act locally. Understanding the forces that shaped the values of others creates harmonious relationships at work and home.

Ethics are the same. When an organization professes to value loyalty, the committee that established that as an important guiding principle envisioned that everyone understands what loyalty means. Everyone does, but brings their own history to the definition. One who has strong family ties is loyal to his family. Another employee who values friendships is loyal to her friends. A third employee is third generation at the company. He benefited from many of the past policies that rewarded hard working employees, his loyalty lies with the company. From different points of view come different views of loyalty each equally valid yet when viewed by the others, bound to create disagreement and tension. A study of ethical theory enables understanding of how others define ethical values such as loyalty, honor or duty.

Four major concepts of ethical thinking include:

  • Seeking to do the Greatest Good for Me,
  • Accomplish My Duties & Safeguard My Rights,
  • Making Choices that are Just and Fair for All,
  • Living Virtuous Life According to a Selected Code of Conduct.

Using a story will help put each theory into perspective. While shopping, a person notices another placing a package of meat into a pocket on the inside of a bulky coat. What is the ethical thing to do?

If we use the first theory, by reporting it he may find he is required to make a written statement, wait for police to arrive and possibly testify in court. This may mean missing time for work and not getting paid. From this point of view, the person may reason the best thing for him to do is nothing.

Using the second ethical view, the shopper may decide that she has a duty to report what she saw to the manager which may require the same sacrifices already described. In addition she has a right to pay the lowest possible prices. People stealing food causes prices to rise so by reporting she fulfills her duty and protects her rights.

Using the third outlook the shopper may take into consideration things like the ability of the thief to pay as well as missing work and going to court. He may reason that overall it is not fair for everyone to pay higher prices, but also that the other should be able to purchase food at a reasonable rate. He may choose not to report, but rather approach the thief and offer to buy the meat for the other.

I the final theory, the shopper decides that virtue requires reporting. She determines that if no one pays for the food than the store goes out of business and there is no place to shop. Stealing is against the law no matter the reason (the selected code of conduct) and must not be tolerated. Additionally if everyone turns a blind eye to theft, stealing will escalate resulting in the store closing. Reporting is the only virtuous thing to do.

As the example shows, the lens of one’s ethical view determines how principles such as loyalty, duty and honor focus actions. Based upon the ethical point of view none of the answers provided are incorrect. Likewise in the workplace, when employees make decisions, they select choices based on their ethical lens changing the focus to actions that match. In order to maximize mission statements, value selection, guiding principals and visions for the future, leaders must not only provide ethics training, but also train understanding which lenses employees use. Failure to recognize employee focal points ensures failure of ethical decision making efforts by leaders. Take the time to teach junior leaders and their employees which lens is used by the key leaders to view the world so they can make better choices.