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Character and Outstanding Leadership

If you ask anyone interested or involved in business or politics to come up with a short list of leaders they admire, most people are readily able to do so. What is curious is that more often than not, the leaders that are named are starkly different in demeanor, talent, and temperament.

What I’ve concluded from my research in preparing my new book 10 Virtues of Outstanding Leaders (co-authored with Ronald M. Green) is that there is no one definition of leadership, and that there is no one specific list of attributes, virtues, or skills that all leaders must and do possess. Rather, leadership is a lived process affected by chance, time, place, and specific circumstances, as well as the unique personality of the leader involved. Successful as well as failed leaders earn their reputations and their niche in history by how well their personal attributes and abilities matched the demands and challenges of their time on the job. For example, would Abraham Lincoln be as admired and renowned as he is today if he had lost the American Civil War and not been able to end slavery?

Just as there is no one definition of leadership, so too there is no one single “model leader” who embodies a perfect temperament and has all the tools and talents necessary for being successful in any and every arena.  Nevertheless, we argue that at its core successful leadership is based on two elemental ingredients: Character and Stewardship.

By Character, I mean what a person believes in, what they hold dear, what they value, what ethically motivates them, how they view their responsibilities to others.  By Stewardship, I mean that leaders must be agents or servants of the people they lead.  Leadership is never about the leader.  The first and final job of leadership is to serve the needs and the well-being of the people that they lead.

Having admitted that there is no one single list of absolute leadership virtues and skills, that there is a roster of virtues that directly contribute to both the purpose and the success of leaders.

  • Deep honesty. Outstanding leaders avoid deception and misrepresentation. Recognizing the importance of confidentiality, they may protect sensitive information by saying “no comment,” but they refuse to lie. James Burke, CEO of Johnson & Johnson steered his company through the Tylenol poisoning episodes by earning respect and trust for his honesty.
  • Moral courage. In the face of possible job loss, embarrassment, ostracism, and even physical threats, great leaders stand up for their values. Separated by a century, Abraham Lincoln and Rosa Parks both exhibited moral courage in their struggles to end slavery and segregation.
  • Moral vision. Great leaders not only exhibit moral courage, they are able to understand the meaning of the values they fight for, and they are skilled evaluators of people’s character. Winston Churchill epitomized this virtue, clearly identifying the evil that Nazism represented and charting a moral course for Britain and the World.
  • Compassion and care. Great leaders also have an important emotional and affective side. They are able to connect with and resonate to the needs of their followers. Oprah Winfrey has built a media empire on the perception that she is a person who cares.
  • Fairness. Outstanding leaders are able to put aside personal biases to judge people on their merits. They support and build fair practices and procedures in their organizations. Dwight Eisenhower was not a leading field commander. But his ability to be fair made him the natural leader for a massive and divisive international military coalition.
  • Intellectual Excellence. Outstanding leaders are open to the world. They are curious about their natural and social environment, about new insights being developed in politics, science, and culture that can affect our understanding of things. Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy all exhibited this virtue.
  • Creative Thinking. Great leaders innovate and “think outside the box.” Herb Kellerher and the people of Southwest Airlines have reinvented mass air transport and illustrate this virtue in action.
  • Aesthetic Sensitivity. In a competitive global environment, beauty and efficiency in design are features of winning, high value products. Steve Jobs of Apple understood this, and used his own aesthetic sense to build one of the most innovative and successful modern corporations.
  • Good timing. Knowing when to act is often as important as knowing how to act. Charles de Gaulle knew the precise moments to assume leadership of his defeated nation, and much later, as president, just when to extricate France from a losing Algerian conflict. His and other stories illustrate the old gambler’s truth: “You need to “know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.”
  • Deep Selflessness. Outstanding leaders are not unselfish. They have their own goals, and they sometimes have personal needs that must be met to support their effectiveness. But great leaders always put their organization’s success ahead of their own. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela were not without personal flaws. But both men displayed moral courage and deep selflessness in the pursuit of their communities’ purposes.

My co-author and I believe that leadership is a duty, an obligation, and a service to others. We agree with former CEO and management scholar Max DePree: “The signs of outstanding leadership appear primarily among the followers. Are the followers reaching their potential?”


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