The Character of Highly Successful Leaders

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A leader’s success is measured, on one important level, by the content of his or her character.

When we say that leaders have good character, we are referring to their essential moral nature as it is typically expressed through their personality and behavior.

And this character rubs off onto the leader’s organization.

Character is who we are at the core of our being. The wisdom and resulting good works of people with good character, such as the Dalai Lama or Nelson Mandela, inspire as well as empower us to conduct our own lives according to our most valued principles and ideals.

An important hallmark of leaders (and others) with distinguished character is that they;

*Stick to their principles, even when it may involve making large sacrifices. *

Behave similarly in private as well as in public, in good times as well as when they are under duress.

They are not the folks who, as someone once jokingly said, behave well only when other people are watching!

Some important character traits for leaders to have are humility, gratitude, generosity, kindness, and empathy. Each one of these character traits can have a significant positive impact on both the individuals within an organization and the organization itself.


“It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom.” Mahatma Gandhi

Humble people are modest and self-effacing while simultaneously expressing strength and confidence. They do not need to trumpet their accomplishments. They recognize and acknowledge the value of other people at least as much as their own and are quick to give credit to others.

Moreover, humble leaders are self-aware: they are assertive in expressing their skill set but also readily admit to their personal limitations and human failings. According to Jim Collins in his book “Good to Great” only 11 companies have successfully moved from being good to great with one thing in common, Level 5 Leadership. And the distinctive part of this leadership is humility. Humility is expressed, in part, by a leader’s passion to put the needs of the company and others first. Humility moves the leader beyond self-importance to the importance of the mission.


Gratitude is an important way we let others know how much they mean to us. The expression by leaders of gratitude for a job well done is a significant factor in employee job satisfaction. Studies show that the biggest reasons why people feel engaged in their work can be traced to the appreciation expressed by their manager.  It is therefore of paramount importance that we learn the language of gratitude in all aspects of life, especially work.


A generous person is never too busy to do a favor for others whether it is convenient or not to do so. This selfless attitude or act has two components: generosity of substance and generosity of spirit.  

Generosity of substance is measured by what material benefit another receives while generosity of spirit is reflected in the attitude we take in giving. For example, those who donate a million dollars (substance) with the contingency that their names are publicly announced is different from those who donate a million dollars anonymously.

Generosity of spirit is, perhaps, best reflected in the words of the Bhagavad Gita: “Do your duty without your eyes on the fruit of your action.” Acts of generosity need to be backed by positive and transparent motives. If not, people will suspect ulterior motives from their leaders. Generally speaking, recipients of generosity feel valued at work and have higher levels of engagement.


Kindness is a positive disposition toward others. It is expressed through genuine concern towards others and a strong inclination to do a good turn and seek the best for others. It is an other-directed as opposed to a self-centered approach to life and work. Kindness is at the core of our human naturewe all long for and resonate positively to kindness. Kindness is probably our most important character trait and actions motivated by kindness have the most lasting positive effects on the world.


Empathy has been defined as the ability to imagine oneself in another’s place and understand the other’s feelings, desires, ideas, and actions. 

Daniel Goleman (2002), recognizing the connection between empathy and inspiration, wrote: “Of all the EI [emotional intelligence] competencies …… empathy matters most to visionary leadership. The ability to sense how others feel and to understand their perspectives means that a leader can articulate a truly inspirational vision. A leader who misreads people, on the other hand, simply can’t inspire them.”

When leaders use their understanding of others to connect their organizational vision to their employees’ values and aspirations, employees will be inspired to follow them.


Good character is the soul of  business. This means that people of character reach outside of themselves to help others and in so doing engender employees loyalty, cooperation, and respect.

When last have you been inspired by the character of a political or business  leader?

About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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