Why Character Matters in Our Leaders

 Character is destiny

-Heraclitus, 2500 years ago:

When we admire leaders as having “good character”, we are referring to their

essential moral nature as it is typically expressed through their personality or

behavior. In this section, we will also use this term to refer to the consistency

with which one expresses those good qualities; that is, in private as well as in

public, in good times as well as under duress.

Character has been jokingly defined as how we behave when no one is

watching. What makes this so funny is how well it captures human nature:

Individuals may behave according to their highest moral aspirations when

trying to impress others, as when they are representing their organization

in a public forum. But, put these individuals in a tempting situation where,

for example, they could derive financial benefits illegally and likely not

get caught, these same folks might find their high moral standards slipping

away. Similarly a leader, who never loses self-control when interacting with

colleagues at the office, may, in the privacy of his home, abuse his wife and children.

Such a person is often referred to as a “Street angel, home devil”. There has to be 

consistency between one’s public and private face for the judgement of 

good character to be made.

A hallmark of people with distinguished character is that they stick to their

principles, even when it may involve making large sacrifices. They inspire us

because they show us that it is possible to conduct our own lives according to

our most valued principles and ideals.

What are the specific values that distinguish leaders of character from others?

In his work on positive psychology, Martin Seligman (2002) has identified

six character traits he found to be universal and valued in their own right:

Courage (standing by convictions in the face of great opposition, staying

the course in the face of overwhelming odds)

Wisdom and knowledge (curiosity, love of learning, originality, social


Justice (teamwork, fairness, and leadership)

Love and humanity (kindness and generosity of spirit)

Self-regulation (control over impulses and emotions, humility)

Transcendence (transcending self-interest, contributing to the greater


One business leader who exemplified these values in his actions was Aaron

Feuerstein, owner of Malden Mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts. After his

factory complex burned down in 1995, it was expected that he would lay off

all his employees until the Mill was rebuilt because it was not profitable to

do otherwise; in fact, it would be both costly and risky to keep employees

on the payroll under these circumstances. Mr. Feuerstein, however, did the

unexpected: he kept all 3000 employees on the payroll for the three months

it took to repair the facility. In making this decision, Harold Kushner (2002),

in his book, Living a Life that Matters, quoted him as saying:

“I have a responsibility to the workers and an equal responsibility to the

community. It would be unconscionable to put three thousand people on the

streets and deliver a death blow to the city of Lawrence.”

In his response to this catastrophe, Mr. Feurstein manifested the universal

values to which we all aspire: he showed courage in paying his employees

when it would likely make his job much more difficult and challenging in the

months ahead. He showed wisdom in recognizing the potentially deleterious

effects and long-term reverberations the layoff could have on his employees’

families and their community. He put justice and fairness as well as

humanity ahead of the financial bottom-line in supporting his employees and

his community through this catastrophe.

As a leader who inspires others through expressing your personal character,

you will:

Personally live your values. Throughout the organization, people tend

to mirror or adjust themselves to the example of their leaders. Living,

as well as speaking, one’s values is what give leaders their credibility, a

characteristic essential for a healthy and productive workplace.

Not make demands on employees that put them in conflict with their

values. Working against one’s values puts a person in a state of cognitive

dissonance or internal conflict. A conflicted person is an uninspired person.

Recognize people for acts of kindness, truthfulness, and honesty. Then

make this a part of the organization’s rewards system.

Think hard and long when tempted to make marginal decisions.

Only claim to have values when they have been tested under pressure.

Acknowledge that each of us has the potential to display character virtues

and that positive aspects of character can be strengthened. Recognize that

we never reach our aspirations vis-à-vis character. It’s a process and a


Learn to distinguish between your extrinsic and intrinsic motivations.

Then put intrinsic above extrinsic motivations.

Extrinsic – Valuing monetary compensation, power over others,


Intrinsic – Finding satisfaction in doing a good job, empowering others,

and finding meaning in one’s work.

Finally, we must think hard and long about the legacy we want to leave in this world.

And the most enduring positive legacy a leader can leave is one impacted by character.


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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