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The 6 Elements of Character & Getting Leaders to Change
When I work with executives and other high achievers, my main focus is identifying each person’s unique strengths. These strengths must continue to be fostered and strengthened so clients can leverage them to become the best possible leader. A positive side effect of this, of course, is that it helps the organization achieve its goals. Additionally, I have to focus on identifying, in partnership with each client, which development needs must be addressed.
Effectively changing a leader’s self-concept and perceived capabilities requires changing their reference reservoir. It means they must learn to succeed. Creating success leads to interpreting success as pervasive and personal, as the natural way things should be. I help leaders create more positively charged references so they logically come to conclude that the causes and consequences of the references are permanent, pervasive, and personal.
Likewise, the coach’s goal is to get the client to where they interpret inevitable setbacks as less permanent, pervasive, and personal. Helping a client attain this “more vs. less” dichotomy requires getting them to take reasonable risks, take positive constructive action, accept consequences, course correct as needed, and persist in pursuing positive, constructive change. Of course, this is easier said than done! A great place to start, however, is with a positive value system based on self-affirmation. A person’s self-concept includes many elements in addition to their reference reservoir and belief system. It also includes the value system in which a person’s elements of character play out. When I, as a coach, can isolate a client’s value system, I have also isolated their character, because the two are inextricably intertwined.
Genuine, authentically great leaders possess character. The word itself comes from a Latin root meaning “engraved.” In other words, a person’s character, etched with care and concern, shows their true worth. A character gouged or hacked out with recklessness might turn out wonderfully, but it might turn out to be a pile of rubble. The thing about character is it can’t be dressed up or cosmetically improved into something good. It must be intrinsically strong and positive. There are 6 key elements of character, which we’ll consider in turn:
Courage is intrinsic to character. Genuine, noble, spontaneous self-sacrificial concern for the defenseless is true courage and not fanaticism. Courage doesn’t mean feeling fearless, but being willing to act out of conviction. A person can feel fearless, but sometimes act cowardly. Similarly, I have worked with executives who behave with incredible courage despite being fearful. It’s also important not to confuse heroism and courage. Acts of heroism occur every day that are acts of impulse rather than character. True character has consistency. We have all learned of “heroes” in whatever field (athletics, politics, business) who ultimately have feet of clay. Controversy, financial ruin, and criminal charges can follow heroism. Courage isn’t just bravery at a single point in time, but a catalytic agent that underpins every virtue in the face of crisis.
It’s one thing to know right from wrong, but taking the right action based on this knowledge is the true demonstration of courage. Leaders of courage inspire their teams to achieve more than they may have thought possible. They inspire the “will do” and “must do” in people. Courage is also the foundation of agility. There isn’t a CEO in the world who doesn’t want their leaders and employees to possess more “agility” when it comes to accepting and navigating change and disruption, displaying curiosity and almost a “maniacal” hunger to learn, and demonstrating authentic versatility in dealing with people. The “culture of agility” in any business starts with a “culture of courage”. If a business has a senior team of leaders who fail to embody and coach others in the very essence of what it takes to be courageous, then there is no chance for that business to create a culture of agility. The “inner-core” very much drives the “outer-core”.
Loyalty is the fabric of community, and communities and relationships unravel without it. Loyalty, the glue that holds mutual commitment together, encompasses a willingness to deflect praise and success toward others. Loyalty is not a one-way commitment, but must function both upwardly and downwardly. Loyalty directed upward is the loyalty you show to your superiors, tempered by the assumption that the superior’s order are lawful and ethical. “Downward” loyalty is about a leader’s responsibility to care for their people. It’s “loyalty to the troops” and it’s every bit as essential as upward loyalty.
There are no shortcuts to worthwhile achievements. The client looking for the quickest, easiest, shortest way to great returns is bound for disappointment. Indeed, countless CEOs, entrepreneurs, and senior executives reinforce the concept that there’s simply no substitute for plain hard work. Diligence and persistence are necessary but not sufficient for achieving leadership excellence. Diligence provides a solid foundation that can shore a person up in the face of inevitable setbacks. Diligent leaders are steady performers, and they finish what they start. The most outstanding leaders are serious about their obligations and want to be held accountable. Sadly, there are many leaders who lack the diligence and follow-through on their obligations necessary to achieve and maintain excellence.
Modesty isn’t false self-deprecation, but actually is about living within limits. It is the antithesis of aggressiveness, presumptuousness, and arrogance. The most effective leaders recognize that they are not “too big to fail,” and they are open to other perspectives in the interest of self-improvement and improvement of the organization. To the modest leader, fiscal and operational constraints are safeguards rather than hindrances. Knowing one’s own limits actually goes along perfectly with the “more vs. less” dichotomy. Modesty also serves to keep a leader’s emotions in balance. Coaching leaders to accept and adopt a more prudent view of themselves involves helping them recognize that their own need for attention can drive arrogance, which results in achieving less than if they had a calmer self-acceptance and a less arrogant approach to handling challenges.
Truth and honesty are two pillars upon which teamwork, relationships, and positive energy are built. Shrewdness that doesn’t spill over into dishonesty is good, and the best leaders willingly miss out on deals that would require deception to win. A smaller profit made with honesty is worth more than a bigger profit made dishonestly, in other words. Acts of dishonesty like padded expense accounts, shaved tax forms, arriving to work late and leaving early, or theft of company property accumulate and create a toxic environment. A leader with maturity and honesty, on the other hand, is committed to a truthful, above-board leadership environment.
Finally, great leaders understand on a soul level that the essence of who they are is bound up in the sum of their experiences, both positive and negative. They recognize that they have grown and matured as leaders, experiencing both highs and lows. Moreover, they appreciate their reference reservoirs as a ratio of positive references to the sum total of their experiences. Like a batting average, higher is better, but the occasional strikeout every now and then can be a learning experience too. In fact, that’s often what keeps us in balance and lets us appreciate the successes all the more.
One of the biggest challenges I encounter with younger executives is that they want far too much, too soon. Many are unwilling to see the value in experiencing setbacks, recognizing that setbacks slow them down, but not recognizing the lessons they impart. But those setbacks also emphasize the special gratitude that comes after that “home run” occurs. The gratitude of an outstanding leader is also directed toward others. Simply saying “Thank you,” and “I appreciate your hard work” is remarkably powerful in developing selflessness, showing gratitude, and propelling a team to achieve even greater things.