Character & Leadership


I’ve had the pleasure of following the writings of Mark Miller for the past few years – which include some of the most well-written tomes on leadership that I’ve seen (remember – I have a Doctorate in Organizational Leadership, so I’ve read A LOT on the subject). I appreciate Mark’s perspective because of his focus on an often overlooked leadership fundamental: leadership (TRUE leadership, anyway) is about service to others.

 Mark has a great blog that’s updated regularly (a task that I’m committed to in 2014, remember?) – and today’s article really caught my attention because it (again) addresses what Mark calls “the heart of leadership”:

The Most Important Part of Leadership…That’s Rarely Discussed

Since releasing The Heart of Leadership, I’ve received a lot of feedback supporting the big idea of the book:  If your heart is not right, no one cares about your skills. If this is true, why does leadership character get so little attention?

Mark’s question is a valid one – and the answer could be “because for many, deficient character in leaders is masked by performance”. This is often the conundrum faced when highly proficient sales “rainmakers” (high-performers) get high marks for superior performance while their sometimes questionable and unethical behavior is ignored.

Not only is sound character vital to leadership, it should also be embedded in the DNA of the leaders organization. In their 2003 book Reframing Organizations, Lee Bolman and Terry Deal noted that ethics (and character) must be deeply rooted in the soul of the organization, and specifically aligned with that organizations values, mission, and identity. Of course, you could also make the argument that leaders should be held ethically accountable for their actions because they set the tone for the organization…which creates a virtual cycle of leader behavior influencing organizational behavior.

Later in the article, Mark writes about character deficiency as a skill-gap that should be identified, thus allowing for remediation…but how do you remediate a character deficiency?   Is there a such thing as “character rehab”? Can you “teach” ethical behavior and accountability?

Perhaps the bigger question lies in how leaders are chosen – maybe a better assessment of leadership traits (skills and behavioral) can help mitigate against future discrepancies.

The bottom line is: character flaws and ethical lapses in leadership can strike at the heart of an organization…creating a crack in the foundation. In his book Meeting The Ethical Challenges of Leadership, Craig Johnson wrote “when we assume the benefits of leadership, we also assume ethical burdens”, and that responsibility should not be overlooked. 

Hopefully, when a leader understands the true weight of their leadership, they will commit themselves to pursue their work with character and ethical purpose.



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