Most of us are familiar with the story of Goldilocks and the three bears. For those of you who aren’t, “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” is about a little girl who gets lost in the woods and stumbles upon a house. Inside she finds porridge, chairs, and beds. She tests each, finding some porridge to be too hot or too cold, and some chairs too short or too tall. Eventually, she finds a chair and bowl of porridge she believes to be “just right,” until, that is, a family of angry bears comes home, and Goldilocks runs away.
Goldilocks is a favorite children’s tale, but it has important parallels to real decision-making. Like Goldilocks, we are often seeking something that is “just right,” not too much and not too little. This has been dubbed the “Goldilocks Effect” or “Goldilocks Principle.”
The Goldilocks Effect can be applied to leader character too. For example, having balance between different dimensions of leader character — or “just the right amount” of each — is far more effective than being incredibly strong in one, but lacking in another. In this blog, we will take a look at what the “right” amount of a given leadership character trait may be, as well as how you can identify it and call on it when needed.
The History of Balance in Leader Character
Even before it was dubbed The Goldilocks Effect, most leaders had an implicit understanding that you can have too much of a good thing, and certainly too little. Aristotle was among the first to explore this idea in the context of character traits. He proposed that virtues exist on a continuum from deficiency to excess. For instance, Aristotle noted that deficient confidence leads to cowardice, but excess confidence can lead to poor decision-making. His work investigated the line between healthy self-expression and boastfulness, ambition, and ruthlessness. Aristotle concluded by suggesting that just as there is a golden mean — a medium between two extremes — in art, architecture, and geometry, balance can be found in character.
The Role of Balance in Leader Character
In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, professors at the Ivey Business School set their sights on understanding the course of events that led to the crisis, as well as the leaders and organizations who were able to withstand it. This work, which involved speaking to thousands of leaders across the globe, led them to focus on the concept of leader character. They identified 11 key dimensions of leader character, and found that all dimensions are important to leadership effectiveness. These character dimensions are inseparable from one another; having a balance of each character dimension to draw on in any given situation is critical.
You don’t have to be a scholar to appreciate the importance of balance when it comes to leader character. Just think of the effect it would have on an organization if a leader had strong people skills, but no work ethic, or a powerful ambition, but little integrity or humanity. In the leader character framework, humanity must be balanced with drive, accountability, and temperance, to ensure that strong interpersonal relationships don’t come at the expense of making progress towards goals. On the other hand, strong ambition or drive should be balanced with temperance, integrity, and humanity, allowing leaders to realize the benefits of their ambition without overlooking risks, ethical values, or other factors beyond the bottom line.
In this framework of balance, the goal of character development is not to strengthen any individual dimension on its own; the goal is to identify those dimensions where a leader has room for growth and focus development on these areas to create a balanced profile of character dimensions. The result of this kind of character development is a strong, well-balanced leader who is able to tap into “just the right amount” of each dimension depending on the situation that they are in.
How Much is “Just Right”? The Role of Judgment in Leadership
Once a leader has developed a balanced spectrum of character dimensions, how do they identify which leadership character dimensions are relevant to a given situation and decide how to best apply those dimensions? Of the 11 character dimensions, judgment plays a special role in that it allows leaders to decide how much each of the other dimensions should be applied in a particular situation. Judgment, therefore, is what allows leaders to decide how to avoid the overuse and underuse of character. In other words, judgment allows leaders to determine how much is “just right.”
In the words of Dr. Lucas Monzani at the Ivey Business School, “Judgment is like an air traffic controller: we need leaders who are able to activate each of the 11 dimensions of character at the right time and in the right amount to guide their decision-making and call forth the right behaviors to be successful.”
Looking for More?
If you’re interested in learning more about judgment and how it plays a central role in bringing forth leader character and balancing all character dimensions, take a look at SIGMA’s guide, Why Judgement is Central to Leader Character. In this blog we provide practical advice for how to build your judgment and apply it in the workplace.
If you’d like to learn more about your own character, check out SIGMA’s Leadership Character Insight Assessment (LCIA). The LCIA will help you develop a greater awareness of your own leadership character and which dimensions you may need to work on balancing. View a free sample of the LCIA self-report.
Talk to Ruby
Ruby Nadler, Ph.D., Leadership Consultant
Ruby has a Ph.D in Cognition and Perception, as well as specific training in mindfulness and positive psychology. She brings this expertise to SIGMA’s executive coaching programs. In 2015 she was awarded a two-year Ontario Centers of Excellence TalentEdge Fellowship, and her research has been featured on CBC, BBC Radio, Happify, and NPR. Call or email Ruby – she would be happy to answer questions about the LCIA, leader character, coaching, etc.
Phone: 1-800-401-4480 ext. 223