What is Leadership Character?

“You can be a character, or you can possess character. Sometimes these two traits don’t go hand in hand.”

– Meghan M. Biro[i]

Character has long been overlooked as a foundation for strong leadership. In the past — and often still today — leaders were defined by a function of power and performance. This was a positional definition; leaders are the ones at the top. The late twentieth century, however, saw a rise in the literature surrounding leadership theory and alternate models emerged, such as transformational leadership and servant leadership, which made the status of “leader” accessible to anyone at any level of the organization hierarchy. Today, leaders are much less defined by their title, and much more by their actions — or, in other words, by their character.

What is Leadership Character?

Leadership character is the combination of virtues, values, and traits that enable individuals to lead other people and organizations well. A leader’s character shapes how they interact with the world, and most importantly, it shapes their decision-making process. Judgment plays a central role in character, as it dictates when and how individuals choose to behave. In this way, judgment allows for the expression of character, manifested in virtues, values and traits: [ii]

  • Virtues are “worthy” behaviors, ones that are universally accepted as good and desirable. Examples include wisdom, courage, and integrity. These are in direct opposition to vices, or unworthy behaviors, such as cowardice, arrogance, or foolhardiness.
  • Values are normative beliefs about what is important, held by an individual or a group of people. Values are usually associated with words such as “should,” or “ought.” The difference between a virtue and a value is that virtues are universally accepted as “good,” whereas some groups or individuals may hold values that are less than morally sound.
  • Traits are other personality dimensions, such as openness, decisiveness, or creativity, that an individual may be predisposed to possess.

Why is Leadership Character Important?

Leadership character is important because it determines the quality of leadership — in other words, what makes a good leader — as well as the outcome of that individual’s leadership. Studies have shown that CEOs who were rated well on important character traits (integrity, responsibility, forgiveness, compassion) built better workplaces and saw stronger returns. These “virtuoso CEOs” stood up for what is right, expressed concern for the common good, let go of their own and others’ mistakes, and showed empathy for their peers. By contrast, “self-focused CEOs” were often described as warping the truth for personal gain and caring mostly about themselves and their own financial security, regardless of the cost to others.[iii] Leaders with strong character not only build better workplaces, they also generate returns on their investment. The same study described above also found that virtuoso CEOs had an average return-on-assets (ROA) that was over five times that of self-focused CEOs. [iv] Therefore, leader character matters, not just for individuals and their teams, but it can substantially impact the success of an organization at large.

Character vs. Charisma

Leadership is often mistaken with charisma. Charismatic people possess an above-average degree of compelling attractiveness and charm. They inspire devotion and followership in others. However, not all charismatic people are morally equipped to be leaders. In fact, some of the worst examples of poor leadership in history have been cases where charismatic people lacking moral integrity have gained a massive followership and power.

Charismatic people are characters — in the theatrical sense. They can truly command attention and inspire affection. But being a character is different from possessing character. For people who have character, actions often speak louder than words. On the other hand, for charismatic individuals who lack strong character, words usually speak louder than actions — and words often don’t match actions either. That’s not to say that charismatic people lack character, or that someone with a strong character cannot be charismatic. The two may absolutely go hand-in-hand. However, it is important to remember that charisma is not the equivalent of character. Leaders should not be selected because they are charismatic, and potential leaders should not be overlooked simply because they are less so.

Leadership Character in a Nutshell

At the end of the day, character, in essence, is who you are. It’s what you believe and how you choose to act on it. For leaders, character changes how they lead their team toward success. It can certainly be said that individuals with character are better at leading their organizations than those who lack character; they build stronger teams, lead purpose-driven organizations, and see more impactful results.

Looking for More?

If you are interested in putting character into practice, explore SIGMA’s Leadership Character Insight Assessment (LCIA). This leadership assessment was specifically designed to measure the key dimensions of leader character, their corresponding elements, and how they influence leadership effectiveness. Get personalized results for yourself and your team. If you have more questions or would like to speak with a SIGMA consultant about putting character into practice in your organization, contact us today. We’re always happy to chat!

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

[i] Biro, M.M., (September 30, 2012). Are You A Character-Based Leader? Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/meghanbiro/2012/09/30/are-you-a-character-based-leader/?sh=5cc6a5e619af

[ii] Gandz, J., Crossan, M., Seijts, G., & Stephenson, C. (2010). Leadership on Trial: A Manifesto for Leadership Development. Richard Ivey School of Business. ISBN: 978-0-919534-50-6.

[iii] Harvard Business Review. (April 2015). Measuring the Return on Character. HBR. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2015/04/measuring-the-return-on-character.

[iv] Harvard Business Review. (April 2015). Measuring the Return on Character. HBR. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2015/04/measuring-the-return-on-character.

About the Author

Helen Schroeder

Marketing Coordinator

Helen completed a dual degree with Ivey Business School’s HBA program and Western University’s Honours Specialization in Psychology. As a Marketing Coordinator and Consultant she creates and manages content for SIGMA’s webpages, blogs, and coaching resources. Helen also assists in new product development, go-to-market strategy, and client consultation.