“Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy.”— Norman Schwarzkopf Jr.
When you think of the qualities of a great leader, what comes to mind? Some are likely to be vision, drive, decisiveness, and grace under pressure. However, great leaders are not only good at what they do, they endeavor to reach their goals in a way that’s aligned with personal and organizational values. In other words, strong leaders possess more than leadership competencies, they also possess leader character.
What’s the difference between a leader’s competence and their character? And why is leader character so important? In this post we’ll answer these questions and explain why character matters when looking for strong leaders.
Leader Competence vs. Leader Character
Competencies are skills, attitudes, or behaviors which, when present, enhance a leader’s effectiveness. Character, on the other hand, refers to the traits, virtues, and values that determine how a leader carries out their work. Leaders can be incredibly competent and achieve great success, yet still lack character. This often results in organizations with strong bottom lines, but have a disengaged workforce. Since leadership is primarily about people, one could argue that this kind of “leadership” is not truly leadership at all. Character, therefore, is more important than competence when it comes to evaluating leadership potential.
Given the importance of leader character, you might be wondering why business schools and large corporations seem to focus exclusively on developing leadership competencies. One reason is that until recently, it was difficult to talk about leader character because the terms used to describe it differed across individuals, teams, and organizations. In the context of leadership, character has been called everything, including “trust,” “ethics,” “values,” and “culture.” However, a lack of shared vocabulary isn’t the only impediment to embedding leader character into business schools. Embedding leader character into business school curriculums requires the buy-in of decision-makers. There needs to be both conviction in the value of character education and a commitment to the belief that character can be taught.
Additionally, for leader character education to succeed, it requires the knowledge and motivation of business school professors. Business school professors may be hesitant to take on these responsibilities on top of their core teaching duties or may feel that character education is outside of their area of expertise.1 Despite these challenges, leaders agree that character is critical to effective leadership and worth developing.2
The Importance of Character in Leadership
Many leaders have spoken about the importance of leader character, and when we think about the role of a leader, it’s easy to see why. Leadership involves setting goals, holding people accountable, developing and coaching others, and making tough decisions along the way. As leaders do this, their character will determine what they value, how they react, how they treat the people around them, and ultimately, the decisions that they make. Character, therefore, marks the difference between someone who is simply a strong performer, and someone who is truly a leader.
Leader character has been found to be positively correlated with ratings of promotability, leadership, overall performance, and negatively related to the risk of derailment. Leader character has also been found to be related to leadership competencies. For instance, employees who score high on integrity are more likely to be rated as effective leaders, but they are also more likely to be rated highly on competencies like managing conflicts, facilitating teamwork, and overall leadership effectiveness by their supervisors.3 Recent research has also found support for the idea that leader character is related not only with leadership performance and leadership competencies, but also to well-being.4
Over the past decade we’ve come a long way in our understanding of leader character. In fact, leader character can now be assessed as easily as leadership competencies. This development is largely thanks to the work done by professors and researchers to create a model of leader character and ultimately the Leadership Character Insight Assessment (LCIA). The LCIA allows leaders to assess themselves on 11 dimensions of leader character, and produces an automatically generated report including results, explanations, and development activities.
Looking for More?
If you’re interested in learning more about leader character, explore SIGMA’s Leadership Character Insight Assessment (LCIA). This leadership assessment was specifically designed to measure the key dimensions of leader character. Each assessment comes with a personalized report that provides an analysis of your scores, next steps for development, and helpful resources for further education. You can use the LCIA to help your leaders understand themselves, each other, and work together more effectively as a team.
If you have any questions, or would like support facilitating your team-building session, contact us today. SIGMA has worked with more than 8,500 public and private organizations across North America., Our expert team-building consultants are available to support your organization’s employee development initiatives.
Talk to Ruby
Ruby Nadler, Ph.D., Leadership Consultant
Dr. Ruby Nadler 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
1 Crossan, M., Mazutis, D., Seijts, G., & Gandz, J. (2013). Developing leadership character in business programs. Academy of Management Learning & Education,12(2), 285-305. http://dx.doi.org/10.5465/amle.2011.0024A
2 Seijts, G., Gandz, J., Crossan, M., & Reno, M. (2015). Character matters: Character dimensions’ impact on leader performance and outcomes. Organizational Dynamics, 44(1), 65-74. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.orgdyn.2014.11.008
3 Leadership Character Insight Assessment, Psychometric Summary. SIGMA Assessment Systems Inc. 2021
4 Crossan M.M., Byrne A., Seijts G.H., Reno M., Monzani L., Gandz J. (2017). Toward a Framework of Leader Character in Organizations. Journal of Management Studies, 54, 986-1018. https://doi.org/10.1111/joms.12254