A common belief used to be that great leaders were born, not made. While some people are undoubtedly blessed with the inherent traits and instincts needed to lead a company, most of us have to consciously dedicate ourselves to lifelong learning and development in order to build our leadership skills. But what about character? Character is the combination of virtues, values, and traits that enable individuals to lead other people and organizations well. Can leadership character be developed too? In this blog we’ll take a look at whether leadership character is born or made. We’ll also discuss why leaders should take time to develop their character.
Is Leader Character Born or Made?
“Good character is not formed in a week or a month. It is created little by little, day by day. Protracted and patient effort is needed to develop good character.” — Heraclitus
In terms of whether leadership character is born or made, the answer is both— while some character dimensions are heritable, they can be developed too.1 The events we experience can also change our character traits.2 In the realm of leadership, it is thought that leaders develop their character through a continual process of experience and reflection, gaining expertise and good judgment over time.3 It’s important to remember that everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and some of these individual dispositions vary around different dimensions of leader character. However, those weaknesses are not static. At SIGMA, we call them “development opportunities.” That’s because a weakness is not truly a weakness — at least not if it is viewed as an opportunity for growth.
Of course, building strong leader character takes time. In fact, it may be a lifelong endeavor. Dedicating yourself to ongoing character development may feel like a weighty task, but it is a journey that is well worth the effort.
Why Develop Leadership Character?
Character is one of the most important elements of leadership. A leader’s character determines what they pay attention to, who they spend time with, how they receive feedback, and whether they are able to make effective judgments and decisions. In short, character is the key to success.
Research has shown that the dimensions of leader character are positively correlated with measures of success. Leaders who score highly on character dimensions are less likely to report symptoms of burnout, and more likely to be engaged and satisfied with their jobs. Not only that, leadership character is also positively correlated with supervisor ratings of promotability, likelihood of success on different teams, and overall leadership effectiveness.4 Fortunately, research has also indicated that character can be developed.5 That means anyone has the potential to be a leader — as long as there is a willingness to learn.
What Happens When Leaders Don’t Have Character?
There are many benefits to developing leadership character — but there is also a drawback to not developing leader character. Dacher Keltner’s research on human behavior provides a clear reminder of the importance of ongoing character development, particularly after leaders have obtained positions of power. Although leaders earn the respect of followers through admirable traits like empathy and effective leadership skills, these traits and skillsets don’t necessarily persist over time. Often, they degrade or are replaced with negative traits like selfishness, resulting in ineffective leaders who are out of touch with the people around them.6 Keltner refers to this character decline as “the power paradox.”
Before we dive in, it’s important to note that an upward trajectory at work is not a certain on-ramp to bad behavior. For example, research has found that being promoted can increase a leader’s conscientiousness.7 With that said, for more than two decades, Keltner has documented the unfortunate reality of leaders who attain power and influence as a result of character traits such as empathy and generosity, only to lose touch with their social and emotional intelligence skills once in a position of power. This leads to increased impulsivity and decreased empathy and sensitivity. Leaders are more likely to multitask during meetings, interrupt others, raise their voices, and speak unkindly. This impact of power on individual behavior is so consistent that even students playing a rigged game of Monopoly are more likely to behave badly when they’re put into a winning position, and luxury vehicle drivers are more likely to violate the law while on the road.6 When leaders fall, character — or a lack thereof — is almost always the culprit.8 Any media outlet can provide examples of leaders who have failed due to a lapse in judgment, integrity, or humanity. These are all dimensions of leader character.
Unfortunately, the damage caused by a lack of leader character goes beyond just the leader themselves. When leaders lose touch with character traits such as humility, collaboration, or justice, the impact is felt throughout the organization. Bad leadership can result in decreased engagement, performance, and job satisfaction among employees. Not only that, direct reports are also more likely to engage in corrupt behaviors that have been modeled by their leaders, creating a negative ripple effect throughout teams and organizations.9 If you want to improve your organization, you can’t ignore the cost of bad leadership.10
How to Develop Leadership Character
Now that you know the benefits of leader character — and the risks associated with a lack thereof — you may be wondering how your team can begin to develop leader character among your high-potentials. First, you may want to consider an educational approach. Leaders need to understand the impact they should have on their employees before developing the character and competencies needed to support behavioral change. Using a leadership assessment like SIGMA’s Leadership Character Insight Assessment (LCIA) can help to increase self-awareness in high-potentials. By embedding character into training and education, leaders and future leaders can build the vocabulary and understanding needed before embarking on practical character development.
Once leaders understand the nature and importance of leader character, developing leadership character through deliberate practice, reflection, and of course, application, is more likely to be effective.
Looking for More?
If you’re interested in learning more about leader character, explore the (LCIA). This test was specifically designed to measure the key dimensions of leader character. Each of our assessments 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 Johnson, A. M., Vernon, P. A., McCarthy, J. M., Molson, M., Harris, J. A., & Jang, K. L. (1998). Nature vs nurture: Are leaders born or made? A behavior genetic investigation of leadership style. Twin Research and Human Genetics, 1(4), 216-223.
2 Jayawickreme, E., Infurna, F. J., Alajak, K., Blackie, L. E., Chopik, W. J., Chung, J. M., … & Zonneveld, R. (2021). Post‐traumatic growth as positive personality change: Challenges, opportunities, and recommendations. Journal of Personality, 89(1), 145-165.
3 Crossan, M., Mazutis, D., Seijts, G., & Gandz, J. (2013). Developing leadership character in business programs. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 12(2), 285-305.
4 Leadership Character Insight Assessment, Psychometric Summary. SIGMA Assessment Systems Inc. 2021
5 Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification (Vol. 1). Oxford University Press.
6 Keltner, D. (2017). The power paradox: How we gain and lose influence. Penguin Books.
7 Li, W.-D., Li, S., Feng, J.J., Wang, M., Zhang, H., Frese, M., & Wu, C.-H. (2021). Can becoming a leader change your personality? An investigation with two longitudinal studies from a role-based perspective. Journal of Applied Psychology, 106, 882-901. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000808
8 Charmorro-Premuzic, T. (2013, July). Why do so many incompetent men become leaders? Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2013/08/why-do-so-many-incompetent-men.
9 Manara, M. U., van Gils, S., Nübold, A., & Zijlstra, F. R. (2020). Corruption, fast or slow? Ethical leadership interacts with machiavellianism to influence intuitive thinking and corruption. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 578419.
10 Allas, T, & Schaninger, B. (2020). The boss factor: Making the world a better place through workplace relationships. McKinsey Quarterly, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/the-boss-factor-making-the-world-a-better-place-through-workplace-relationships