Leadership character: A six-part series by West Point’s Col. Eric Kail
By Col. Eric Kail
This piece is the introduction to a six-part series on leadership character.
Picture the faces of the two most influential people in your life, the leaders who had the greatest impact on you. What made them so large in your eyes—was it what they did or who they were? That is, was it their skills and abilities that left such an impression or their character?
Now think back to the last time a senior leader cost your organization valuable assets, from stock value to human capital. Chances are good that it was a character failure on their part, not a matter of their technical or managerial abilities.
While most leadership discussions center on what leaders do, this short series is intended to generate a dialogue on leadership character. Some might say that leaders’ character, who they are, in factdetermines what they do. I say, then all the more reason to focus our leadership literature and dialogue on character development. And when I say “character,” I don’t mean “personality.” Yes, there is a growing volume of empirical evidence regarding the role of personality in leadership effectiveness, but personality has been determined to be relatively stable over time. We are pretty much stuck with the personality we have by the time we begin grade school; our character, on the other hand, is definitely subject to development.
The following six blog installments will roll out over the course of 2011 and will each focus on the importance of a particular facet of leadership character: courage, integrity, selflessness, empathy, collaboration andreflection.
In the first installment, on courage , I’ll examine both the moral and physical elements of the trait. It turns out we are not as courageous as might think we are.
Second, I’ll make an argument for integrity that goes beyond the old adage that integrity means doing what’s right when no one else is looking. I’ll take a slightly different approach than the glass ball, or “pure until sullied” perspective on integrity.
Third, I’ll discuss the role of selflessness , and how being a selfless leader is actually the opposite of being a weak or soft leader.
Fourth, I’ll provide some thoughts on why we think we are so much more empathetic than we really are. Leaders probably understandempathy and its importance better than followers, and yet they tend to practice—if at all.
These first four facets of character are where most current thought on character stops, but I believe leadership character goes beyond just these four. The operational environment I first started leading in during the 1980s no longer exists. Back then, I was taught to use formal authority to impose my will upon others; that was leadership. Formal authority still has a place in my leadership lexicon, but the need lead more collaboratively is greater than ever.
So in the fifth installment, I’ll present two components of collaboration: peer support and seeing the big picture. Both are critical in translating leadership performance into leadership potential.
Finally, in number six, I’ll introduce the concept of reflection . The inclination for leaders to reflect is a critical character component for growth, self awareness and authenticity.
The idea behind this series isn’t just to identify and define these components of character, it’s also to help you assess how much you have them—and even more importantly, to introduce ideas for developing them in ourselves and in other leaders. I’ll look forward to your comments, challenges and opinions along the way. Stay tuned.
Col. Eric Kail is an Army field artillery officer who has commanded at the company and battalion levels. He is the course director of military leadership at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He holds a PhD in organizational psychology.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.