Emphasize Character in Leadership Development

Leaders with character focus more on the means over the ends.

“People of genius are admired. People of wealth are envied. People of power are feared. But only people of character are trusted.” ―Arthur Friedman

Leadership requires several characteristics, and character is the main key to becoming a successful leader. People often think that competence or charisma alone counts for successful leadership. The truth is that competence provides leaders an edge over other characteristics to prove themselves, and charisma catapults them to a tipping point. However, to sustain themselves at that tipping point, leaders must possess great character.

Leaders can succeed in the corporate world with character and competence. But given the choice between character and competence, it is character that takes precedence. Although the success rate for leaders with character is slower than that of leaders with competence, ultimately, leaders with character triumph over leaders with competence. Mere expertise without integrity does not command respect. Mere intelligence without character makes a man weak. A person with knowledge is respected. But if he does not have character, he loses everything. A person with character has a better chance of acquiring knowledge. You can buy machines, not men. Even if you buy men, you can only buy their brains and brawn, not character. Robert A. Cook remarked, “There is no substitute for character. You can buy brains, but you cannot buy character.”

When you look at the collapse of various companies such as Enron, WorldCom, Lehman Brothers, Digital Equipment Corporation, Arthur Andersen, British Leyland, and Tyco, it is obvious that the charisma of their leaders catapulted these companies to greater heights of glory; however, a dearth of character led to their collapse.

Charisma versus Character

Leadership with charisma but without character leads to catastrophe. Although charisma helps you attract, influence, connect, and communicate with others quickly, it is the character that holds you firmly to the ground. Charisma can take you to the top, but it is the character that keeps you firmly on your feet. Your abilities can take you to the top, but your character ensures sustenance.

A leader may have 99 strengths in terms of capability, knowledge, skills, abilities, and other attributes. However, if the leader has one weakness in character, he is finished forever. In contrast, if the leader has 99 weaknesses and one strength—of great character—he will stand taller just because of that single strength.

John C. Maxwell says, “Charisma attracts, but character sustains.” He further adds that charisma is overrated in leadership. It is the character that should be emphasized to make a strong and great leader. You can achieve instant attention and success through charisma. However, it takes a longer time to draw the attention of others and achieve success through character.

Leaders with character emphasize more on means over ends. Mahatma Gandhi is an apt example. He emphasized non-violence when the entire world believed in violence as the only means to achieve goals. Leaders with a blend of both charisma and character are rare in this world. However, we can find a few leaders, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, and Mother Teresa, who were a rare blend of both character and charisma.

Leader and Character

“Character is the firm foundation stone upon which one must build to win respect. Just as no worthy building can be erected on a weak foundation, so no lasting reputation worthy of respect can be built on a weak character.” —R. C. Samsel

If you are a leader with impeccable character, you stand to win wherever you go. People around you admire you the most, and take you as a role model. Even if you do not have materialistic possessions, people care for you and respect you because of your character and leadership abilities. Man brings nothing into this world and takes away nothing when he leaves the world. It is only the good deeds that he does from his birth to his death that counts in the end. Warren Bennis outlines the importance of character for leaders as follows: Successful leadership is not about being tough or soft, assertive or sensitive. It’s about having a particular set of attributes—which all male and female leaders seem to share. And chief among these attributes is character … the noble mission of the leader can’t be used to justify the means. In the leadership arena, character counts. I’m not saying this casually. My convictions about character-based leadership come from years of studies, observations, and interviews with leaders, and with the people near them.

Leader and Scanner

Thomas Babington Macaulay noted, “The measure of a man’s real character is what he would do if he knew he would never be found out.” People can easily spot the chinks in your armor if you don’t have a strong character. As a leader, you are always under a scanner. You are constantly observed by others. People often view the negative attributes of a leader rather than the positive, as negative things strike people more easily than positive things. Hence, leaders must display impeccable character in public. However charismatic the leaders may be, they must demonstrate great character to influence and sustain that influence for a longer time.

Mahatma Gandhi outlined the seven deadly sins that prevent leaders from standing firmly on their feet with their convictions. They are

  1. Wealth without Work
  2. Pleasure without Conscience
  3. Knowledge without Character
  4. Commerce without Morality
  5. Science without Humanity
  6. Religion without Sacrifice
  7. Politics without Principle

Honest Abe

“Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” —Abraham Lincoln.

Although the righteous man falls ten times, he rises, whereas the wicked man never falls twice. God rewards the righteous man for his character and integrity but doesn’t give a second chance to the wrong man.

Abraham Lincoln is a fantastic example of great character. He suffered several setbacks throughout his life but did not compromise on his character. There was an instance when Lincoln was working as a storekeeper. A customer forgot to collect his balance money. Lincoln realized it later and walked a long distance to refund the balance. That is the reason why Abraham Lincoln was known as ‘Honest Abe.’ Abraham Lincoln once said, “I never use any man’s money but my own.”

Mahatma Gandhi said, “A person cannot do right in one department whilst attempting to do wrong in another department. Life is one indivisible whole.” Some leaders took their charisma for granted and played with people, thereby paying a heavy price in the end. Hence, emphasize character, which is a choice, not a gift. You can cultivate character as per your values, morals, principles, and policies.

The world is dying for inspiration. It is craving leaders with ethical and moral values. It is searching for spotless leaders with strong character. There is a myth that people appreciate charisma. The truth is that people appreciate the character. There is a myth that people appreciate competence. The truth is that people appreciate the character. There is a myth that people appreciate communication. The truth is that people appreciate leaders with impeccable character who can walk their talk.

Do you want to live with dignity and honor? Would you like it to last longer than your lifetime? Then, you need to emphasize character, not charisma.

Professor M.S. Rao, Ph.D.
Professor M.S. Rao, Ph.D., is the Father of “Soft Leadership” and the Founder of MSR Leadership Consultants, India. He is an International Leadership Guru with 43 years of experience and the author of 52 books, including the award-winning "See the Light in You" (https://www.amazon.com/See-Light-You-Spiritual-Mindfulness/dp/1949003132). He has published more than 300 papers and articles in international publications, including Leader to Leader, Thunderbird International Business Review, Strategic HR Review, Development and Learning in Organizations, Industrial and Commercial Training, On the Horizon, and Entrepreneur magazine. He is a soldier, entrepreneur, editor, educator, author, enlightener, and philosopher. He is a C-suite advisor and global keynote speaker. He brings a strategic eye and long-range vision, given his multifaceted professional experience that includes military, teaching, training, research, consultancy, and philosophy. He is passionate about serving and making a difference in the lives of others. He trains a new generation of leaders through leadership education and publications. His vision is to build one million students as global leaders by 2030 (http://professormsraovision2030.blogspot.com/2014/12/professor-m-s-raos-vision-2030-one_31.html). He advocates gender equality globally (#HeForShe). He invests his time in authoring books and blogging on executive education, learning, and leadership. Most of his work is available free of charge on his four blogs, including http://professormsraovision2030.blogspot.com. He is a prolific author and a dynamic, energetic, and inspirational leadership speaker. He can be reached at msrlctrg@gmail.com.