• Dr. Jeff Doolittle

Why Character Matters in Leadership

Every leader wants to be successful. But sometimes results come at the cost of character. A blind passion for results damages a leader’s reputation and the organization. Leaders with high character scores outperform leaders with low character scores on company financial return on assets. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. suggested that the most dangerous person is likely someone gifted with reason, but no morals. Leadership behaviors shape actions a leader takes, but a leader’s character determines how and if the leader acts. Great leadership is a combination of competence, character, and commitment.

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant. Martin Luther King, Jr.

What is leadership character?

Leadership character is doing the right thing, for the right motives, and with the right feelings. It is the heart of leadership.

Character is defined as an individual’s unique combination of internalized beliefs and moral habits that motivates and shapes how that individual relates to others. Fred Kiel

Perception of what is the right thing is shaped by our history, even as children. Our family, friends, religious leaders, and the community where we live reinforce our character.

Decisions between right and wrong often are made based on values, worldview, and past experiences. Leadership character determines how competencies are applied, and it shapes how decisions are implemented.

Here are four universal leadership character principles based on research:

  • Integrity – Being honest, acting consistently with principles, standing up for what is right, and keeping promises.

  • Responsibility – Owning personal decisions, admitting mistakes, and showing concern for the common good.

  • Forgiveness – Letting go of self and others' mistakes, focused on what is right versus only what is wrong.

  • Compassion – Empathizing with others, empowering others, actively caring for others, committing to others' growth.

Why is character important?

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A leader’s character influences both individual and organizational performance. Leaders are making character decisions every day, either consciously or unconsciously, and the impact is reinforcing desired or undesired behaviors, thinking, and the feelings of employees.

In a study of executive leaders and their organizations over a two-year period CEOs who scored high on aspects of character had an average return on assets (ROA) of 9.35% in contrast to CEOs with low ratings who had a ROA of 1.93%.

Leadership character is shown to align the leader-follower relationship, increasing both leader and follower productivity, effectiveness, and creativity. Leadership character plays a vital role in unifying a team.

Followers will give more when they respect the leader's character. A focus on helping others is essential to providing effective strategic leadership. Also, leaders focused on group benefit over individual benefits navigate change more effectively.

How to pass your next character test

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience and comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Leadership creates moments not defined by policy or procedures when leaders have to choose between right and right.

Depending on if a leader chooses what is best for themself over what is best for others, it creates very different outcomes. Trust is important and once it is lost it is very difficult to regain.

As a leader, living a life of character is possible with intention. It begins with knowing your non-negotiables. You will do your best when you have a clear picture of what leading with character looks like. If you are unsure where to start, consider the universal principles described above (i.e., integrity, responsibility, forgiveness, and compassion) and personalize their definitions or add to the model to make it yours.

Surround yourself with accountability partners. Invite people that are close enough to know you well to hold you accountable if you start to get off track. The influence of others is powerful on performance. Leaders tend to become more isolated the higher they move in a company and the role of an accountability team becomes even more important.

Making the next right choice in a test of character is simply making the next right choice. You build leadership character like you build physical endurance. Training helps create character muscle memory making the right decision automatic.

How to find your character strengths

Leadership character can be measured. Character does not need to be considered subjective.

Concerns have been raised on methods for assessing character because of the complexity involved in measuring different dimensions of character. However, VIA Character Strength Survey is one of the validated instruments that exist for reliable assessment of character strengths.

The free VIA Character Strength Survey provides insights into your 24-character strengths in rank order. Character strengths are values in action or positive traits for thinking, feeling, and behaving that benefit the leader and others.

The VIA has been completed by over 15 million people globally, and all of the scales have satisfactory reliability (> 0.70 alphas).

For more information regarding the VIA Character Strengths Survey, please go to www.viacharacter.org.

How to develop your character strengths

Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Often attention is centered on a leader’s competence when trying to develop high potentials, and a leader’s character is left out of the discussion. A lack of attention to character is detrimental to both the leader and the organization's performance.

Executive coaching paired with a character strengths assessment can provide a thought-provoking creative leadership development process to inspire transformation and maximize growth.

Organizational leadership development should address the question of what leaders should do, and the kind of leaders they should be. Defining what leaders do is essential in helping leaders make the right decisions in specific situations. Defining the character of the leader ensures leaders make the right decisions in unplanned cases that make up the majority of decisions leaders face.

Character development needs to be raised within organizations to the same level as leadership competencies. The goal is to invest in developing the character of leaders and followers, in addition to specific behaviors not instead of behaviors.

Development should involve simulation experiences to develop mastery in everyday challenging right and right decisions. The simulation experiences should also include detailed debriefs for each participant. Additionally, the development should provide practice norms for teaching leaders specific routines when dealing with challenging issues.

Key summary points

  • Great leadership is a combination of competence, character, and commitment.

  • Character is an individual’s unique combination of internalized beliefs and moral habits that motivates and shapes how that individual relates to others.

  • Leadership character is shown to align the leader-follower relationship, increasing both leader and follower productivity, effectiveness, and creativity.

  • Leadership character can be measured, and feedback provided through executive coaching as part of a leadership development process.

  • Character development needs to be raised within organizations to the same level as leadership competencies.

Striving for better habits is a competitive advantage available to any leaders looking for a powerful point of differentiation. Visit our executive coaching page to learn more about how we help you achieve your personal or professional goals or partner with you to craft a solution specific to your organization's context and challenges. Let's talk.

Subscribe to our youtube channel


Badaracco, J. (1997). Defining moments: When managers must choose between right and right. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business School Press.

Beerel, A. (1997). The strategic planner as prophet and leader: a case study concerning a leading seminary illustrates the new planning skills required. Leadership & Organization Development Journal. 18 (3) pp. 136 -144.

Claar, V.V., Jackson, L.L., & TenHaken, V.R. (2014). Are Servant Leaders Born or Made? Servant Leadership Theory & Practice, Vol. 1, Issue 1, 46-52.

Kiel, F. (2015). Return on character: The real reason leaders and their companies win. Harvard Business Review.

Kim, J.H., Keck, P., McMahon, M.C., Vo, A., Gonzalez, R., Lee, D.H., Barbir, L., & Maree, K. (2018). Strengths based rehabilitation assessment: Adapted Inventory of Virtues and Strengths. Work: Journal of Prevention, Assessment & Rehabilitation, 61(3), 421-435. doi:10.3233/WOR-182807

Kim, J. H., Reid, C. A., McMahon, B., Gonzalez, R., Lee, D. H., & Keck, P. (2016). Measuring the virtues and character traits of rehabilitation clients: The adapted inventory of virtues and strengths. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, 26(1), 32-44. doi:10.1007/s10926-015-9619-9

Norzailan, Z., Othman, R. B., & Ishizaki, H. (2016). Strategic leadership competencies: What is it and how to develop it? Industrial and Commercial Training, 48(8), 394-399. doi:10.1108/ICT-04-2016-0020

Seijts, G., Crossan, M., & Carleton, E. (2017). Embedding leader character into HR practices to achieve sustained excellence. Organizational Dynamics, 46(1), 30-39. doi:10.1016/j.orgdyn.2017.02.001

Are you ready to unlock your
full potential?

Hi, I'm Dr. Jeff Doolittle. I'm determined to make your personal and professional goals a reality. My only question is, are you?

Jeff Doolittle.jpg

About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

Blog Menu

Jeff Signature.png

I hope you enjoy reading this blog post.

If you want my team to provide personal or organizational development, click here 

Online Resource Library

Free Webinar Series

Are you having 
an organizational 
talent crisis?

Organizational Talent Healthcheck


Breaking 10 Leadership Bad Habits.jpg

Free Tools