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Why Character Matters in Leadership

Every leader wants to be successful. But sometimes, the results achieved come at the cost of character. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. suggested that the most dangerous person is likely gifted with reason but no morals. A blind passion for results damages a leader's reputation and the organization. Evidence from workplace studies on the benefits of character suggests that leaders with high character scores outperform others on company key performance metrics. Leadership behaviors guide actions, but a leader's character determines how and if the leader acts. Great leadership is a combination of competence, character, and commitment. Here are three practical steps to help develop your character strength and how you can ace your next character test.

Why is leadership character important to success?

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

Every day, you make character decisions, consciously or unconsciously, such as between speed or quality and long-term or short-term results. The impact of these decisions either reinforces your team's desired or undesired thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

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

In a two-year study of executive leaders and their organizations, 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, character helps leaders navigate change more effectively.

What is Leadership Character?

Leadership character is doing the right thing for the right reasons and with the right feelings. It is the inner game of leadership. While leadership behaviors are observable, a leader's inner game quietly controls the leader's behaviors.

Character is the unique combination of internalized beliefs and moral habits that motivates and shapes how that you relate to others. Fred Kiel

Evidence suggests that there are four universal leadership character principles:

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

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

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

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

A leader's character determines how knowledge, skills, and abilities are applied. Leadership decisions are often based on values, worldviews, and past experiences. Your past, even as a child, has shaped your current perception of what is right or wrong. Family members, friends, religious leaders, and the community where you live and work reinforce your character.

How to Measure and Assess Your Leadership Character

Although character can seem complex to understand, it can be reliably defined and measured. Character does not need to be considered subjective. In fact, the more self-aware you are of your character strengths and those of your team, the better you can lead.

VIA Character Strength Survey

The VIA Character Strength Survey is a validated instrument for assessing character strengths. It has been completed by over 15 million people globally, and all of the scales have satisfactory reliability (> 0.70 alphas).

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

Accidental Habit Assessment

Few leaders seek to develop bad habits. Everyone I know strives for good habits. That is why this quiz is

labeled the Accidental Habit Assessment (AHA). It helps you uncover possible leadership bad habits

that are keeping you from getting the most out of life and work.

The free quiz includes a customized report and guide that will provide you with an "aha" moment as you reflect on your leadership to understand your strengths and accidental habits needing improvement.

You can also use the report as a personalized reading plan to access researched and field-tested leadership resources and transformational tools in the book Life-Changing Leadership Habits: 10 Proven Principles That Will Elevate People, Profit, and Purpose.

3 Practical steps to develop leadership character in your company

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

Most leadership development programs focus on building competence, and the leader's character is often left out. A lack of attention to character harms both the leader and the organization's performance.

Character Development Step #1: Making the invisible visible

The conversation of leadership character development in the workplace is lacking and needs to be raised to the same level as developing leadership competence. The desired goal is to increase character development investments, not replace them.

Start with clarifying leadership inner game and outer game expectations:

  • What should leaders do? You might already have these leadership behaviors defined in performance reviews or leadership competency models.

  • What kind of leaders should they be? If you are unsure where to begin, research-based books and articles like those mentioned and cited in this post can be great resources.

Character Development Step #2: Make it experiential

Leadership character development should involve challenging simulation experiences that involve everyday decisions between right and right. These experiences should also include time for guided reflection with each participant. Additionally, the development should include teaching leaders specific habits for dealing with challenging issues.

Character Development Step #3: Assessment and coaching

Character development is a process, not an event. A proven way to develop character is to combine self-assessment with executive coaching. The combination of enhanced self-awareness and a thought-provoking, creative executive coaching program inspires transformation and growth.

How You Can Ace Your Next Character Test

Choosing between what is best for yourself or what is best for others creates very different outcomes for you and your business. Leadership character matters, and it is difficult to regain trust once lost. Acing your next character test is possible by being deliberate and persevering.

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.

Passing a test of character begins with knowing your non-negotiables. You will do your best when you have a clear picture of what leading with character looks like for you. List your leadership inner game and outer game principles. Then, expand on each of these by writing a brief, vivid description of how each principle guides you in a given situation.

Surround yourself with accountability partners. Share the list of principles you have defined and invite people 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 a coach and mentor becomes even more critical.

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 automatically. Attend a leadership development program that focuses on both the inner and outer game of leadership.

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 can be provided through executive coaching as part of a leadership development process that targets the leader's inner and outer game.

  • 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 leader looking for a powerful point of differentiation. Our transformational executive coaching, leadership development, and organizational consulting help you achieve your goals and get more out of life and work.

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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


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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.

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