Why Does Character Matter in Leadership?

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As a leader, if you asked anyone in your team or organisation, in almost any context, if they’d prefer to have a leader with or without character, you’d struggle to find someone who wouldn’t overwhelmingly want to work for a leader with character.

The question must then be asked, what is character? Many would describe it in terms of how a person behaves or their qualities.

Character actually has its roots in the ancient Greek word, kharaktêr, which means chisel or stamping tool. The idea is that what is desired is created and forged by shaping and removing the junk or unwanted material. So, when we think of a leader with character, we really mean one who has undergone the painful process of getting rid of undesirable qualities and becoming a person who can be described with words like tenacious, trustworthy, resilient, reliable, courageous, full of integrity, or being purpose-driven rather than ego-driven.

Character building doesn’t just happen; it requires intention. You’re not simply born with qualities like reliability, resilience, integrity; it’s something you take responsibility for building.

Why does any of this matter? Why does character matter in leadership?

Let’s step back in time for an answer – more than 130yrs back in time.

So, it’s 1888. A Swedish chemist, who had made his fortune inventing and producing dynamite, was reading a newspaper and suddenly came across a headline and story that literally rocked him to his core!

What could have been so shocking as to cause him much despair?

Well, the story was meant to be an obituary about his brother, Ludvig, who had recently died in France. Instead, the obituary, in the French newspaper, was about him. The editor had mixed up the brothers. The headline read, “The Merchant of Death Is Dead.” Alfred Nobel’s obituary went on to describe a man who had amassed riches by helping people kill one another.

This summary of his life shook him to his very foundations. And so, upon reflection, he resolved to use his wealth from that moment onwards to change his legacy. The Nobel Prize awards that we have today are thanks to the more than $9 million he left after his death to fund awards for people whose work benefits humanity.

In a sense, Alfred Nobel had a unique and rare opportunity to live his life all over again and do it right. To live a life that counted.

As leaders, if we’re really honest, we too want our lives to count. When all is said and done, we want what we did with our lives to have made a difference, not only to our organisations but to our families and even our communities.

The challenge is that we get sucked into the false notion that we can rely on our authority or power to lead and we don’t put in the hard work of growing in character.

It’s no wonder Abraham Lincoln said,

“Nearly all men [and women] can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

What would people say about you? Are you a leader with character?

Our world needs more leaders who are committed to doing the hard work of growing from the inside out. That’s the sort of leadership that wins hearts and minds. That’s the sort of leadership that results in thriving organisations. That’s the sort of leadership that truly unleashes the best in others.

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