Character Counts

I haven’t actually heard anyone say anything as direct as “the ends justify the means,” but it can’t be far off. More and more people seem willing to overlook how leaders achieve the results they achieve. As long as the policy matches their position or they win games for old State U, who cares how they got there?

And then the next thing we know, scandal ensues. Twitter blows up. Our competitors rejoice.

But does it matter, ultimately? Sure, our rival may win the news cycle, but eventually the next hurricane will make landfall, international crisis will occur, or something that pushes it off the front page of our social media feeds. So who cares?

Well, I do. But not just me - anyone who is a fan of sustainability thinks so as well. It’s fine to want to hit our quarterly profit goal, or to put together a winning streak. But what our shareholders and stakeholders, fans or constituents really want is a leader that sets and keeps them on a course over time.

That’s where character matters. Matthew Ridgway, a highly-decorated US Army General who led American troops in World War II as well as leading the entire United Nations forces to turn the Korean War, named three core leadership skills: character, courage, and competence. You’ve got to be brave enough to do what is required, and you’ve got to be actually able to lead. But ultimately for Ridgway, character was foundational - the other pillars of leadership only stand as solidly as character does. George Washington also spoke on character, noting it is “...better to be alone than in bad company.”

Research bears this out. When Tony Dungy and I were working on the book The Mentor Leader several years ago, we looked at the latest research in addition to our own experiences as leaders. We found, time and again, that character matters. A lot. According to John Streitmatter of The Leadership Research Institute, studies show that in times of crisis, people gravitate to leaders of character – not necessarily the smartest or most charismatic. Instead, they turn to the person they can trust, even if that person doesn’t happen to hold a position of leadership. A de facto leader, if you will.

I doubt this surprises you. It’s easy to picture ourselves in a situation where someone is playing fast and loose with facts, manipulating employees, and/or telling different things to different people. It might last for a while, but before long it will all come crumbling down.

So, yes, results matter. But for the leader looking at the long term, we can never sacrifice our character for those results.           

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.