CHARACTER: The Crucial Aspect of Exceptional Leaders

Management discipline, technical acumen, and experience all play a role in the kinds of results an organization’s leader is able to achieve. Good leaders can be relied on to consistently bring groups of people together to achieve common goals in a normal operating environment. Thoughtful plans, careful resource management, and regular communication enable good leaders to guide their teams to deliver high quality results, on time, within budget, and in-line with plan. Staffing management positions with good leaders is a cornerstone of running a high performing business.

However, exceptional leaders are those who stand out in a crisis, when the normal operating rhythm is disrupted and the risks become more acute. Uncertainty compresses timelines, challenges assumptions, and presents new variables that can invalidate the best of plans and unsettle staff and other stakeholders. Despite these circumstances, exceptional leaders are able to steer an organization through a crisis because they have something more than business expertise and leadership skills: they have “character”. There are five core qualities that I believe serve as foundational characteristics of an exceptional leader:

  • Vision – a leader has a forward-looking sense of purpose and communicates it effectively.
  • Integrity – a leader speaks truthfully, acts reliably, and takes accountability.
  • Courage – a leader measures risks but is also willing to make hard decisions and act.
  • Awareness – a leader recognizes and adapts to the relative strengths and weaknesses in self and others.
  • Resilience – a leader has the drive to succeed in all circumstances, and the fortitude to be the source of stability in the face of adversity.

These character qualities are not reserved solely for senior managers, nor do individuals assigned to leadership positions automatically gain these qualities upon assuming a role. Some individuals in formal management roles never learn the skills necessary to be a strong leader, and they may not have many of the essential qualities above that are so critical in a crisis. Although some people seem to be natural leaders, for most people, leadership skills need to be explicitly taught, and the character qualities need to be encouraged and nurtured. In fact, these very same character qualities that make some leaders exceptional are important to develop more broadly within an organization. This is because people who work in an environment that fosters a strong character leadership ethos become exceptional followers: well positioned to execute the strategic agenda, shoulder more responsibility, and ultimately become formal leaders themselves in the future.

Musing on the topic of leadership, I reflected on my time at the U.S. Army Ranger Course – the Army’s premier small unit tactics school and arguably its toughest course – both as a student and later as an instructor. Ranger School is known not only for its high intensity training, physical deprivation, and challenging environments, but also for its very low (<50%) successful completion rate. Few soldiers earn the opportunity to attend this elite course; candidates must first volunteer and then pass selection to gain admission. During the months of training, students hone skills in a variety of military disciplines while under constant evaluation in practical leadership exercises. Students must function for months on restricted calories and limited sleep. It is not a “management” course, rather it is an extended test of personal character, physical and mental resilience, and the ability to lead in extreme conditions.

The premise of Ranger School is to simulate the conditions of battle in traditional special operations assignments: covert, hit-and-run style operations deep behind enemy lines. The challenges change daily. One night, a ranger team might insert by parachute to destroy a well-guarded supply base. Another night, the team might use small boats to traverse a swamp and conduct a hostage rescue or scale a mountain to perform reconnaissance on suspected enemy activity. Students must regularly adapt to dynamic circumstances and work with various personalities among the other candidates and instructors.

There is one other distinguishing factor about the course – there is no rank. Traditional military hierarchy, and the deference that goes with it, is left outside the gates. Officers and enlisted soldiers alike are simply assigned an anonymizing roster number and treated equally. Authority is not granted based on title, seniority, or experience. Instead, leadership roles rotate between students from mission to mission. Students must be able to shift from follower to leader and back again, with little notice or pattern. To meet course objectives, coordinated team execution is essential to success, far out shadowing individual performance.

When in charge, a candidate must accomplish the assigned objective by mobilizing the strengths of the whole team – or else fail. But thoughtful and well communicated plans are often not enough. Like real combat operations, these training missions feature unexpected complications, and success or failure can hinge on how quickly the leader can adapt to the situation and rally the team to respond.

It is not easy, no matter how well trained the team. A well-rehearsed plan gone awry, combined with hunger and exhaustion, creates uncertainty and reluctance to act. In these scenarios, it is confidence in the leader as much as his or her willingness to take decisive action that makes the difference. Character is that defining factor that enables successful leaders to inspire the certainty and commitment within the team to put aside their own doubts and follow down an uncharted path.

Admittedly Ranger School may be an extreme example, but those same character qualities are just as relevant in business. While most business leaders will not have to face combat in the workplace, there are other challenges that occur that can mean success or failure for their business. The market is dynamic and events outside of the organization’s control can disrupt business plans as well as create new opportunities. Amidst this uncertainty, leaders determine how well and how quickly the business responds to the unexpected. The best ones achieve successful outcomes. I have worked alongside credible and visibly committed leaders who have successfully guided organizations through market shocks and difficult business transformations. I also have experience with senior leaders who have struggled to excel under normal conditions, much less in times of crisis or change. Unfailingly, the presence or absence of those core character qualities played a role in how these leaders were able to motivate their employees to perform.

Why is this so? Leaders of strong character inspire both confidence in their decision-making as well as effective followership from their teams. These are the factors that enable an organization to follow through on those decisions no matter the circumstance. The leader sets the tone for the organization, and over time, the organization begins to mirror how the leader operates. Individuals – whether soldiers or employees – often emulate their leaders, and in this way character becomes contagious. Strong character traits, replicated across an organization, create the capacity for faster, more coordinated action and encourage initiative and ownership. Conversely, weak character traits create fractures that can sew distrust, generate friction, and limit the ability to harness the full potential of everyone in the organization.

So how do leaders nurture character within an organization? It is not something that can be accomplished with a training course, nor is it a task to hand off to HR. Character development in an organization begins with leaders recognizing what those qualities are and committing to make them a feature of how they operate every day. Senior leaders must set the positive example for the organization. And because character must be genuine to be embraced by others, it needs to be practiced at all times – it cannot be something done only when convenient.

In order for leaders to gauge how they match up with the kind of example they wish to set, they must engage in deliberate self-reflection in addition to soliciting regular feedback. This should be done informally as well as part of regular supervisory evaluations. When introspection and feedback point to gaps in leadership behavior, an effective leader takes note and makes changes in an ongoing manner. Shortfalls can be addressed if the leader is willing to acknowledge and take steps to address them, and colleagues will respond positively. To achieve the greatest impact, managers at all levels should simultaneously devote time to develop these qualities in others.

One method is to be visible and accessible. During meetings, talk about leadership qualities, not just management outcomes, and take the time to recognize individuals who exhibit them. Create opportunities for staff to test themselves and demonstrate their leadership. Offer feedback but act more like a coach than a critic. By deliberately investing in the development of subordinate staff, leaders send a clear and positive message to the whole organization and engender the trust that they need to succeed.

Exceptional leaders inspire the followership necessary to navigate uncertain events and achieve uncommon results. Plus, in most cases, they don’t have to do so while carrying ninety pounds of gear through the mud all night. Organizations anchored by a character-driven leader function more effectively in normal times, respond decisively in a crisis, and build a self-sustaining legacy over time.

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Jeffrey S. Barden
Managing Partner