by CIO Staff

How to Develop Character for Leadership

Mar 01, 20074 mins

In my experience, most people are good. Walk the halls of any company and you will find committed parents, involved community members and hardworking professionals. How then to explain the fact that on a daily basis many of us behave badly, demonstrating such self-defeating behaviors as pessimism, selfishness and insecurity?

Consider an IT executive named Carl. Carl loves to learn new things and make a difference. He is a huge asset to his organization and gets the hard work done. Unfortunately, many who work with him don’t trust him because of his “Lone Ranger” tendencies. While impressed with his ability to deliver, others criticize his motives. They assume, based on his behaviors, that he is concerned only with promoting his career.

Carl’s challenge is one of character, and it is one that he must address. Character is essential to leading others and contributing productively over the long term. In fact, research concludes that it’s impossible to be an effective leader without strong character.

Character is defined as having high integrity, as exhibited in the following behaviors, according to the Center for Leadership Solutions and the book The Extraordinary Leader:

Making decisions based on what is best for the company versus personal gain

Stating opinions honestly

Delivering on commitments

Taking a stand on tough issues

Being approachable and asking for feedback

Treating everyone the same

Trusting and working collaboratively with others

Being emotionally resilient in changing situations

It may seem as if it’s easy to evaluate the character of others based on their behaviors, but it isn’t. Carl has outstanding character. He bleeds the company colors and treats his staff like his kids. He isn’t really concerned about power—he just wants to make a difference, do interesting work and be recognized for his efforts. His integrity is in question because he is hard to get to know and does much of his thinking on his own. He isn’t very approachable or skilled at working collaboratively. When he states opinions, he sounds harsh and judgmental.

Carl’s not the only one getting a bad rap in the character department. We are predisposed to judge others negatively in the heat of the battle because there is little time to communicate and much to get done. For those who would lead, the challenge is to adopt or emphasize behaviors that allow character to shine through. In my experience, there are three behaviors that, when demonstrated consistently, ensure that a leader’s true colors are visible to others.

Break through the negativity. It’s easier to question, dissect and disregard than to embrace, enhance and support. Great leaders express excitement about the future and confidence in the abilities of others. I have heard many CIOs talk in one breath about alignment and in the next disparage their business partners. I have also heard CIOs interested in improving internal collaboration within IT gossip about their direct reports with others in their department. If you have a dark side, take it home and share it with your dog.

Learn together. Nothing says “It’s all about me” faster than the show-and-tell kind of collaboration. This occurs when a leader analyzes a problem and makes decisions without feedback from those most affected by the issue at hand. Show-and-tell leadership is in play when the primary form of collaboration occurs in large meetings where leaders pitch their ideas using PowerPoint or when typical leadership lingo includes the terms communication strategy, buy-in and managing expectations. Learning together shows consideration and respect for others and results in better decisions, stronger commitment and more successful outcomes.

Challenge the status quo. Leaders who stay behind their desks compromise the enterprise’s long-term interests. Leadership requires situational awareness and the courage to articulate what others are thinking. Leaders who maintain a distance from their organization rarely hear what they need to hear. Get real by hanging out with your staff and peers, asking questions and sharing your mistakes, and speaking up when those around you are losing their grip on reality.

Carl has adopted new behaviors that let his finer qualities shine through. It hasn’t been easy for him, but as a result, the image that others have of Carl is improving. By keeping a few key behaviors in mind, we all can better project our core values to the benefit of our people, our organizations and ourselves.