How to Know and Develop Leadership Character

Moral Character

How do you define character?

Caliber.  Constitution.  Mettle.  Nature.  Spirit. identifies each of these words as a synonym for the word character.  In other words, our character is who we are and how others recognize us.

Developing Leadership Character

How do I develop leadership character in myself?

Leadership character is who a leader is and how we recognize them. (See Focus for a sample list of Top 10 Leadership Qualities.)  The purpose of this article is not to debate the character traits leaders embody. Instead, the purpose is to explain how to develop leadership character then shed light on how to spot it in others.

Developing any type of character is process.  It takes focus, action, and repetitionSamuel Smiles has a terrific quote which highlights these truths.

It is this:

Sow a thought, and you reap an act; Sow an act, and you reap a habit; Sow a habit, and you reap a character; Sow a character, and you reap a destiny.

The character traits of a leader develop through the same process: focus, action, and persistence.  It’s the same process Malcolm Gladwell identifies when he explains how to develop expertise in Outliers.  Gladwell’s argument is years of experimentation is the fundamental ingredient in an amateur becoming an expert – whether that person is a hockey player, a Beatle or a Bill Gates.

A person focuses on a topic then does it over and over again until they get it right then over and over until the right response is relexive – focus, action, and repetition.

This process is reiterated in Gary Kasparov‘s How Life Imitates Chess.  A chess Grand Master develops by focusing on chess, playing a lot of chess, then playing a lot of chess correctly – focus, action, and repetition.

Whether the subject is chess, hockey, music, computer programming, or leadership character the process is the same.  Focused practice ‘hard wires’ the situations, approprate tactical responses, and strategies into your brain.  The result is the correct responses become reflexive, second-nature – just like martial arts.

Expanding Character

How do I develop leadership character in others?

Now that we know how to develop leadership character in ourselves how do we take what we know and leverage it to develop the leadership Grand Masters of tomorrow?  The Character Council of Greater Cincinatti and Northern Kentucky identified four facets to encourage character in others.

  1. First, we model leadership traits so potential leaders know what to do and how to do (focus and action).
  2. Second, we consistently remind trainees which character traits are worthy of leaders and why they are worthy of leaders.
  3. Third, we set the expectation and hold them accountable.
  4. Finally, we recognize and reward the desired character behaviors to ensure they are repeated.

We know how to develop leadership character – focus, action, and repetition.  We know how to encourage it in others – model, remind, expect, and reward.

The next question has to do with identifying character traints in others.

Identifying Leadership Characteristics

How do I spot leadership character?

Identifying an individual with leadership character does not require a PhD but it does take work.  The process is much like the wash, rinse, repeat model.  Errr, the focus, action, repetition model.

Let’s begin with Peter Carbonara’s second rule from his Four Rules for Hiring Smart.

The second rule is this:

“You can’t find what you’re not looking for.”

Instead, begin by asking questions like this:

“What does leadership look like in our organization?”

Real Life Success

Southwest Airlines embodies this technique in their hiring of all employees. In a Harvard Business Review article entitled “Hire for Attitude, Train for Skill” Bill Taylor quotes the former Southwest Airlines People Department top executive, Sherry Phelps, as she explained their hiring philosophy.

“The first thing we look for is the ‘warrior spirit’,” Phelps says. “So much of our history was born out of battles — fighting for the right to be an airline, fighting off the big guys who wanted to squash us, now fighting off the low-cost airlines trying to emulate us. We are battle-born, battle-tried people. Anyone we add has to have some of that warrior spirit.”

Southwest took the time to understand their organization’s culture and the character traits required to succeed.  The result was knowing exactly what type of person would succeed in their organization.  Similarly, if we take time to understand what a leader looks like in our organization then we will know exactly what type of leadership character traits succeed.

Hiring Smart

The other step in spotting leadership character is related to Carbonara’s third Rule for Hiring Smart.

The third rule is this:

“The best way to evaluate people is to watch them work.”

It is more straight-forward to watch someone for leadership character once hired. Coworkers, customers, managers, and human resources personnel are available to observe and report leadership strengths and weaknesses. T

hey report findings during staff meetings, one-on-ones, performance review cycles, emails, instant messages, and any other mechanism available.

Hiring potential leaders adds challenges because the organization cannot directly watch how candidates work. Tools leveraged during the recruiting process to identify leadership character may include behavioral interviews, references, tests (where legal and appropriate), and background checks (including social media).

The Bottom Line

The bottom line when it comes to identifying leadership character is knowing what to look for then developing a relationship so you can be there when the character trait surfaces, or not.

How are you developing your leadership character?  Do you have specific leadership character traits you are developing? Which decisions and actions are the toughest ones to change so that you can improve? What solid leadership character habits have you developed? What leadership character traits are required in your company, faith-based organization or other non-profit, or home?  What are you doing to develop other leaders?


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Lee Bailey
is Information Assurance Engineer Manager at Lockheed Martin

He serves leader, trainer and coach for IT infrastructures 
Email | LinkedIn | Twitter | Blog

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3 responses to “How to Know and Develop Leadership Character

  1. As a leadership development coach I like this a lot. The one are I’d challenge is that of ‘expanding character’ – in my experience, self discovery is the most powerful tool. Enabling leaders to identify the qualities they see in others, and have the potential for developing in themselves is a powerful motivator – and one that’s self-sustainable.


  2. Pingback: Leadership updates for 03/12/2012·

  3. I believe my character:

    1. Starts with my thoughts
    2. My thoughts become my words
    3. My words become my actions
    4. My actions become my habits
    5. My habits become my character

    Finally my character determines my destiny. I wrote last week on this same topic. Plus, the hiring character is huge. Too many organizations hire for only competence and not for character.



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