The Character of 21st Century Leaders_3x5 Leadership

In May 1991, following Desert Storm and months before his retirement, GEN Norman Schwartzkopf gave a speech to United States Military Academy (USMA) Cadets. In it, he argued that the two essential traits that must define leaders of the 21st century are competence and character (I highly encourage you to check out the inspiring speech here, in parts one, two, and three). So much time, money, and effort are poured into developing leader competence to achieve performance capacity and organizational success. Hundreds of books, journals, podcasts, and blogs (to include this one) center around developing leader competence. Yet, we pay less attention to character development. I believe it is because character is so intangible, hard to define, and even difficult to determine its impact on an organization; I think it is easy to determine if someone has bad character but it is less clear to determine if they have good character.

Deliberately addressing character is an organizational and leader developer necessity; the lack of such attention is ultimately the root cause of our society’s seemingly extensive erosion of integrity and respect showcased by the many downfalls of high visibility leaders (to include military) and once respected celebrities. My previous brigade commander constantly reiterated to his subordinate leaders that “character counts more than resume.”

USMA’s vision is to be the preeminent leader development institution in the world. In its mission statement, USMA aims to develop leaders of character, which, through its leader development system, defines a leader of character as one who lives honorably, leads honorably, and demonstrates excellence. Jim Collins, in his forward to the 25th anniversary republication of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, states that “a key ingredient in the West Point recipe is the idea that great leadership begins first with character – that leadership is primarily a function of who you are, for this is the foundation for everything you do. How do you build leaders? You first build character.” USMA is not a perfect institution, but it definitely serves as a great example of an organization with a healthy orientation toward character development.

There is not one absolute definition of character. One offered by Michael Hyatt (via The Character Gap discussed in his podcast, referenced below) is “doing the right thing, in the right way, for the right reason, all the time.” In his speech, Schwartzkopf stated that character is only truly demonstrated when no one is watching. Ultimately, within the workplace, it defines what we are willing to tolerate and allow in order to achieve success. To operationalize and define character, USMA created the five facets of character, which are identified below.

  • Moral: internalization of the Army Values that results in the knowledge, integrity, and awareness to assess the moral-ethical aspects of every situation and the personal courage to take appropriate action regardless of consequences.
  • Social: the ability to act with the proper decorum in all professional, social, and online environments.
  • Civic: The empathy, loyalty, respect, and humility that enables an individual to treat others with dignity and display selflessness.
  • Performance: the sense of duty, resilience, and grit necessary to accomplish the mission and get results.
  • Leadership: the ability to inspire and develop others while establishing a safe, positive command climate where everyone thrives while achieving tangible results.

“Doing the right thing when it is neither popular nor convenient is the ultimate test of character.” – Scott Cochrane

Considerations for Personal & Organizational Character Development

I write this post just as much for my own reflection as to share what I’ve recently learned on this topic with others. I am in no way an expert on being a leader of character; I’ve only had the great fortune to engage in a season of deliberate study of character and leadership.

In my recent studies and research on this topic, I’ve come to learn a few points that may help you as you begin to reflect on your own character and the collective character of your team or organization.

  • Character and success is a false dichotomy. Character may challenge immediate or short-term success, but it ultimately builds long-term effects.
  • Acts of integrity throughout the organization builds a culture founded on this character principle. Acts of integrity can create organizational stories and legends for people to rally around and be inspired by.
  • Reflecting on your character is critical. How can you best think through your own character – how you define it, what contributes to it, and how your daily behavior is aligned with it? Is there something transcendent that holds you accountable?
  • What serves as your compass to keep you oriented on your character “true north?” Here’s mine (my personal life mission statement).
  • What or who keeps you accountable in your life? You need to create an accountability relationship or network. This can be a “challenge network” you create at work (or church, etc.), your inner circle, or family and loved ones.

A Method to Start a Character Development Conversation

With character being such a complex topic, it is certainly not easy to start a conversation about it in your organization; it’s going to invoke challenging introspection and vulnerable conversations. Below is one method I recommend to begin a character conversation with the people on your team that I experienced a few months ago.

  • Have everyone define character. Have your people physically write out how they define character but force them to do it in only 30 seconds. Hold them to this time restriction; doing so forces them to resort to their existing, deep beliefs on the topic in the haste of the allotted time. In this exercise for example, I defined character as, “doing the right thing, all the time, no matter what.”
  • How do we assess character? Again, with only 30 seconds, have everyone list out how they assess character. This makes them define the behaviors, attitudes, and traits in others that they look for to determine if they can trust them or not. It begins to turn the abstract conversation of character into more concrete and tangible systems and behaviors. This can include measuring perceived character against identified share organizational values (such as the Army Values) or to the degree members of your team trust a particular individual, and why.
  • Following the two-part exercise, allow everyone to share what they wrote down. Have someone write common themes on a white board in the room as everyone shares. This builds a foundation of shared tacit knowledge about character among the team to then encourage further conversation. Hopefully, the team can start becoming aware of where some potential character blind spots are in the team or create ways everyone can provide challenge, support, and accountability to one another to create a quality and collective culture of character.
  • Leverage USMA’s five facets of character. This can be a model to help educate and inform your people on character and serve as a means to assess their own. You can use this model to spark conversation as well, by having people try and poke holes in the model and have discourse on perceptions of the facets and their definitions.

Helpful Resources & Further Exploration

Finally, if you are interested in discovering more about character development, here are some additional resources to help guide your research.

Disclaimer: this post constitutes my personal thoughts only and does not reflect that of the United States Military Academy or the US Army. The USMA resources referenced and provided in this post are publicly accessible; I do not own the rights to any of the content.


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