Leadership: Competence or Character?

"Leadership remains the most baffling of arts," says James Stokesbury, a professor of military history. "As long as we do not know exactly what makes men get up out of a hole in the ground and go forward in the face of death at a word from another man, then leadership will remain one of the highest and most elusive of qualities. It will remain an art."

In a quest to understand what personal traits facilitate followship from others, I researched successful U.S. leaders and studied both modern and ancient writings on leadership. I boiled it down to three capacities: 1) to inspire others with a sense of purpose; 2) to command their trust; and 3) to demonstrate a high level of wisdom. Next, I identified eight characteristics that serve to produce these three capacities in an individual: Authenticity, Purpose, Self-Mastery, Humility, Vulnerability, Generosity, Awareness and Intuitive Wisdom. I then wrote Lead By Greatness.

In Lead By Greatness, all eight characteristics are carefully explained, and in our Lead By Greatness leadership development programs, we define each characteristic specifically (and in some cases unconventionally) for the purposes of leadership greatness. Humility, Vulnerability and Generosity are the traits that attract most puzzlement from executives on the program. Many of them have been trained not to be humble, vulnerable or generous, and yet I believe steadfastly that effective trust cannot be built without these qualities.

When I started working on the book, my contention–that leadership greatness requires great character at least as much as it demands effective competency–was not widely accepted. There was still a strong belief that "nice" people could not lead effectively. Some still hold that view. It was interesting that in recent a WSJ piece about the Indian CEOs of Microsoft, Nokia, Adobe and now Google, quotes a cross-cultural study from Southern New Hampshire University, which found that more Indian managers achieved the highest ranking in terms of leadership traits than did U.S. managers. Indian managers are future-oriented, and had a "paradoxical blend of genuine personal humility and intense professional will," the study says. "These leaders achieved extraordinary results and built great organizations without much hoopla."

Without commenting on the propensity of certain cultures to produce stronger leadership traits than others, the powerful leadership formula of "personal humility" plus "intense professional will" is important to note. Professional will, or ambition, is a personality trait. Humility is a character trait. I am not sure that you can train for personality, but you can definitely train for character. To my knowledge, few leadership programs other than Lead By Greatness actually train for character. Combining humility with confidence and professional will is one of eight characteristics of effective leadership on which we focus.

The enticing opportunity to increase one's ability to influence others and impact the world in which one lives while simultaneously becoming a greater human being, is one of the most compelling benefits of a Lead By Greatness development program.

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