The Character of Leadership

By Sarros, James C.; Cooper, Brian K. et al. | Ivey Business Journal Online, May/June 2007 | Go to article overview

The Character of Leadership


Sarros, James C., Cooper, Brian K., Santora, Joseph C., Ivey Business Journal Online


Scratch the surface of a true leader, or look beneath his or her personality, and you'll find character. The traits and values that make up the character of a good business leader are, for the most part, similar to those that make up the character of an outstanding citizen. These authors describe the traits and values that make up the character of leadership.

I have a dream today . . . I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Speech on steps of Lincoln Memorial

Civil Rights March

23 August 1963

Character has come in from the cold. Once the poor cousin of clinical psychology and behavioural studies, character is once again recognized as a critically important component of personality and therefore, of what makes people tick. Its importance to leadership is considerable.

Character in leadership

Not surprisingly, the importance of the character of leadership is making inroads in the business world, Johnson & Johnson (J&J), the major manufacturer of health care products in the United States, views character as a leadership essential. Former Chairman Ralph Larsen believes that people with character can give a company a significant competitive advantage. The company actively seeks to recruit and be represented by people of exceptional character. Johnson & Johnson's stance is supported by research which suggests that in leadership, good character counts. According to Frances Hesselbein, the author and chairman of the Drucker Foundation, leadership that achieves results goes beyond how to be, and becomes how to do; this type of leadership is all about character. So in other words, in order to get things done personally and organizationally, one first needs to get in touch with his or her character.

Leaders with character achieve results that transcend everyday organizational imperatives and outcomes. A study of world leaders over the past 150 years asserts that managers who possess strong character will create a better world for everyone, while leadership generally is vital to the social, moral, economic, and political fabrics of society.

For example, Theresa Gattung is the CEO of Telecom NZ, a New Zealand telecommunications company. Her candour about her vulnerabilities, as well as her philosophy on leadership, has won her the admiration of her male colleagues. She recognizes that good leadership consists more of character than personality:

"When I went to management school 20 years ago, I thought it was about personality, desire, determination, and a little bit of technique. I didn't actually realise it was about character, and that struck me more as I have gone along . . . The leaders whom people respect and will follow have the characteristics of being themselves, of being passionate about what they are doing, communicating that in a heartfelt way that touches hearts."

However, we often take the character of leadership for granted. We expect good leaders to be strong in character, that is, to have a moral imperative underwrite their actions. These leaders with character have been identified as authentic leaders: They are what they believe in; show consistency between their values, ethical reasoning and actions; develop positive psychological states such as confidence, optimism, hope, and resilience in themselves and their associates; and are widely known and respected for their integrity.

Nonetheless, the key attributes of authentic leaders, or leaders with character, remain problematic. To identify these attributes and better understand them, we undertook a study. This paper is based on that study and in it we identify the three underlying dimensions of leadership character - universalism, transformation, and benevolence. We also suggest ways of further enhancing these dimensions and their constituent attributes. …

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