The Character of Leadership

By Vernon, Robert | Law & Order, January 2004 | Go to article overview

The Character of Leadership


Vernon, Robert, Law & Order


Much is known about leadership. We live in a time when there are more books, films and videos about leadership than ever before. Amazon.com lists over 8,000 leadership titles. Yet many authorities agree there is a crisis or vacuum of leadership in our world. Leadership and how to get it are issues that are greatly misunderstood.

Why the vacuum? Why the crisis? Leadership is somewhat like health. It is not something you can demand, claim or have conferred upon you. To a great extent, a person's health is a result of eating the right foods, maintaining an exercise program, appropriate sleeping patterns, and of course inheritance.

Although we do not choose our genes, we do make choices about our living patterns. These choices reflect character traits like discipline and diligence. Likewise, leadership is the result of specific character traits and the resulting actions. The attributes of a leader like respect, authority and credibility are not things that can be conferred upon or given to an individual. They must be earned.

For this limited purpose leadership is defined with five statements: 1) the ability to clearly understand and articulate the goal; 2) the confidence to be out in front and show the way to the goal; 3) the ability to convince people to follow as an act of their free choice; 4) the desire and ability to help people develop and pursue excellence; and 5) the capability to inspire people to achieve their full potential.

During the last three decades literally thousands of mid-level and top executives have been asked to define- in terms of behavior- the leaders they have enjoyed following. These exercises have been conducted in a variety of settings both in the United States and abroad. They have involved a demographic mixture of men and women. Yet there has been an amazing consistency of response.

Of course, different words or phrases are used, but they communicate the same ideas or concepts across geographic, socio-economic, racial and cultural lines. An attempt was made to develop a "top 10" list. However, a statistical "tie" occurred and so the list includes 11. An examination of these attributes can help all of us learn how to be leaders whom people want to follow.

The consensus on effective leadership behavior is not surprising or revealing. Most or all of these behaviors are well documented in the many books available on the topics of leadership, management or supervision. However, another troubling consensus emerged. Participants expressed that, in their opinion, very few people in leadership positions demonstrate these traits.

If effective leadership behavior is clearly identified, why is it rarely practiced with consistency? It would seem that if we know the pattern for leadership success, more of us would practice it. Yet this does not seem to be the case. There is a gap between what we know is effective leadership behavior and the actual practice of that behavior.

The desirable leadership behaviors can be illustrated as the structural components of a building. There is a two-fold purpose of using a building as an illustration of effective leadership. First, effective leadership is the result of a combination of behavioral components that make up the whole of a successful package. Similarly, a building is made up of a number of structural components.

Second, effective leadership behaviors are recognizable. They can be observed and measured. Once again the components of a building can be observed and measured.

Foundation Lacking

Much of the attention of leadership education and training has been directed toward these observable behaviors. This is appropriate and necessary; but it does not go far enough. If a building is to survive the elements, if it is to last through the stress of weather and earthquakes, then the unseen foundation is all-important.

Similarly, if an observable effective leadership style is to survive, it too must be supported by a firm foundation of ethics or character. …

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