There has never been a time where leaders of character are more needed to stand and be counted in our businesses, tribal communities, government and society overall. In an era of fake news, misinformation, purposeful deceit and doubletalk, the leader of character is a standout for all the right reasons. The leader of character refuses to be comfortable with a lie posing as truth, prioritizes ethics over an empty win, integrity over accolades, and makes all their choices through a values funnel. They know they’re setting an example and leaving a legacy in every word and deed, so they choose consciously and courageously.
“You must speak straight so your words may go as sunlight into our hearts.”
— Cochise, Chiricahua Apache / Leader of Character
Becoming a leader of character requires challenging work and a fierce desire to do the right thing for the right reasons. Whether you are leading a business organization, an agency team, a community or a family, the following points apply:
Point 1. Being a leader of character is not about being a perfect leader.
Perfection in leadership is not in the cards and I’d argue it’s dangerous to try to achieve it. When we are more focused on the public relations of leadership and presenting a pristine, flawless image, we risk breeches of integrity and ethical lapses as we try to maintain that façade. Leaders can fall prey to covering their tracks and offloading blame in the quest for perfection and in the process, sacrifice their integrity and even the welfare of those they serve. Perhaps some of you reading this may have had this happen at your organization, business, tribe or team and know how painful this can be. Learn and log the lesson and remember this: your people do not need you to be perfect, but they do need you to be honest. Mistakes, screw ups and bad calls are inevitable but the way we handle them defines our character, which brings me to point two.
Point 2. Accountability is key.
When (not if) mistakes and screw ups occur, own them. Fix it if you can, apologize if it’s appropriate, learn the lesson and move on. That is the best anyone can do and the right course when serving as a leader of character. What’s not OK is to play the blame game, point fingers and wiggle out of the moment. We need to be accountable for not only the good, but the bad and the ugly too – and we’re going to have all three as leaders. The best leaders I’ve ever followed were the best not because everything they touched turned to gold, but because they were accountable for what they did and expected the same of me. In ancient Rome, engineers who built bridges were placed under the bridge while the Roman legions marched across. Did that ultimate accountability work? Two thousand years later, many of those bridges are still standing! Being accountable for what we do is the best form of leadership by example and the quickest way to build a reputation of integrity and begin the process of building a rock-solid leadership model hewn from character.
Point 3. The truth may hurt, but it’s better than the alternative.
To not recognize and own our own truth – our faults, shortcomings and mistakes – eliminates our ability to fix any of it and can set us up for an epic fail in leadership. How many times has hubris, a lack of accountability or unethical behavior caused major damage and even complete collapse of organizations (think Volkswagen, Enron, Lehman Bros. or Lance Armstrong)? We cannot be leaders of character if we’re not facing truth head on and fighting to attain integrity within. We must be honest with ourselves, about who we see in the mirror each day. We also need to be willing to hear, no matter how painful, the observations of our customers, leadership, colleagues, coworkers and family when we’re called on the carpet if our walk doesn’t align with our talk. I know from experience that this can sting quite a bit. But the good news is that being honest with ourselves and hearing feedback (even the tough stuff) from others is what gives us an opportunity to course correct and improve. Plus, the truth not only sets us free, it’s redemptive, purifying and the best sleep aid I know.
When we decide to be a leader of character, we enlist in a struggle that is worthy of our sacrificed effort and ego. We must practice daily to replace perfection with integrity, deal in truth not denial and take accountability for all we do. Each new day and interaction with those we lead brings another opportunity to forge strong bonds with them and practice being a leader of character. And to stand and be counted.