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The Role of Character In Leadership

There is a common thread connecting great leaders I have studied over the years: character. These leaders come from a variety of circumstances and include persons like Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan. All were leaders possessing great moral virtue and an inspired vision for a better future. None were perfect, but all aspired to be persons of character.

Each had great influence and impact on the circumstances in which they found themselves, and all left a significant legacy. What was their secret? I believe the impact they each created flowed from who they were as human beings, their actions being the mirror image of their character. Being the right kind of person will tend to produce the right kind of actions.

This is the reason much personal development tends to result in frustration and backsliding. There is too much focus on changing behaviors and doing the right thing and too little on becoming the right kind of person. We ultimately act in a way consistent with how we think and who we are. Thus, it is thinking right and becoming the right person that will produce the right kind of actions.

What is character?

Character is our habits of thinking and acting based on moral virtues of excellence we have chosen to acquire. Character develops through the interaction of temperament, environment, experiences, models we observe, the choices we make, and the habits that are built. The true measure of our character is the way in which we choose to react to what happens to us. Circumstances do not determine character but rather reveal our character.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that happiness (contentment and peace with oneself) comes from living a virtuous life, being a person of excellent character. He believed a person could be happy despite their circumstances if they aspired to attain moral virtue. I personally agree with this and believe, like Aristotle, that happiness is the result of pursuing a life of being versus doing.

Aristotle identified four cardinal virtues key to living a good life. These four virtues are Courage, Prudence, Temperance, and Justice. Courage is acting to do the right thing in the face of adversity and fear; Prudence is the wisdom to know the right thing to do; Temperance is the emotional self-control to make the right choices and maintain balance; Justice is aligning oneself with the ideal of just dealing, fairness, and conformity to truth, fact, or reason. All four virtues are foundational to becoming a great leader, spouse, parent, or friend.

Whenever I think of character and what it looks like to be an effective human being I am reminded of the famous King Solomon quote: “There is nothing new under the sun.” What it takes to live a good life and be an effective person has not changed in over 2000 years. Our environment has changed considerably over time, but the model of the perfect leader and person does not change and never will.


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