The Importance Of Character

There is a difference between character, the essence of who we are and persona—expert Kevin Cashman explains the distinction and reveals what it takes to be a strong leader.
May 24, 2011

In a recent Scientific American article entitled “How The Illusion of Being Observed Can Make You A Better Person,” we learn that cues that we are being watched have an impact on our social behavior: we tend to be on our best behavior, the research shows, when we feel that we are being observed.

But, contrary to what the article states, this is far from making us a better person. What makes us a better person is a question of character—it’s our moral or ethical strength. This is independent of societal surveillance. Character is, indeed, who we are when no one is looking.

Nowhere is this more crucial than for those who hold leadership positions. Years ago, I read a line in a book which said: “When in doubt, act like the Chairman would.” This inspiring phrase runs the risk of eliciting some skepticism when we ponder the deficit of character of leaders in companies such as Enron, WorldCom and Adelphia Communications, to name a few. Leadership is a privilege and with it, come certain obligations, one of which is that leaders need to instill trust in people that they will do the right things, regardless of whether or not they are being watched.

In Leadership From The Inside Out, the late Kevin Cashman makes a powerful distinction between character, the essence of who we are, andpersona, the external personality we have created to cope with our everyday life. A leader who leads through character is guided by authenticity, while the one who leads from persona is guided by image.

The former has trust and compassion as foremost guiding principles, while the latter is concerned about fear and self-interest. The leader who leads through character is focused on creating value and contribution rather than winning at all costs. Such a leader values openness and inclusion, shunning control and exclusion, the hallmarks of the leader who is driven by image.

Here are a few tips to inspire you in your leadership journey:

1. Make values actionable

Living your values every day is an important aspect of character in action. Companies go through considerable expense having consultants craft value statements that, unfortunately, end up being nothing more than motherhood statements hanging on the wall in the reception lobby. Prevent this from happening by making values actionable. “We value open communication” is vague and left to interpretation. Consider what happens if you clarify this by adding: “There are no sacred cows in this team.”

2. Be known as a promise-keeper

In The Leadership Challenge, authors James Kouzes and Barry Posner consider “Model the Way” through personal example and dedicated execution, as a foundational practice for admirable leaders. One way to put this into action is to keep your promises, to do what you say you will do. No matter how small the promise is, no matter who the promise is made to, strive to keep your word. While events may well prevent us from honoring commitments we made, don’t let a commitment slip by without getting back to people to let them know why you can’t fulfill your promise. Resolve to handle your word as precious currency and watch how your value rises in everyone’s eyes.

3. Don’t take shortcuts in quality

As Henry Ford put it: “Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.” Do you preach to your team that quality is an important value, yet when there is a crisis, you find yourself telling people to take shortcuts at the expense of quality in order to get the order out the door? Every time you do this, it erodes your authenticity in the eyes of your constituents. Eventually, when you speak about quality, they will discount it as lip service.

4. Be consistent in your dealings with others

Do you treat some people in your organization or team better than you treat others? For example, do you unwittingly complain about a member of your team to other team members? While we can easily slip into such behavior, especially when we are tired and frustrated by the day’s events, consider that this chips away at your integrity as a leader.

5. Audit your decisions

At the end of every week, get in the habit of going over each decision you made. Did your focus on the bottom line cause you to forget the impact on some people? Did your biases affect the objectivity of your actions? Are you proud? Do your actions reflect positively on you as a person of character? What could you have done better? Every action we take, no matter how small, has our character stamp on it.

According to Biology Letters’ “Cues of being watched enhance cooperation in a real-world setting,” one of the reasons we are more civilized when we know we are being watched is due to concerns about our reputation. Reputation is the quality or character that other people attribute to us; it’s the surface layer. It’s our carefully crafted profile on Facebook; it’s the multitude of recommendations that are posted on our LinkedIn profile.

Character, on the other hand, is what is deep inside us; it’s who we are on a daily basis, when things go well and when things go wrong. It’s who we are in the boardroom as well as in our living room. We have reason to be proud when both reputation and character are a mirror image of each other. Abraham Lincoln put it this way: “Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”