True Colours

True Colours

Character is an essential element of leadership. Here’s how to develop yours and let it shine

Learn together. Nothing says "It's all about me" faster than the show-and-tell kind of collaboration. This occurs when a leader analyzes a problem and makes decisions without feedback from those most affected by the issue at hand. Show-and-tell leadership is in play when the primary form of collaboration occurs in large meetings where leaders pitch their ideas using PowerPoint or when typical leadership lingo includes the terms communication strategy, buy-in and managing expectations. Learning together shows consideration and respect for others and results in better decisions, stronger commitment and more successful outcomes.

Challenge the status quo. Leaders who stay behind their desks compromise the enterprise's long-term interests. Leadership requires situational awareness and the courage to articulate what others are thinking. Leaders who maintain a distance from their organization rarely hear what they need to hear. Get real by hanging out with your staff and peers, asking questions and sharing your mistakes, and speaking up when those around you are losing their grip on reality.

Carl has adopted new behaviours that let his finer qualities shine through. It hasn't been easy for him, but as a result, the image that others have of Carl is improving. By keeping a few key behaviours in mind, we all can better project our core values to the benefit of our people, our organizations and ourselves.

Susan Cram is founder and president of Value dance, a California-based executive coaching firm. You can e-mail feedback to

Reader Q&A

Q: Your column did not discuss accountability. But taking responsibility for your actions — particularly mistakes — is never easy. How does one overcome that?

A: Interesting point. It's difficult to admit to mistakes because we all work to avoid the discomfort that comes from doing so. We aim to be in control. We try to ignore the little voice in our heads that asks: "Am I good enough?" On an organizational basis, you can encourage others to take responsibility for their actions by admitting your own mistakes and sharing what you've learned. Remind yourself that success isn't the absence of weaknesses but the presence of clear strengths. Keep in mind that the inability to learn from mistakes has derailed many careers. It's also comforting to remember that taking responsibility for outcomes, paradoxically, increases the perception of trustworthiness and, therefore, character.

Q: You talk about character as a prerequisite for leadership. So why is it that so many "leaders" fall short and yet still manage to rise to the top?

A: It's true that individuals with questionable character have risen to the top of many organizations. However, in his book Good to Great, Jim Collins argues that companies that prevail long term have a leadership culture based on humility and trust. Great companies have broad and deep leadership teams of talented peers who are able to confront the brutal facts, engage in vigorous debate and support each other despite differences of opinion. Collins underscores that good to great companies place "greater weight on character attributes" than on specific knowledge or skills.

Q: Carl's character sounds unimpeachable. Isn't his problem a failure to communicate?

A: Carl's character is unimpeachable, but his actions are confusing to others because he isn't inclusive in his process of making decisions. Leaders who think and act alone often fall victim to others attributing negative motives to their actions.

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