CIO

True Colours

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

In my experience, most people are good. Walk the halls of any company and you will find committed parents, involved community members and hardworking professionals. How then to explain the fact that on a daily basis many of us behave badly, demonstrating such self-defeating behaviours as pessimism, selfishness and insecurity?

Consider an IT executive named Carl. Carl loves to learn new things and make a difference. He is a huge asset to his organization and gets the hard work done. Unfortunately, many who work with him don't trust him because of his "Lone Ranger" tendencies. While impressed with his ability to deliver, others criticize his motives. They assume, based on his behaviours, that he is concerned only with promoting his career.

Carl's challenge is one of character, and it is one that he must address. Character is essential to leading others and contributing productively over the long term. In fact, research concludes that it's impossible to be an effective leader without strong character.

Character is defined as having high integrity, as exhibited in the following behaviours, according to the Centre for Leadership Solutions and the book The Extraordinary Leader:

  • Making decisions based on what is best for the company versus personal gain
  • Stating opinions honestly
  • Delivering on commitments
  • Taking a stand on tough issues
  • Being approachable and asking for feedback
  • Treating everyone the same
  • Trusting and working collaboratively with others
  • Being emotionally resilient in changing situations

It may seem as if it's easy to evaluate the character of others based on their behaviours, but it isn't. Carl has outstanding character. He bleeds the company colours and treats his staff like his kids. He isn't really concerned about power — he just wants to make a difference, do interesting work and be recognized for his efforts. His integrity is in question because he is hard to get to know and does much of his thinking on his own. He isn't very approachable or skilled at working collaboratively. When he states opinions, he sounds harsh and judgemental.

Carl's not the only one getting a bad rap in the character department. We are predisposed to judge others negatively in the heat of the battle because there is little time to communicate and much to get done. For those who would lead, the challenge is to adopt or emphasize behaviours that allow character to shine through. In my experience, there are three behaviours that, when demonstrated consistently, ensure that a leader's true colours are visible to others.

Break through the negativity. It's easier to question, dissect and disregard than to embrace, enhance and support. Great leaders express excitement about the future and confidence in the abilities of others. I have heard many CIOs talk in one breath about alignment and in the next disparage their business partners. I have also heard CIOs interested in improving internal collaboration within IT gossip about their direct reports with others in their department. If you have a dark side, take it home and share it with your dog.

Page Break

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 susan@valuedance.com

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.