Early in my career, I had the privilege of working for an outstanding organization; a place I believed I would work for my entire career.  Our organization was not only seen as the leading provider of services in our local community, but we were also the flagship of a corporation that provided similar services nationwide.

It was everything I wanted in an employer; opportunities to learn and grow, provision of services with stellar outcomes, and a team of very talented, committed, and hardworking people. It was truly a great place to work!

Our CEO was a shrewd man; personable, engaging, and able to rally the troops every time he spoke. He was smart, visionary, and incredibly competent. He understood our business and seemed to have an uncanny ability to forecast and respond to business challenges. He led a fledgling hospital to a place of unprecedented prominence and by all accounts was a great leader.

Today, that organization is closed and its end was like something out of a Grisham novel. One morning to everyone’s surprise, FBI agents entered the building and confiscated files, seized computers, escorted  employees and patients out of the building, and placed a large chain and lock on the front doors. As it turned out, the organization I loved for so many years had been a part of a large Medicaid scam; defrauding the government of millions of dollars. The actions of a few violated the trust of employees, the community, and the children and families we served.

How does an organization with a stellar reputation come to such a sad end? How does a CEO manage to present one persona to the public while presenting something completely different behind closed doors? What could account for an entire leadership team remaining silent while wrong-doing is occurring? What is the measure of a true leader?

So here’s the Four One One…

What happened to us and countless organizations since then was a failure of leadership. The CEO and his leadership team abused their power and privilege by putting their own interests above the interests of patients, employees, and the community. As hard as it is to imagine, not a single person possessed the managerial courage to take a stand against the illegal, immoral, and unethical behavior that eventually led to the collapse of the organization. It was a monumental failure of character.

The True Measure of a Leader

Psalm 78:72 provides a fascinating description of the leadership of King David. It reads “And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them.” Embedded in this verse are the two fundamental components of great leadership: Character or “integrity of heart” and Competency or “skillful hands.”

By all accounts our CEO was a great leader, nevertheless he proved to be an utter failure because he possessed plenty of competency, but very little character; skillful hands, but no integrity of heart. In his seminal work, The Ascent of a Leader, Bill Thrall wrote, “…leaders eventually falter when their skill development outpaces their character development.”  Truly great leaders possess a healthy dose of both character and competency. It is, however, their character that determines how they use their competency and modulates their use of power.

Leadership Character

Who you are as a leader is far more critical than any particular competency you may possess. Allow me to repeat what I believe is the most important statement in today’s post; who you are as a leader is far more critical than any particular competency you may possess. Unfortunately, leadership development programs focus heavily on competency to the unfortunate exclusion of character. “The dysfunctions of many leaders are rooted in a common reality: their capacities have been extensively trained while their character has been merely presumed” (The Ascent of a Leader).

Think of it this way, it was failed character as opposed to competency that brought down Enron.  It was a failure of character that led to the accounting cover-up by Arthur Andersen. It was lack of character that defined the actions of Presidents Clinton and Nixon. History has taught us leadership failure is rarely about competency, and frequently about character.

Character First

Let’s return to the description of King David. Note that it begins by first focusing on his heart; seemingly signifying that being a true leader—one who people follow by choice—begins with the heart. It is indeed your character that will keep your team on board and engaged when the odds of success seem out of reach. It is your character that allows your team to extend you the benefit of the doubt when your actions are called into question. It is your character that will allow your team to provide you a second chance when you make a mistake. Leadership character is the hallmark of great leaders!

Actions, Habits, and Character Development

True leadership character develops over time and is demonstrated through a series of deliberate and intentional steps that eventually become habits. These habits solidify your character and define your success as a leader. As someone once wrote:

 Watch your thoughts, for they become words.

Watch your words, for they become actions.

Watch your actions, for they become habits.

Watch your habits, for they become character.

Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

Clearly there’s no three step process to character development. Character is demonstrated by our actions, yet rooted in our beliefs. Nevertheless, I do believe there are actions that are difficult to fake over time. These actions develop character when practiced over a lifetime.

  1. Think of Others First: The word shepherd was used to describe King David, so like a shepherd consider and respond to the needs of the team even when it conflicts with your personal needs.
  2. Don’t Shy Away From the Mirror: Create an environment where vulnerability flourishes. Do this by encouraging your team to hold a mirror in front of you so that you can see the inconsistencies between your words and your deeds. Listening and responding to their feedback will prove invaluable as you attempt to build the habits that become your character.
  3. Take the High Road: Treat people with the dignity they deserve; even when their actions don’t indicate they deserve it.