Philosophers, consultants and educators agree: Character is the heart of leadership. And leadership character isn’t just a matter of “business ethics” – refraining from lying, cheating or taking bribes. True leadership character is seen in positive traits such as courage, integrity, resilience and generosity.
In a previous article, I proposed that we view leadership character traits as center points on a continuum. To develop leadership character is to develop the ability to center oneself. For example, courage sits between the two extremes of rashness and timidity. When faced with a risky situation, some leaders will veer off to one extreme or the other – too rash or too timid – or swing back and forth erratically between the two. A truly courageous leader, in contrast, will find the center and hold on to it, like an elite gymnast performing on the balance beam.
If that’s what character is, it’s clearly no easy task to develop it. As learning and development professionals, we might be inclined to shy away from the challenge, but if we agree that leadership is essential to business success and that character is essential to leadership, we can’t shrug and say, “Not my job.” We must help our organizations grow not just skillful leaders but good leaders.
This is one area where microlearning, useful though it may be for other purposes, won’t cut it. A three-minute video here and message from the CEO there may serve as reminders of organizational values, but they won’t transform the office jerk into a respected, inspiring leader. We need more robust interventions. Here are four ways to help leaders develop character.
1. Bring Back 360-Degree Feedback.
360-degree feedback reports, which give recipients information about how they’re perceived by their manager, direct reports and/or peers, were once a common feature of leadership training. Then, employees began to complain about being surveyed to death. Learning modules grew too short for processing difficult feedback. Pre-work, including sending and following up on surveys, increasingly wasn’t completed. Today, feedback tends to show up only in one-on-one executive coaching, where it’s still seen as the best chance of reforming a toxic boss or stretching a high-potential employee.
But if you’re looking to develop character, feedback is essential. Whether you want leaders to build on strengths, ameliorate weaknesses or both, self-awareness is the first step, and the mirror of 360 feedback is the surest way to create self-awareness – if that feedback includes support. Being handed a slew of anonymous comments, as happens in some performance reviews, is worse than useless. Recipients need a skilled coach or facilitator to help them analyze and reflect on feedback, and – most importantly – decide what to do about it.
Feedback mechanisms, thanks to the internet, are now a breeze. What will never be a breeze is guiding leaders through the process, from respondent selection to action plan creation. For truly transformational learning, however, feedback is still the strongest lever we L&D professionals have.
2. Help Them Stretch.
A top-notch facilitator used to tell participants after the first day of a leadership program, “If you go home tonight feeling fine, I’m not doing my job.” She would often receive low ratings on her evaluations of the first day, but by the end of the program, participants would tell her she’d been right: Although they hadn’t enjoyed being made to do role-plays or hear tough feedback, now, they felt they’d really achieved something.
Stretching for a higher level is uncomfortable when we’re dealing with skills, but when we’re dealing with character, it can be painful. It’s one thing to struggle to learn some new software and quite another to struggle with peer comments labeling us unreliable or team results suggesting we aren’t senior leader material.
For that reason, stretch assignments must be combined with plenty of opportunities for reflection and dialogue, the latter in groups and one-on-one with a coach. Those who have fallen short – in a business simulation, say – need chances to redeem themselves. Telling people, “You did poorly” and sending them back to work is sure to result in defensiveness (“That simulation was rigged!”) and zero change.
Reflection, dialogue, and redemption take time. The good news is there’s no need to resurrect the five-day classroom session. Blended designs – short bursts of high-intensity learning interspersed with periods for reading, journaling, peer discussion and virtual coaching – are ideal for this type of curriculum.
3. Teach Mindfulness.
Mindfulness meditation is a growing trend in business, and for good reason: Research shows that as we learn to be fully present in the moment, able to observe our thoughts and feelings without letting them rattle us, we become more effective as leaders.
If character is about centeredness, mindfulness is one of the best tools we have to develop it, for mindfulness is the key to holding one’s center when things get shaky. When we are mindful, we can feel angry, notice that we’re angry, yet not be controlled by our anger. The mindful leader is like a sound boat in turbulent seas.
Many senior executives in global corporations (Microsoft, Salesforce and McKinsey, to name a few) are mindfulness practitioners who swear by its effects. These days, mindfulness instruction tends to stress productivity, decision-making and innovation just as much as personal growth. As long as the business benefits are kept front and center, leaders will see mindfulness training as more practical and less “touchy-feely” than many a corporate values lecture, rocks and ropes experience or cooking class.
4. Involve Role Models.
Perhaps the surest way to cultivate positive character traits is to present examples. Leadership educators have long used case studies to spark discussion of ethical dilemmas and personal values, and there are plenty of speakers who share stories ancient and modern of great leaders and their deeds.
Even more effective, however, is to include everyday role models. We should be identifying the individuals within our organizations who have exhibited desired character traits in both daily work and crisis situations and involving them as guest speakers, coaches and co-facilitators. Moreover, these character exemplars – who may be found at every level of the hierarchy – are the subject matter experts to whom we should be turning for advice as we design and develop character-based curricula.
It’s common to have an executive kick off a leadership class with a welcome speech emphasizing the importance of what the group is about to cover. A less common but far more impactful practice is to have an unsung hero – the customer service supervisor whose group has the highest employee retention rates in the firm, or the engineer who confessed to a mistake that could have led to a safety hazard – kick off the session with his or her story. We L&D professionals are in a unique position to give such heroes a spotlight and, in the process, to encourage more leaders and would-be leaders to aspire to their example.