HOW CHARACTER DEFINES THE LEADER’S AGENDER
How Character defines the Leader’s Agenda
Character plays a vital role in leadership and one’s
career. Yet few leaders come to grips with its
content and meaning and so miss great job and
career opportunities. We all know character when
we see it, but few leaders know what it exactly is.
They don’t know what precise role does it plays in
getting results. Nor do they know what character
plays in their careers.
But character can make or break a career. For
instance, a key function of character in leadership
is to engender trust in people. People who perceive
that a leader’s character has serious defects will
not likely trust that leader and so fail to devote
themselves wholeheartedly to taking action that
realizes that leader’s aspirations. Leaders who lose
the trust of the people they lead are failures in
the making. On the other hand, leaders with the
people’s trust can motivate them to accomplish
To understand character and its relationship to
leadership, let’s first understand character’s root,
which comes from a Greek word, “KHARAKTER”, a
chisel or marking instrument for metal or stone.
Our character, then, is our mark engraved into
something enduring. We can mold mannerisms, but
we must chisel our character. Of course, we don’t
carry around a stone or a sheet of metal marked
with our “character”. The enduring thing is the
aggregate of the traits and features that form
our apparent individual nature.
“Apparent” is the operative word. Our character
exists not only in and of itself, but also as an
appearance to others. The fact that character
exists both in us and in the minds of other people
holds a powerful leadership lesson.
To begin to understand the role character plays in
leadership, describe three of the best leaders in
history. Then, list three to five character traits
that made each one the best.
Describe three of the worst leaders in history, and
list three to five character traits that made each
one the worst.
When we talk about leadership development, the
focus is often on people skills, communications
skills, vision, intelligence, business acumen, even
Yet none of that will make a leader without the
foundational leadership quality of good character:
Character is fundamental to effective leadership
because good character builds trust, and without
trust, people will not follow you. Without followers,
obviously, one cannot lead.
In assessing leaders at any level in an organization,
one author opines we must always ask three
#Do they have the competencies to be a leader?
Do they have the knowledge, the understanding of
key concepts, facts, and relationships that they
need to do the job effectively?
#Do they have the commitment to be a leader?
Yes, they aspire to be a leader, but are they
prepared to do the hard work of leadership,
engage with others in fulfilling the organizational
mission, achieve the vision and deliver on the goals?
#Do they have the character to be a good leader
and strive to be an even better one? Do they
have the values, traits and virtues that others –
shareholders, employees, customers, suppliers,
regulators and the broader society within which
they operate – will use to determine if they are
However in this age of individuality we rarely talk
about what defines good character. In his book
“Return on Character,” Fred Kiel defined a leader
of good character as someone who scored high on
integrity, responsibility, compassion and
forgiveness. This definition becomes clearer in his
description of a leader with dubious character:
Someone who tells the truth about half of the
time; who cannot be trusted to keep their
promises; who often passes blame to others; who
punishes well-intentioned people for making
mistakes; who is bad at caring for others.
Another way to define good character is to ask
what makes a person trustworthy, as we already
defined that good character enables trust. So,
what makes someone trustworthy?
#They do what they say they’ll do – i.e. they keep
their promises. #They deliver
#Their behavior is reliable because over time they
have shown consistent behavior and responses to
#They are truthful and deeply honest
#They make well-considered choices by being open
to counsel and the perspectives of others
#They are brave in that they always do what is
right, even when it is hard
#They look out for the common good, rather than
just serving their own desires
If you scored yourself on the above behavioral
standards of “good character,” you likely did not
hit a perfect score. Don’t despair. Good character
is more nurture than nature. John Maxwell, the
leadership development expert, identified four key
building blocks to develop strong character:
#Self-discipline & moral courage: To do what is
right, even if you don’t feel like it – i.e. to
practice the self-control to balance your own
desires with the needs of others and the courage
also to face the fears, risks and dangers of
standing up for what is right.
#Core values: A clear sense of the values that
guide your behavior every day.
#A sense of identity: Truly knowing yourself and
your beliefs. The second stanza of Rudyard
Kipling’s poem “If” perfectly captures this
“If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;”
#Integrity: The practice of aligning your actions,
feelings and thoughts with your values.
Good character is not just for the noble hearted.
It is a choice. In fact, it is a series of consistent
choices over a length of time. Our character is
formed every time we face a defining moment that
challenges us to sort through our core values and
principles. If we are willing to use our self-
discipline and self-control to try and do the right
thing – each and every time – during those
defining moments, over time these decisions will
shape our personal and professional identities. So
character is not just talk. It is not just a matter
of knowing who you are and what your values are.
Your character -the balance of your values, virtues
and vices -expresses itself through your actions.
And that is the foundation of leadership.
So intelligence, talent and all those skill-based
competencies are irrelevant to leadership without
character. That is also why the totally self-serving
& talented may sometimes get ahead initially, but
eventually not rise to the top as they are seen as
untrustworthy and people will not follow them,
however good they are. As US Army General
Norman Schwarzkopf said:
“Leadership is a potent combination of strategy
and character. But if you must be without one, be
without the strategy.
Personal Commitment to Character Building
Warren Bennis addressed the role of individual
responsibility in becoming a better leader when he
said: “The leader never lies to himself, especially
about himself, knows his flaws as well as his assets,
and deals with them directly. You are your own
raw material. When you know what you consist of
and what you want to make of it, then you can
invent yourself.” This is relevant to leadership
character as much as it is to competencies and
commitment. It requires a degree of self-
awareness, a preparedness to examine habitual
behaviors and consider whether there may not be
better ways of leading than the ones that have
worked, more or less, for you in the past. We limit
our development as leaders by not having the
discipline and courage to assess ourselves honestly.
Why Character Matters
In any bookstore you will find dozens of books on
leadership style, far fewer on leadership
competencies, and fewer still that address
leadership character. For some reason we have lost
sight of character. Perhaps this is because our
educational system and organizations are so
competency focused; perhaps because we just don’t
know what to think about character; perhaps
because character seems such an old-fashioned
word; perhaps because we are reluctant to discuss
examples of poor character with our colleagues in
the workplace, or because we believe we cannot
assess character objectively.
Yet character is such a central, important element
of leadership — particularly for the kind of cross-
enterprise leadership that is essential in complex,
global business organizations — which it should not
and cannot be ignored. Character fundamentally
shapes how we engage the world around us, what we
notice, what we reinforce, who we engage in
conversation, what we value, what we choose to act
on, how we decide…and the list goes on.
Our own research on the failures of leadership
points to issues around character as a central
theme. Taking Africa as a case study, you will
agree with me that our backwardness is not a
function of lack of resources, but one of leaders
without character. We are a people who have been
plagued with corrupt, self-centered, egoistic and
power drunk leaders.
Individuals can develop their own character
strengths, leaders can help followers develop their
character, and organizations can and should enable
character development to take place.
How Character Develops
Some dimensions of character, specifically some
traits, are inherited. Virtues, values and many
other traits are developed during early childhood,
and modified as a result of education, family
influences, early role models, work and social
experiences, and other life events.
The early philosophers viewed character as
something that is formed, subconsciously, through
repetitive behavior that is either rewarded or by
finding what works through experience. The habit
of character is formed along with a myriad of
other habits which both enable and constrain us,
and that can be both productive and
counterproductive. The interesting thing about
habits is that we are often unaware of them.
There’s a famous saying that illustrates this point
rather well – “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” (author unknown).
As Robert Kegan, a developmental psychologist,
said, we need “to resist our tendencies to make
right or true that which is merely familiar and
wrong or false that which is only strange.” At the
core of this capacity is character; hence, character
shapes thoughts, words, actions, and so on. Yet,
habits may prevent the development of character.
For example, a strong ego that has been built to
defend one’s identity makes it difficult to develop
humility and thus be open to learning experiences.
So, when people believe that character is developed
at an early age, they are in part correct, since
there comes a time when habits are difficult to
break. It is not surprising then that it often takes
profound life events to liberate us from the cages
we have constructed for ourselves.
These “crucible” events have a significant influence
on the traits and values that are part of
character. Some of these events force people to
confront the impact of their trait-and value-
driven behaviors, and their self-concept of
virtuosity. Being fired, having your work praised
or criticized, being passed over for a promotion or
being promoted when you didn’t think you were
ready for it, finding yourself disadvantaged
through a boss’s unfair assessment, or being
accused of harassment, plagiarism or other forms
of unethical behavior are all examples of events
that can shape character.
Less dramatic but no less important are those
events that reinforce good character. The
acknowledgement, praise, recognition or reward
that come to people for doing the right thing or
acting in the right way are critical to character
development, especially when offered during an
individual’s formative years. Selection for a valued
assignment or a promotion further reinforces such
behaviors and hence, the development of
Even normal everyday occurrences offer the
opportunity for character development, since it is
not something separate from one’s job or life, but
rather a part of them. Reflection about why you
might be impatient, excessive, stubborn or careless
provides the raw material for examining and
Why Character Really Matters!
When it comes to leadership, competencies
determine what a person can do. Commitment
determines what they want to do, and character
determines what they will do.
Character is foundational for effective decision-
making. Clearly, mistakes are made because of a
leader’s shortcomings in his or her competencies.
More often, the root cause is a failing of
character. For example, not recognizing or not
willing to admit that you don’t have the requisite
competencies to succeed in the leadership role is
rooted in character. Not willing to listen to those
who can do well because of the perception that it
would undermine your leadership is a problem
rooted in character. Challenging decisions being
made by others but which you feel are wrong
requires character. Dealing with discriminatory
behaviors by others requires character. Creating a
culture of constructive dissent so that others may
challenge your decisions without fear of
consequences requires character.
The question is not really why character matters,
but why it does not get the attention and respect
it warrants. For character to find the spotlight it
deserves, leaders need to illuminate it. We can see
some light shed in organizational statements of
values and leadership competencies, but the
practice is not widespread. We believe
organizations should move beyond statements of
organizational values to anchor leadership
development in profiles that define what makes a
leader good, in addition to defining what good
leaders do and how they can lead better.
Character is not something that you have or don’t
have. All of us have character, but the key is the
depth of development of each facet of character
that enables us to lead in a holistic way. Character
is not a light switch that can be turned on and
off. There are degrees, and every situation
presents a different experience and opportunity to
learn and deepen character. In particular, and for
better or for worse, character comes to the fore
when managing a crisis. No one is perfect when it
comes to character, and given that its development
is a lifelong journey, we will rise to the occasion in
some situations and disappoint ourselves and those
around us in others.
The ultimate character we must be concerned with,
of course, is our own. Our character influences our
leadership, and through our leadership, our jobs
and careers. Few leaders make the connection
between career and character in this way, let alone
do something about it. Your doing so will give you a
tremendous advantage in your career.
We know that it’s much harder to see our own
character than for us to see the character of
others. At this point, however, it’s unnecessary to
try to understand what your character actually is.
You need only realize that, for purposes of
leadership, your character is forged in values and
manifested in relationships.
Values are the qualities that spur action. Moreover,
values are tied to emotions. We feel strongly about
the values we hold and look to others to hold, and
because of such feelings, we’re usually acting on
our values in one way or another.
#2 ATTAINING LOFTY HEIGHTS
Attaining Lofty Heights
As we celebrate yet another epic moment in the
history of our nation, we at Daniel Ukwu Leadership
Foundation wish to felicitate with the federal
government and all Nigerians on her 57th
Independence anniversary. It’s no gainsay that it
has cost a great deal for us to remain as a nation.
Too many factors have come to play to try to split
this nation, but through it all, we are yet still
The need to continually call for good governance
cannot be overemphasized. This is because the
quality of life in a society is largely determined by
the quality of leaders that governs the affairs of
the people. There could be no plaque on a people
more disastrous as the plaque of bad governance.
Good governance therefore is a blessing every
society longs for. It is the process that guarantees
any people attaining lofty heights.
The value of leadership as it affects a system,
polity and the general affairs of those governed
cannot be here overstressed. This all determining
factor is one that we must continually pay
attention to. Sadly, Africa has been plaque over
the years with a contingent of bad leaders – men
and women who tend not to have grasped the
importance attached to this noble call. Deficient in
skills and most times unarmed with the necessary
knowledge, we have seen a people so blessed with
vast human and natural resources, reduced to
liabilities to other continents. This indeed is
disheartening. The cry for good governance
therefore is one that we have become committed
to until our “messiahs” arises to bring us into our
The holy writ in Psalms 78:72, depicts the picture
of the sort of leaders that we need at such a time
as this to pull us out of this quagmire of confusion
that we as a people have been throw and left in
for too long. It reads and please permit me to lift
it as it is recorded in the holy book: “So he
shepherded (led) them according to the INTEGRITY
OF HIS HEART, and guided them by the
SKILLFULNESS OF HIS HANDS.”
It is clear from this passage that both integrity of
the heart and skillfulness of hands are necessary
requirements leaders must possess to qualify to
lead. Emphasis must be placed on both CHARACTER
and COMPETENCE. The disposition of the heart of
the leader and his skillfulness in handling matters
must all be brought to book in considering who
qualifies to govern. This is because the outcome in
governance is primarily determined by the kind of
person(s) the leader(s) is/are. A cruel man, one
who lacks compassion cannot in anyway identify or
connect with the plight of the people.
Having said all of this, we cannot agree less that
we need good governance in all spheres of our
nation’s life. This will without doubt arrest the
massive loss in both human, natural and economic
losses we are now bedeviled with. The benefits of
good governance are so enormous, so that the page
available to us will not give room to elaborate on
them. But let’s mention a few:
1. Better life for the masses: the quality of the
life of the masses will be greatly improved where
there is good governance. The indexes are that, the
quality of life affordable to a people is a direct
reflection of the quality of governance available.
2. Better harnessing of resources: good governance
will immediately pay off in the harnessing of both
human, natural and economic resources. Our nation
is one so blessed with of all of these quantitative
factors that makes for a qualitative life for a
people. Our problem has been that of management
and not a lack of resources. Proper administration
of resources which also involves a viable
accountability system that checks on how resources
are used, will no doubt curb the monster of
corruption which will almost immediately reduce the
rate of losses that we suffer as a nation. We
cannot afford the reverse in this steep order of
nosediving, not until we become more deliberate in
our fight against corruption.
3. Abounding opportunities: you see where
resources are properly harnessed, opportunities
abounds. The craze of job seeking will be arrested
when there is proper harnessing of resources. If
the government becomes committed to empowering
our people, it will pay off in restructuring the
quality of life at all levels.
Nigeria is a nation in prophesy and we believe in
this nation working. We believe we can yet attain
the lofty heights that our founding fathers
envisage. This is why we at Daniel Ukwu Leadership
Foundation are advocating for good governance at
all levels. This will deliver our dream nation: one
devoid of corruption, ethnocentricity, nepotism;
where there is the sanctity of human life and the
pursuit of a collective interest. A nation where
other nations will long to partner with and visit. We
are rich in tourist attractions, blessed with mineral
resources, graced with gifted and outstanding
personalities, a people with a warm hospitality.
Indeed our diversity in culture, religion,ethnicity,
all makes us a unique people. But all of this will
only matter where there is good governance. As we
celebrate today let’s pray for our leaders and each
one of us become deliberate in our quest for good
governance. We must become participatory citizens
and not partisan. Collectively let us make Nigeria
Long live the federal republic of Nigeria.