Character Strengths of a Leader

I had one of those events that as a leader you hope will never happen.  What happened was that I simply missed the point of why a colleague wanted to meet with me, and the message I sent was “I don’t really care about your idea.”  The worst part is that I would have gone merrily on my way if it hadn’t been for a chance meeting at a celebration lunch for leaders in our non-profit community where I was serving on a panel to discuss BOLD leadership.  Imagine that, I had one of my best lessons in bad leadership while trying to provide insights into successful leadership.

The best news is that this story has a happy ending. After recognizing I had missed the boat, I quickly called a meeting and now the train is back on track.  As is one of my great weaknesses, I ruminated about this situation, asking myself how did it happen, how did I miss the point of the conversation, how could I have been so oblivious, and what was I thinking, or in this case not thinking.

As I was in mid-rumination, I received an email from a friend with a study done by the Center for Creative Leadership titled “The irony of integrity: A study of the character strengths of leaders.”  Some people say that there is no such thing as coincidence and in this case, the content of the study was just what I needed as I replayed what went wrong.  The article provided a great context for me to sharpen my saw, as Covey reminds us, in thinking about leadership.

The study begins with pictures of and listing of some of the great ethical scandals that have taken place recently, from Ken Lay to Bernie Madoff, emphasizing these as examples of character flaws.  Their research, however, was looking at the importance of character strengths in the performance of leaders in organizations.  The character strengths they highlighted are integrity, bravery, perspective, and social intelligence.


For me as a leader and as a person, the overriding principle begins with integrity.  The authors put it simply, integrity is walking the talk.  Integrity means “being consistent, honest, moral, and trustworthy.” One of the characteristics with integrity is striving for transparency.  Practicing transparency in our decision making is possibly one of the most difficult challenges we face as leaders.  And I’ve learned (sometimes I’ve learned this one the hard way by making mistakes) that the best way to build trust is to strive for transparency.


The authors remind us that it is “lonely at the top” or it is lonely in the office where the buck stops.  The authors talk about bravery in leadership when we provide the “lead on unpopular but necessary actions.”  Bravery is also being able to make the tough decisions about what to fund and what not to fund.  Bravery is making the decision for the common good even though it doesn’t benefit ourselves or our organizations.  Bravery is recognizing when you’ve become the problem rather than the solution and having the courage to say, I am wrong.


As one of my mentors would say, we need to pay attention to what is coming around the curve even though we just can’t quite see it right now.  Leaders must have perspective, an understanding of the environment, so they can “make decisions that position the organization for long term success.”  I think perspective is an ability to step back, an ability “to go to the balcony” so that you can take the emotions out of decision making.  Leaders also need to “keep perspective” and to help others to that as well.  Keeping perspective means modeling that yes, we know we have a job to do, and the job is important, but that family comes first.

Social Intelligence

Social intelligence is being aware of others’ feelings, what makes people tick, having “the agility to adapt your behavior to what the situation dictates.”   Social intelligence is treating others as you would like to be treated; it is treating others with respect and honoring the gifts they bring to accomplishing our mission.  Those who flunk the social intelligence test are the folks who treat your staff rudely but are all sugar when they meet with you.

The authors go on to look at which of these character strengths are most important for what they call C-Suite leaders as compared to middle managers.  Suffice it to say that successful leaders embrace all four character strengths and that we find the time for professional development that enhances each of the strengths.

When I first started Shaeffer’s Forays, I indicated that I would use this blog as a way for me to think things through. It’s like Jimmy Buffett’s song “When the coast is clear” – this post is an opportunity to say “hello, mister other me.”  Thanks for letting me have this chat with myself when the coast is clear.







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4 Responses to Character Strengths of a Leader

  1. grahammb says:

    Great post, Jim! Good leadership is so crucial — and honest leadership even more so. How leaders behave filters all the down through the ranks creating excellent teams or unhappy, dysfunctional teams. These are great thoughts to encourage the former and “cure” the latter.

  2. Patricia Malone says:

    Thanks Jim.. Thoughtful and thought provoking on assessing what one feels is the right path and living it!

    Patricia Malone Executive Director Corporate Education and Training and the Advanced Energy Training Center Office of VP Economic Development 1000 Innovation Road Stony Brook University Research and Development Park Stony Brook NY 11794-6044 Ph: 631.216-7512 Fax: 631.216-7551

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