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Character -- Why It Matters In Leaders

By Guy Harris

"Character is much easier kept than recovered."

- Thomas Paine

"The best index to a person's character is (a) how he treats people who can't do him any good, and (b) how he treats people who can't fight back."

- Abigail van Buren

"Good character is more to be praised than outstanding talent. Most talents are to some extent a gift. Good character, by contrast, is not given to us. We have to build it piece by piece"by thought, choice, courage, and determination."

- John Luther Long

Here is a simple tip for aspiring leaders "It is far better to have character than to be one.

I once heard Bob McEwen (former Congressman from Ohio) define character as the combination of morality and integrity. According to his definition, morality is not doing the wrong thing while integrity is having the strength to do the right thing.

Based on this definition, character is not something you just have. You must work to build character every day. It is something that develops over time, but is destroyed in a moment.

Why, as a leader, is character a big deal?

Without even considering the moral and legal implications of character lapses, just look at the impact on your organization. As John Maxwell says, "Everything rises and falls on leadership." By this standard, your personal character will become the character of your organization. Consider these facts:

- 58% of workers surveyed indicated that employee fraud would decrease if managers (company leaders) were better role models (Oct 2002, Ernst & Young, "The CPA Letter")

- 80% of people surveyed indicated that they decide to buy a firm's goods or services partly on their perception of its ethics (2003, Wirthlin Worldwide)

- Unethical behavior leads to more sabotaging behavior in the workplace, such as:

o Under delivering on commitments

o Over promising to win a customer or gain support for a project

o Wasting time and energy guarding turf

o Lowering goals to avoid failure rather than striving for excellence

o Padding the budget to look better

o Fudging results to stay competitive

o Hiding facts

o Skipping over details

o Withholding praise from others

o Hogging credit

o Shifting or buffering blame

o Looking for scapegoats

(Case Western Reserve University, Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science)

As you can see from the results of these studies, the character of the leader affects not only the behavior of the organization, but its results as well. I do not know all the details of the Enron or MCI WorldCom scandals, but I do know that the fallout hurt the companies and their employees. These examples are extreme cases of character failures, but many smaller ones happen in business and organizational life every day.

As usual, I have a story to relate to illustrate my point. One time I hired a man to work in a department I managed. During the hiring process, I realized that a woman in the department, working in the same capacity, was significantly underpaid compared to both industry standards and the starting salary of the man we were hiring. I immediately went to my supervisor and attempted to negotiate a resolution plan. In response to my request to adjust her salary he asked, "Does she know that he will be making more than her? This perspective floored me. It seems that her knowledge of the situation, rather than a determination of whether it was right or wrong, was the deciding factor on whether it should be addressed or not. At that moment, I remembered a statement I had heard long before: "Character is what you do when no one is watching."

Unfortunately, I was unable to persuade my supervisor to take action in this case. This response severely damaged my trust and respect for both the person and the organization. I eventually left the organization for other reasons, but in retrospect, I probably should have left sooner. When it comes to character, leaders simply cannot compromise.

You can staff your organization to compensate for skill and knowledge deficiencies. You must stand alone on character. Do not let short-term thinking entice you into small, subtle concessions on matters of character. Be a leader of high morals and impeccable integrity in everything you do.

So, I encourage you to remember this simple tip...

It is far better to have character than to be one.

Copyright 2005, Guy Harris

You may use this article for electronic distribution if you will include all contact information with live links back to the author. Notification of use is not required, but I would appreciate it. Please contact the author prior to use in printed media.

About The Author

Guy Harris is the Chief Relationship Officer with Principle Driven Consulting." He helps entrepreneurs, business managers, and other organizational leaders build trust, reduce conflict, and improve team performance. Learn more at

Guy co-authored "The Behavior Bucks System TM" to help parents reduce stress and conflict with their children. Learn more about this book at


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