Character: The Elusive Key to Leadership

No matter how good we are, leadership constantly challenges us personally.


What does it take to be a tennis player? For starters, we need a certain amount of knowledge and skills. We can’t play tennis if we don’t know the rules and can’t serve, run, and hit the ball forehand and backhand. What does it take to move beyond this baseline and become a good player – or a champion? This has more to do with who the person is. Factors such as level of motivation, hours of practice and the response to criticism will affect the skill level. Personal characteristics such as how we react under pressure will affect our ability to use those skills.

The same question can be asked about leadership, and the same conditions apply. Information on leadership abounds. We have a wide variety of theories on leadership behaviours and their results at our fingertips. Companies will have no problem finding training programmes to teach the theories and associated skills they want to encourage.

In leading, as in tennis, this provides the baseline. And as with tennis, our character – our motivation, our ability to take feedback, our stress response – makes the difference in how and if skills and information are put into practice. No matter how good we are, leadership constantly challenges us personally. It demands empathy, wisdom, courage, tolerance of ambiguity, good humour and much more.

Skills can be taught. Ideas and information can be taught. Character cannot. Our character is integral to who we are. It is a product of who we were at birth and our experiences through life. We are drawn to certain activities and interests. We have values and priorities. We have found ways to relate to other people that we are comfortable with, whether they work well or not. All this and more contribute to habitual ways of dealing with others and the world in general.

So here, we have a human quality central to our ability to put desired skills and knowledge into effect but is not readily receptive to teaching and may require considerable unlearning. With the best of intentions, old habits are strong and hard to change. Add to that the fact that the change may be perceived as alien to our construction of self – our character – and we actively resist.

This deeper unlearning and relearning is hard but not impossible and requires patience. Success depends on several factors, which include:

We recognise the benefits of changing within the context of our own values – not those of others. Real character change comes from within and aligns with who we are. Those in a helping role need to make sure they are in touch with our value set – what matters to us, not to them. For instance, an HR professional was given the task of talking to a young man who wanted a promotion but was unlikely to get it because he was so difficult to work with. He was focused on product and was fixed on the importance of his own ideas. He had little sense of the people around him. Her approach to him was that he was holding himself back because people didn’t want to work with him. She got nowhere. Why? Because he couldn’t care less about that. What he wanted was for his ideas to prevail.

Change begins with awareness – recognising what we are doing and the consequences. If we want to change, we have to catch ourselves at the old behaviour. That is enough to start with. We are collecting data that roots us in the reality of where we currently are.

· We reflect on this data with the intention of learning. We look at our experiences, how we respond to them and what our behaviour achieves. We make decisions. What is useful? What is not? What are the alternatives? What holds us back? We correct what we need to and build on what we have done well.

· We are kind to ourselves. Change is not easy, old habits are compelling, and we may backslide. That is not failure, but a step in the process and something to learn. Something triggered us to revert to default, and we can expand our capacity by becoming aware of what it was.

· We are open with others who have a stake in our learning. One thing that can hold us back is that others develop expectations about how we will behave based on how we have acted in the past and relate to us as if that were true. This can prevent them from noticing any change in us and can make it more difficult for us to change. When they know what we are attempting, they can relate to us in a new way, and as an added benefit, they can give us valuable feedback.

This is personal work. It is the work of coaching. Doing it on our own is possible but limited. Without an outside perspective, we are constrained by the boundaries of our character as we have constructed it. With a skilful outside perspective that seeks both to understand us and challenge us, we can see ourselves for who we are and whom we want to be. And we can gain support in doing something about it.

Professional coaching services can be found using ICF’s directory of credentialed coaches spread in India and all over the world

The International Coaching Federation (ICF) is the world’s largest organisation leading the global advancement of the coaching profession and fostering coaching’s role as an integral part of a thriving society. Founded in 1995, its 40,000-plus members located in more than 145 countries and territories work toward common goals of enhancing awareness of coaching and upholding the integrity of the profession through lifelong learning and maintaining the highest ethical standards. Through the work of its six unique family organisations, ICF empowers professional coaches, coaching clients, organisations, communities and the world through coaching.

In India, ICF is represented by six vibrant chapters, all led by volunteers — ICF Bengaluru, ICF Chennai, ICF Delhi NCR, ICF Hyderabad, ICF Mumbai, and ICF Pune.

After a long and satisfying career in training, OD and coaching, Lou Raye retired in 2013 and returned to her first love — pottery. While making award-winning porcelain pots fired with a carbon-trapping process, she continues to coach returning clients and non-profit leaders, and mentor coaches seeking ICF Associate and Professional Certifications. She is an ICF Professional Certified Coach. She established a training/profit centre in the North of England for an international non-profit. She co-founded/directed the NC State University Business Coaching Certificate Programme. Co-author of The Essentials of Business Coaching, the NCSU Programme textbook, she taught and mentored over 400 aspiring coaches.

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