We call it character assassination for a reason. It’s the ultimate attack. The attack to the uniqueness of an individual, to the moral scaffolding of the person, to the sum of his qualities, a sum which unique blend of components makes that character so distinctive. Stripped from anything else, character remains. The Greek and Latin etymology of the word links character as a set of qualities, with mark or design (like the characters of a text), ‘an imprint on the soul’.
When politicians run out of policy arguments against opponents, they may resort to character. In fact, this is always a flag, a sign of desperation and a weakness, not a strength, on the part of the assassin.
Character is often translated into a set of words including, trust, courage, honesty respect, moral integrity etc. A solid set of values seem to be at the core of the DNA character.
We need to bring character back to the table of Leadership. Why back? I seem to imply it has gone. Not quite, but it’s gone for long sabbaticals. The organizational airtime for character has been taken over by other more prosaic and often neon-like visible flashes of ‘what the leader does’, and even more, by ‘the 10 things successful leaders do’ and the So Many Habits. This is not bad in itself. Mirrors and examples and models are welcome, provided they are taken with a pinch of salt. However, these are shortcuts that avoid a deeper discussion.
But, it’s easier to talk about how good leaders empower, delegate, communicate well and set expectations, than to get down to the cave and look for the soul. In the choice between soul and the 10 traits of successful leaders, the latter sells much more. Also, we are told, Cx level business people don’t do soul.
I believe that the ultimate discussion about leadership is about character. Not even about personality. After all, personality has to do with the persona, the exterior, the mask, still not deep enough. Abraham Lincoln said that ‘Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing’. Instead of reputation we could also say the visible persona, the external behavioral ‘presentations in everyday life’, as Goffman’ would have said.
The main challenge I see is that, as I said before, character has been evicted from the organizational/business/people conversation and now we tend to find it dwelling in the Self-Self, New Age or Spiritual shelves. Even Western educational systems seem to be shy of the word these days.
I could picture an entire Leadership Development Programme devoted to Character, including its corrosion, to use Richard Sennett’ 1998 title of his book.
Those of us who occupy this territory (you, me, managers, practitioners, consultants) should be bold enough to unapologetically rescue character from its travels to other lands, so that occupies again the centre of the dialogue, a centre that shouldn’t have left.