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Leadership: An Invitation to Build Character

Jack, the owner of a manufacturing company, calls me. He’s ready to call it quits. “These people are impossible! They don’t listen, they don’t think clearly, they take things personally, they don’t follow through! I’ve tried everything — training, coaching, patience, threats, but they’re just not getting it!”

Whether you are the CEO of a company, a Girl Scout den mother, or a parent, you may know this all too well: The task of leading others presents challenges that can test the very essence of one’s character.

As I coach executives, I often hear a host of complaints about the followers:

“How do I get them to think for themselves?”
“Why do they seem to do things that they know will set me off?”
“How can they ignore this when we’ve covered it so many times?”
“Why are they never satisfied with what I give them?”
“Why do they resist my feedback so much?”
“How do I keep from strangling people that just don’t get it?”

In the midst of the discomfort stirred by these situations, it’s tempting to blame “them,” to see the followers as the problem. “If only they would change!” The more mature leader recognizes these questions as invitations to personal reflection and growth. He/she gets quickly past the focus on “them” and employs a more constructive starting point: One’s self. So the questions now become:

“What is it about me that I get so rattled by this person?”
“What would it look like if I were to handle this situation in a less reactive way?”
“How do I maintain a relationship with this person while still requiring accountability?”
“What goals are most important to me in this situation?”
“What is it about the way I’m communicating that isn’t working?”
“What character traps do I need to be aware of now (e.g., my need for control, my own judgmentalism, arrogance, lack of assertion)?”
“How can I create an atmosphere where we look at the issues together?”

In this way, leaders convert the frustrations with “them” into a challenge to improve their own character and skill as a leader. This seems to spring from their commitment to a fundamental principle: The first person I need to lead and manage is myself! If I am unmanaged or unmanageable, how could I ever expect to lead others successfully? If I focus on their behavior and remain oblivious to my own, how could I possibly be objective? If I blindly allow their behavior to provoke reactions in me, how in justice can I ask them to scrutinize their behavior?

Thus leadership becomes an invitation to build character: One’s own.

Jack, the exasperated owner, took some time before accepting this premise. But once he began to focus his attention on his own behavior, he was stunned by what he saw. When he began to ask his people what they needed from him, he had made the turn from a negative focus on all their shortcomings to a positive focus on his own development.

The most effective leaders I observe don’t complain about “them.” They focus instead on:

Keeping their emotional reactions in check
Effectively communicating their goals for the group
Balancing their lives to avoid living on the edge of exhaustion
Seeking feedback from important people in their lives, including their followers
Listening intently to others’ concerns
Speaking with conviction when they’re clear about a certain strategy
Recognizing their own limitations and weaknesses
Holding others accountable for performance, even at the risk of being unpopular

These characteristics are never perfected in them. They demonstrate a commitment to continuing their own development as leaders. They lead by example, by their presence and character. No one is forced to follow, but many choose to do so.

Jack finds new energy in this focus on managing himself first. As his own anxiety level drops, his people respond with a renewed energy of their own. They demonstrate more of the initiative he wants to see, partly because he gives them some room to choose it, but also because he is leading by example.

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