The Leader’s Individual Attributes – Character. Part 2

“Character is […] the enduring source of virtue. It stands by itself and excites admiration in others. It is not obedience to authority, and while it is often consistent with and reinforced by religious belief, it is not piety.2”

Fred Kiel, Return on Character- The Real Reason Leaders and Their Companies Win ((Harvard Business School Press, 2015)


Read the first part of our article.

Sherman considers that there are three main forces that forge an organisation’s behaviour: rules, mores, and personal integrity[1]. He suggests thinking of this triad as three circles that partially overlap (see Fig. 1). At the centre, the three elements are impossible to differentiate from one another. Yet beyond that centre, each governs a distinct and substantial domain of its own:

  • Laws, rules, and regulations set enforceable limits beyond which personal choice is not permitted.
  • Mores define our shared understanding of what is right, good, and worthy.
  • Out of these three, the one over which we have most control is our own character and this should represent the focus of our efforts as leaders.Character is uniquely concerned with individual wholeness and conscience -- the quality of being true to oneself.


What makes the character of an executive leader? W. Bennis considers that character is framed by drive, competence, and integrity: “Most senior executives have the drive and competence necessary to lead. But too often organizations elevate people who lack the moral compass. I call them "destructive achievers." They are seldom evil people, but by using resources for no higher purpose than achievement of their own goals, they often diminish the enterprise”[2].

As coaches, we need to encourage our clients to run their organisations according to sound ethical principles. In case they don’t have any code of ethics in place, or if they feel that the existing one is not working, here are a few suggestions for what they might do:

  • Develop or re-create, together with their teams, a code of ethics, relevant and believable for everybody in the organisation
  • Set a personal example, by always making sure that, both as individuals and as leaders, they conduct themselves according to that code
  • Design and implement an “alarm system”, so that they will know when the ethical rules of conduct are ignored
  • Observe and encourage both publicly and individually every decision taken according to that code, especially during difficult times
  • Hire and promote those individuals who have, as Bennis said, not only the drive and competence, but also integrity. 


In these times of constant change and transformation, we strive to rediscover what is right and what is wrong in business, in politics, in religion and in personal relationships, as some of the old rules and beliefs seem to be wrong.

In this time of dramatic (and even violent) changes, the leader’s character becomes even more important, and trust, honesty and integrity can make the difference between success and failure.

Character becomes a key element in human relationships both inside and outside organizations. Without, one cannot be trusted. Without trust one cannot ask others to do extraordinary things.  If we want to make our organisations great places to work, developing and strengthening our character as leaders is one of the best ways to do it.


Business vector created by pch.vector -
[1] - Sherman, S: “Rethinking Integrity”, Leader to Leader, No. 28 Spring 2003
[2] - Bennis, W: “The Anatomy of Character”, Leader to Leader, No. 12 Spring 1999


Mihai Popa-Radu

Associate Partner, Key2Success, Leadership Development & Coaching

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