Leadership: From Charisma to Character

A favourite subject of historians has been great men – occasionally great women – since Homer sang about Odysseus. In the last decades, psychologists and management theorists have focused on contemporary great men – usually CEOs – in order to define leadership characteristics and establish skills inventories for use by HR and leadership development departments. Yet this exercise does not seem to have improved our ability to nurture and select sustainable leaders consistently . To a great extent, this characteristics-and-skills approach  has focused on functional knowledge and personality  traits. In reality though, most leaders are chosen because  they come across well and they have strong, big  personalities.  Most are male; they are even physically  taller than the average employee; and they have voices a  half-octave lower than average. They are warm and they  can tell a great story. They have charisma. They talk the  vision and make individuals feel special, feel spoken to.  However, recent research shows that people who think  highly of themselves often overreach. ‘Character’ refers to a person’s moral or ethical qualities, especially integrity, but it also includes traits like honesty and courage. Character is different from personality in that character implies making the choice to act in line with one’s principles. Ideally, character determines a person’s reactions regardless of the circumstances but, in fact, character is constantly tested and may not always be strong enough to resist temptation. Leaders are in particularly thorny positions for, as Abraham Lincoln observed: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

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