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Character: The Core of Effective Leadership

Character: The Core of Effective Leadership


By Keith Thurgood
Faculty Member, School of Business at American Public University

Several years ago, I found myself in Washington, D.C., spending some time with our Congressional leaders. While there are many pressing issues that demand our attention, the conversations continually drifted to the importance of leadership and leaders in particular as the real means to drive solutions.

Leaders at every level of an organization make “the” difference between success and failure; between driving transformational change and transactional operations; and between defeating the status quo and accepting the status quo. Because leadership pioneer Warren Bennis in his book, On Becoming a Leader, states that leadership is everybody’s business, then it’s also true that the study and practice of effective leadership is everybody’s business.

Leadership is not about position or place. But it is about displaying certain characteristics and competencies that inspire and influence one’s followers to achieve a desired outcome. That’s simple enough. Yet we struggle to achieve lasting and sustainable change. Why is this struggle so hard?

During one conversation in the nation’s capital, I heard this story that partly gave me some clues to move our thinking in the right direction. The story is this: On a wall in the United States Capitol’s basement, there is a bas-relief that depicts a Greek warrior engaged in mortal combat with a snake. The artist captures the exact moment when the warrior raises his sword to strike the deathblow. Across the tableau is one word: Courage.

The Importance of Moral Courage and Its Role in Effective Organizational Leadership

Artistically, physical courage is easy to depict. Moral courage is another matter. Moral courage requires taking a cold, hard look at the world and then acting, accepting the consequences and knowing that the greatest good will ultimately be served. Moral courage demands sacrifice such as the subordination of self-interest to the interests of others.

To be morally or intellectually courageous requires a basic sense of honesty and integrity coupled with the will to act decisively on those principles. Moral character is of great matter in a leader and will inevitably affect the substance of one’s leadership (and in the end, one’s results).

Courage, character and performance cannot be separated. Effective leadership is the combination of all three of these elements, which are needed to deliver sustainable results in an organization.

What Qualities Do We Want in Effective Leaders?

Human resource and training experts Dave Ulrich, Jack Zenger and Norm Smallwood in their book Results-Based Leadership state that effective leadership is the combination of two things: one’s character coupled with results. We need both qualities to be effective leaders. We want and need leaders that set the agenda based on values.

We need leaders to be values-based. More specifically, we need leaders to be grounded, rooted and centered on the idea of personal integrity or personal trustworthiness. We want leaders that deliver results and deliver those results in the right way, not leaders that deliver results by any means.

The means do not justify the ends. We want leaders to deliver results in the right way, using the right metrics, based on an underlying value system. And because we are all leaders at some level, these leadership ideas are applicable to everyone.

Why Are Values Important to Effective Leadership?

Why are values important? Values drive behaviors. In turn, behaviors drive action and our actions deliver certain types of results. The values that we espouse as leaders are of supreme importance when it comes to effective leadership.

The core of effective leadership is centered on the idea that courage, character and performance matter…a lot! Furthermore, one’s character is built around personal integrity or trustworthiness. That is the heart of leadership.

Edgar Puryear, author of Nineteen Stars: A Study in Military Character and Leadership, selected four of America’s most outstanding generals of World War II: Marshall, MacArthur, Eisenhower and Patton. Puryear used historical examples from the lives of these four officers to make the case that of all the skills leaders must develop – selflessness, willingness to accept responsibility, the ability to synthesize information and make decisions, intuition, and leading by example – the “greatest of all is character.”  Character, Puryear states, is “everything in leadership.”

The deep-rooted notion of character is the pivotal point of effective leadership and taints the development all other qualities and traits. It is the source of a leader’s power and defines effective leaders.

What We Can Do about Creating Effective Leaders

Many individuals, teams and organizations struggle with developing the framework that creates an environment with a bias for action. Organizations don’t think clearly about their vision – what it is they want to “be” (the what and the why).

We don’t do a very good job at connecting strategies (the how) to the vision and then aligning resources (the means) to execute the strategies. We need action. We need to make a difference right now.

The best way I know to make a difference and add value to an organization is to connect courage, character and performance. They cannot be separated.

About the Author

Keith L. Thurgood was most recently President, Spend and Clinical Management of MedAssets, located in Plano, Texas. He also served as President and CEO of Overseas Military Sales Corporation and as the Senior Vice President of Operations for Sam’s Club. While serving on active duty in the U.S. Army, Keith was the CEO and Commanding General of The Exchange (formerly the Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES), the United States Department of Defense’s $10 billion global for-profit retail arm. He has also held executive positions with Frito-Lay and PepsiCo.

Keith earned a B.A. in political science from Brigham Young University and a master’s degree in business administration from Boston University. He also has a M.S. in strategic studies from the Army War College and a Ph.D. in organizational management and leadership from Capella University.



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