Why Character Will Always Eat Competence for Lunch

In this era of speed, we all want people to hit the ground running when they join us, as they progress, when there’s an organizational pivot - basically, all the time.

This need for speed often makes us biased towards enlisting, and deferring to, leaders that have the knowledge, skills, and experience to deal with the situation at hand. And if we are honest, we stop there with our leadership criteria.

This means that we can get blind-sighted by a leaders’ achievements, and neglect to delve deeper to learn about their character.

As a result, we hear too many stories of people run over and programs compromised under leadership that is publicly celebrated for competence, yet privately frowned upon over character.

We may not openly admit it but senior leadership action or lack thereof rationalizes the abuse, toxicity, and attrition that results from working under leaders with poor character as “collateral damage”, a necessary evil, in the pursuit of results.

This will always happen when we prioritize and reward the achievement of desired ends without clearly defining and diligently enforcing the acceptable parameters that would justify the means to that end.

I would therefore like to propose 3 reasons for putting as much, if not more, weight on Good Character as we do on Competence, in decisions to recruit, reward, and recommend leaders.

1. Good Character Comes with a Safety Switch

Your character, “the mental or moral qualities distinctive to an individual” (New Oxford English Dictionary) stems from what you have believed, accepted, and adopted as your principles and standards of being and behaving.

Your character is evident as your default response to a given stimulus as you have come to interpret and practice over time.

The longer you have believed and practiced your responses, the more they knit themselves into the fabric of your character. And whatever “mental and moral qualities” you have built as your character, you will automatically, and many times, subconsciously respond from.

Combine the powerful reflex of character response with high-pressured, high-speed work environments and you'll find that when the heat is on, whatever is inside the leader will automatically come steaming out.

Work with someone of good character, under pressure, their character will act as a safety switch to default their decisions to consider and factor in the interests of all concerned so that in as far as it is up to them, no one will be overlooked.

Give leadership power and authority to someone of poor character, and tears will fall, heads will roll, until the entire operation comes crashing down. They will prioritize self-preservation and sacrifice others at the altar of “Driving Results”.

2. Good Character is a Team Player

In her Forbes article, “People Join Because of Great Vision, People Leave Because of Poor Leadership”, Ekaterina Walter, cites “huge egos” as the reason many people leave founders of organizations.

Whilst there are conflicting opinions on the number one reason for people leaving their work (one report by DDI Research, says 57%, and another, by Gallup, puts it at a staggering 75% of employees leave their jobs due to bad bosses, while another, Culture Amp, argues that the problem isn't necessarily, or only about the immediate supervisor, arguing that it really doesn’t matter how good an immediate manager is, where top leadership is poor, people still choose to leave the organization).

However you look at it, the point is that leadership is everything, and the top qualities being cited by all this research reveals that leadership character is what determines whether or not teammates feel seen, heard, valued, and motivated to contribute meaningfully under their leadership.

3. Good Character is the Most Critical Leadership Competency

Reading the accomplishments of world leaders in the most powerful and sensitive positions across all sectors, one cannot help but notice the level of integrity, humility, empathy, emotional intelligence, inclusivity, and collaboration they show.

Why? Because when you’re that high up, you have nothing to prove. Being that high up is proof enough of your competence.

What matters at the very top is your ability to influence the stakeholders that are critical to your leadership success to find it worth their while to partner with you in fulfilling your common mission. At that high level, they know you are competent, they know you have conviction.

At the top, what they want to know is whether you are able to work with other seasoned leaders, with just as much power and authority, and sometimes conflicting interests, and be able to put your ego aside to tactfully influence them towards a common end. That takes character.

The Case for Leadership Character

The greatest predictor of future behavior is past behavior in a similar situation. And the more frequent and recent the behavior, the more likely a person is to consistently display it.

Whether you promote a leader up the ranks or recruit one from the field, you stand a greater chance of organizational success when you prioritize and reward a person of good character.

The return on their investment will prove to be of immediate value as they positively self-regulate and promote team delivery today, and continue doing so as they grow with the organization to represent stakeholder interest at the highest seats in your industry.

And you don’t have to choose between the two either; you can choose to only engage leaders of good character and competence. This is the only leader there should be.

Modesta is a Leadership Development Expert and the author of The Purpose-Driven Leadership Development Framework.

Learn more about her work on www.Modesta.africa


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