The right to lead part five: Character

  • Published
  • By Gene Kamena
  • Air War College faculty
The topic (and sometimes the issue) of character is an opening to the discussion of what gives a person the right to lead. There are many definitions of character. Some have a psychological bent to them, while other definitions lean heavily on the moral aspects of character.

I tend to think of character as a balance sheet, one that takes into account the positive and negative aspects of who you are as a person and a leader, the first determines the second.
Since everyone has character, the balance sheet analogy is useful. People will either possess a positive (good) or negative (poor) overall character.
If competence is what you are able to do, then character is what you will do. The definition that I keep coming back to, however, is one from the United States Air Force Academy as stated in a summer 1996 article in Airpower Journal by Maj. Brian Hall and Col. David Wagie.

These authors defined character as, "The sum of those qualities of moral excellence that stimulates a (leader) to do the right thing, which is manifested through right and proper actions despite internal or external pressures to the contrary."

We can learn a lot about character by examining this definition a bit closer. Character is often thought of in terms of the qualities that a person or leader possesses. To help further define the general term "qualities," concepts such as values, traits, and virtues are often used.

Character is too often defined by long lists such as courage, honesty, fair-mindedness, inclusiveness and transparent. There are many lists, but at the end of the day, it is what people or leaders do, what they think and the decisions that they make that really matters.

Character is not only what you do when alone, it is what you do in every aspect of our life, it is who you are. Moral excellence is both a standard and an aspiration. Good leaders are expected
to be of good moral character (as defined in the U.S. Code), but no one is perfect.

Often leaders can only strive to make the best decision possible with the information available. Attempting to do the right thing for the right reason is the standard you, as a leader, should hold yourself to.

When leading real people in the real world, you will face pressures to not make the right, or best, decision. As stated in the definition above, the pressures may be external (institutional, peer-pressure, pressure from your chain of command) or internal (careerism, toeing the party line,
taking the easy way out, not wanting to make waves).

Too often, we get in our own way of making the right decision. I have seen many good leaders look around a room at people more senior to themselves and provide an answer they think others want to hear. They fold under the external pressure of rank. Sometimes the need to get things done, to accomplish the mission, collides with doing the right thing.

The very essence of leadership is balance needs and pressures to arrive at the best decision possible. Experience has informed me that what a leader thinks matters a lot. Your thoughts
inform decisions and actions.

For young leaders there will be many tests of character as you get established in your career, and how you respond to these challenges determines your overall effectiveness as a leader.

For more senior leaders, your character is often viewed by your personal and professional
reputation. Reputations are hard earned, but easily tarnished.

In closing, please remember that character is a choice. No one but you determines the kind of person and the kind of leader that you are. Maintaining a strong character takes work and commitment; sometimes even sacrifice. Good character is one of the essential requirements in earning the right to lead; competent leaders of sound character are well on the road to earning
the right to lead.