Out of character: Ways to stay balanced

  • Published
  • By Gene Kamena and Navy Capt. Scott Askins
  • Air War College
Warning signs: It usually starts with little things, as most calamities do, but there are always indicators along the way that a leader's character is starting to get out of balance.
Self-image and individual perspective are, more often than not, the first things to change; the way a leader views others and the manner in which a leader treats others is determined by the leader's self-image and perspective. The balance between self-image and attitude towards others becomes unbalanced when self-image inflates to the point that it escalates at the expense of others. It is usually the people closest to the leader that are hurt the most.

The first warning sign might be as simple as an overuse of the words "I," "me" or "my," or a change in attitude in which a leader demands what had been offered out of simple courtesy in the past, for instance, the expectation that someone get coffee. What might begin with trivial things, if left unchecked or uncorrected, often leads to derailment. Nothing good is possible when leading becomes more about the leader than the organization or followers.

You know when it happens: You know the moment you step out of bounds because that voice, that inner-voice, speaks to you. Maybe it is more of a feeling, but whatever it is, an individual with high moral standards and ethical boundaries knows when that line has been crossed.

If you have to convince yourself it is OK to act in a particular manner, then chances are it is not right. One of my favorite analogies is from golf. Even on days when you play a round by yourself, you are still bound by the same rules as when playing with others. Despite being alone on the course, you can be tempted to use a "foot wedge," improve your lie or hit a second ball, and although no one else is watching, you know. The old adage about integrity always applies. Do the right thing even when no one is looking because it is the right thing to do.

A litmus test: In the world of chemistry, the chemist always establishes a baseline from which to judge other reactionary outcomes. This baseline is the standard against which all subsequent tests are compared. This methodology applies equally well to leadership, assuming you are ethically and morally grounded. Proven leaders spend years establishing the baseline standards. Ethical leadership means every leader, when in doubt about their actions, should ask the following question: "What would I do if someone who works for me did the same thing?" If you would not tolerate the behavior in a subordinate, then the right thing to do is to hold yourself to that same standard. Another way of making the same point is to ask yourself, if everyone in my unit, my chain of command or my family knew what I was about to do, could I live with the results?

Staying in character: Feedback mechanisms and candor are extremely valuable in helping to keep a leader's personality, character and actions in balance. Simple acts such as encouraging candor from subordinates or asking peers to provide feedback may be the difference between a successful tour of duty and a career-ending episode.

Spouses often take on the role of alter-egos to leaders. They are the people who know you best. They sense when you are starting to slip out of character and can pre-empt such conduct before it goes too far.

Use a mentor as a sounding board or foster a command climate where those around you are not afraid to provide candid assessment. Establishing checks and balances in your personal and professional life helps to preclude poor decision making and potential ethical pitfalls.

The costs associated with a lapse in character can be devastating to leaders and organizations. One's personal and professional reputation based upon consistent ethical conduct takes years to build, yet is easily erased by one out-of-character act or decision. A leader's character is indeed a fragile thing.

Leaders own their integrity. Once character is lost, or a leader's reputation is tarnished, it is often never recovered. When leaders act out-of-character, they have an effect on all around them, which may include loss of morale, lower productivity and a decline in operational excellence.

The next time that voice inside of you speaks, heed the alarm, tread lightly and consider all of the implications, for when leaders act out-of-character, they get in trouble.