Character: the license to lead

  • Published
  • By Gene Kamena
  • Professor, Air War College
A leader's credentials emanate from within; rank, position, and authority pale in significance, to the power of a leader's character - the license to lead.

Inappropriate behavior, profound lack of judgment, pervasive pattern of unprofessional behavior, loss of confidence in his ability to lead..." - striking verbiage from actual statements of relief, or removal from positions of command or responsibility, as reported by the Navy Times.

The officers relieved were not inexperienced junior officers. They were seasoned senior leaders, selected over many others for their ability to lead, past performance and reputation.

Since January 2011, the Navy removed at least 20 senior officers, the Navy Times revealed. The Army relieved two serving brigade commanders and investigated at least one other, according to Stars and Stripes. Furthermore, the Army recently acknowledged it is also wrestling with the issue of "toxic" senior leadership demonstrated by leaders who "put their own needs first, micromanage subordinates, behaved in a mean-spirited manner or displayed poor decision making," a Washington Post article reported. The Air Force and Marines are not without their own senior leader challenges. It appears poor conduct transcends service boundaries - a challenge to the joint team.

Why the recent relief of so many senior leaders? Is the promotion and leader selection process flawed, or did these leaders hide their propensities?

Character is who you really are as a person and a leader, the ledger sheet of your actions, thoughts, desires, decisions and things only you know about yourself. Character informs reputation, but it is more than reputation, for the sum of a leader's true character cannot be known. Character is the genesis of a leader's right to lead. A leader's true character is the license to lead.

Everyone has character. What matters is the type of character possessed. Not everyone has the right to lead, and sound character alone does not guarantee success. Character is, however, the prerequisite for all leadership. The absence of good character renders all other leadership skills meaningless; however, with sound character, a person may be pardoned for a deficit in other areas.

Reputation is a byproduct of a leader's character. The problem with reputations is, it is but a perception of reality. Abraham Lincoln once said, "Character is like a tree, and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing," according to a quote taken from the cover of "A Question of Character" by Thad Gaebelein and Ron Simmons.

Unfortunately, the leader selection and promotion processes are only as good as the information contained in the system. Bureaucracies value conformity, especially the vast bureaucracy of the military. Leaders of flawed character survive, even thrive, by conforming and by presenting the facade of good character. This is easy to do because personnel systems of all services are predominantly outcome-based. Demonstrated character flaws are dealt with quickly. However, flawed character is easy to suppress.

All services place great emphasis on assessing, developing and instilling character early on in an officer's career in service academies and ROTC programs, as it should be. A person's character, however, is fluid, always in use, ever-stressed and undergoes constant change. Therefore, character assessment programs should span a leader's career, providing feedback and assessments. Recommendations include:

· Address gaps in 360-degree assessments. Leadership feedback programs tend to focus on easily measured actions and accomplishments. What is absent from many feedback programs is character assessment. All services must move beyond providing feedback on what happened and focus on why leaders acted as they did.

· Mentors matter. Formal and informal sessions with a mentor, in or outside the chain of command, are powerful. Real mentoring involves more than career counseling; a true mentor acts as a mirror highlighting character strengths and deficits. Sometimes these are tough conversations but a necessary obligation of mentorship.

· Institutional scrutiny during transitions. All career transitions are important. However, the transition from lieutenant colonel to colonel-level leadership adds risk for some leaders. Along with the increased responsibility of leading comes greater latitude to make decisions and additional leeway to act in accordance to one's true character. The transition from direct leadership to indirect leadership warrants more institutional scrutiny.

· Get different points of view. Peers and subordinates have the best view of a leader's true character. Their points of view should be considered when providing feedback to a leader, especially when decisions are made concerning promotions and assignments. However, care must be taken when dealing with peers and subordinates so as not to confuse feedback with popularity.

Character is not just for cadets or newly commissioned officers. Whether a lieutenant or a colonel, a leader's character is ultimately about choosing to stay true to the values and principles of the military profession, putting others' needs first and choosing to be a leader of character.