In today’s world it’s easy to be confused about a term like “leader.” Sometimes the title may be applied when it’s not really accurate. Some people may have authority to act, but they are not necessarily “leaders.”
Occasionally in a coaching session with a group of clients I show a PowerPoint slide with a simple message:
“We are facing a serious problem! I need you to give everything you have over the next several weeks to help us solve it. I’m afraid you won’t sleep much or be able to spend much time with your family until things are back to normal.”
After they’ve had a chance to ponder the message, I ask the people in the room: “Would you follow this person? ”
Naturally, they want to know who it is. So I put a face on the request. The next slide shows photos of a wide range of people—Ronald Reagan, Pope Francis, Mikhail Gorbachev, Moses, Martha Stewart.
“Which of these people would you follow enthusiastically?” I ask. Then, “Which of these?” and I show a third slide with even more people—Martin Luther King, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Oprah Winfrey, Nelson Mandela, Jack Welch, Mother Teresa, George Bush, Steve Jobs, Hillary Clinton, Gandhi, Yasser Arafat, Condoleezza Rice, Bill Gates, Nancy Pelosi, Donald Trump.
I point out that each of the people has (or had) a formal leadership position. But you would not want to follow them—or anyone else—unless and until you had conﬁdence in three things:
Character—the person’s integrity, motives, principles, values. Character is what a leader is.
Competence—the person’s skills, gifts, talents, ability to deliver on promises. Competence is what a leader does.
Cause—the person’s reason for leading, his vision, goals, his “end game.” Cause is what most often motivates and inspires. Cause is the “why” of noble and compelling leadership.
After some lively discussion about character, competence, and cause, I then ask the people in the room: “What about you? What are you doing to inspire conﬁdence in your character, in your competence, and in your cause?”
Great leadership is no accident. It’s the result of deliberate effort and attention to detail. This involves managing values, the “core doctrine” of what you profess to stand for.
Nobody understands this more clearly than Dr. Timothy R. Clark, founder and CEO of LeaderFactor, a consulting and training firm focusing on leadership, change management, engagement, and strategic agility. He’s author of Leading With Character and Competence: Moving Beyond Title, Position, and Authority.
Rodger Dean Duncan: You point out that people who lack competence remain ineffective. But competent leaders who lack character become dangerous. Without naming names, what are some of the warning signs of a flawed character in the workplace?
Timothy R. Clark: Two things. First, leaders stop listening. Their advocacy-to-discovery ratio goes way up. In other words, they talk a lot more. They think talking amounts to leading and so they are prone to move into a very annoying rhetorical mode. They simply can’t shut up. And when they do listen, they listen based on the status of the person talking rather than the substance of the message. If you’re not important, don’t expect an audience.
Second, they simply forget—assuming they once learned—that leadership is stewardship for others and the resources we share. They become focused on their own advancement and they see leadership as a glittering path to their own rewards. In short, they become self-serving, greedy, and small.
Duncan: What advice do you give someone who’s been temporarily caught in the moral fog and is making a good faith effort to retrieve lost trust and reputation?
Clark: Understand that trust is the outcome of a slow-build. You can’t demand trust. It can only be granted by others.
If you think about the compounding principle, it applies here big time. It’s the consistency of small, ethical choices that build trust. Have you ever seen a 3D printer build something? Well, that’s how trust is built, layer upon layer.
Remember, trust is predictive understanding about another human being’s intent to do the right thing. It takes only one ethical breach, one lapse in judgment, to torpedo your credibility and break trust.
Leaders live on their reputations. If you are trustworthy to a certain point, but for sale after that, you are still a human vending machine. Trust means there are things in life that are not for sale—at any price! Show me a leader with that kind of conviction and I’ll show you a team that will achieve astonishing things. If you need to start over to build trust, do it. Start now.
Duncan: To what extent is there a competence component in character? In other words, can someone increase in competence at genuinely being and behaving as a person of character?
Clark: I’d actually put it the other way: Is there a character component in competence? The answer is unequivocally yes. To become really good at something, to develop deep expertise in any area, you have to learn, respect, and apply the principles that govern that domain. If I want to become a great leader, but don’t want to invest in developing leadership skills, that’s an integrity problem. Everything has a price. Figure out the price. Acknowledge the price. Pay the price. Competence is never cheap.
Duncan: You use a character-plus-competence model that illustrates four types of leaders that have nothing to do with title, position, or authority. What are those four types and how is that model useful to someone who sincerely wants to succeed as a leader?
Clark: The four types are—
Ineffective leaders (high character/low competence)
Failed leaders (low character, low competence)
Great leaders (high character, high competence), and
Dangerous leaders (low character, high competence)
The point is to use the framework as a mirror. Just look around and you’ll see that people really do conform to these four types. If you’re willing to do a fearless personal inventory, you’ll be able to identify areas of character and competence that you need to work on. Prioritize your development needs and then go to work!
Duncan: Leadership, you say, begins with character, and character has four cornerstones—integrity, humility, accountability, and courage. How are those four elements mutually reinforcing?
Clark: Integrity is obviously the bedrock foundation. Everything springs from it. For example, humility is simply an acknowledgement that we don’t know everything and we need help from others. It takes integrity to admit that.
Next, accountability is the realization that we need to be answerable for our performance and results. It takes integrity to internalize and live that principle.
Finally, courage is the willingness to challenge the status quo and create new value rather than lounge in your comfort zone and tell yourself soothing storiesabout why you shouldn’t rock the boat.
Duncan: Of character’s four cornerstone elements, which one seems to be the greatest challenge for most people?
Clark: Humility—especially if you have tasted success. For some reason, ego seems grows proportionately with success. That’s when things get dangerous.
Duncan: You make a point of encouraging people to have the courage to avoid profanity. What do you see as the effect of language on a leader’s effectiveness?
Clark: Profanity snuffs out psychological safety. It’s arrogant. It’s bravado, and it can be threatening and intimidating to others. If people have a right to work in an environment free of shaming, harassing, and bullying behavior—well, you very quickly come to the conclusion that profanity is not your friend. It doesn’t make the cut. Plus, the English language is beautiful. Learn to harness its power!
Duncan: The four cornerstones of competence you suggest are learning, change, judgment, and vision. Again, how are these four elements interconnected or mutually reinforcing?
Clark: Let’s go back to the fundamental definition of leadership: It’s the ability to influence others to create and achieve meaningful goals. These four elements connect with that definition. You need a vision or you have no place to go. You need judgment to figure out how to get there. You will meet obstacles on your way, so be ready to change and adapt. Finally, to lead is to learn. You’ve never been where you’re going. Be ready to learn your way there.
Duncan: As for learning, what do you regard as the most important mindset and most important behavior for someone who wants to be an effective leader?
Clark: Two things—
First, think of this basic distinction in life—contribution vs. consumption. Leadership is about contribution, not consumption. You have to sign up for contribution.
Second, and this is related to the first point, you have to find within yourself a deep psychological need to create value. Consumers don’t feel that intrinsic drive, but contributors do. That’s the mindset—”I’m a contributor. I’m here to create value. That’s what I do!”
Duncan: How can you tell if someone new to leadership is going to thrive in the hyper-competitive 21st century?”
Clark: I look for three things: First, are you an aggressive, self-directed learner? This is critical. Peple who rely on an institution for their development are last century. You have to own your own development. It’s yours. The organization can support you, but you’re in charge. Find your own development gaps. Create your own curriculum and go for it. The world’s learning assets are at your fingertips.
I look for people who demonstrate evidence of intense self-directedness. For example, we interviewed a gentleman who is an accomplished break dancer and free runner. I asked, “How did you learn these amazing skills?” His answer, “I taught myself. Lots of videos and hard work.” Wow! That’s a special kind of DNA.
Second, think above your role. It doesn’t matter what your job is, learn to think above and beyond it. If you don’t, you’ll be trapped in the prison of your tactical thinking. You may work in a particular function—accounting, finance, marketing, sales, research, IT, operations, procurement, whatever. That’s great. Master what you do, but as you do that, learn to think far beyond the boundaries of your role. This will help you understand how value is created and you’ll become much more able to contribute to the process of innovation. You’ll become a disruptive thinker and a walking incubator of new ideas.
Third, is it emotionally expensive to challenge you? If it is, if you struggle with constructive dissent and intense collaboration, this will limit your ability to thrive in the 21st century. But if you can take a hit, if you can discuss ideas on merit and not get defensive, if you can learn to fail and learn to be wrong, I want to hire you! The 21st century is your native habitat.
Duncan: This age of digital commerce and near instantaneous communication seems to spawn both quicker business success and quicker business collapses. With that as a backdrop, what’s your counsel to any leader who wants to develop a smart vision?
Clark: A smart vision satisfies a felt need in some meaningful way. But that need may not last long. That’s what’s changed.
In this age of acceleration, there is a compression of time frames. The average span of competitive advantage is shorter, so be ready for your vision to become obsolete. Above all, develop your adaptive capacity as a leader. Let me give you an example from my own shop.
At LeaderFactor, we provide a market-leading emotional intelligence assessment called EQometer which is used by leaders from more than 50 countries. In this case, I’ve learned to let customers help create that smart vision. When they asked for mobile compatibility, we did it. When they asked for on-demand microlearning videos, we did it. They asked for better data visualization, and we did it. They asked for an individualized dashboard. We did it.
Do you see what’s happening? Customers are willing to educate us and inform a dynamic, smart vision if we are listening, humble, and have a high tolerance for candor.
Parting words of advice: Buckle up and be ready!