“When you are commanding, leading [soldiers] under conditions where physical exhaustion and privations must be ignored, where the lives of [soldiers] may be sacrificed, then, the efficiency of your leadership will depend only to a minor degree on your tactical ability. It will primarily be determined by your character, your reputation, not much for courage—which will be accepted as a matter of course—but by the previous reputation you have established for fairness, for that high-minded patriotic purpose, that quality of unswerving determination to carry through any military task assigned to you.” – General George C. Marshall, Speaking to officer candidates in September 1941
One of my favorite leaders that I served under in the United States Army once told me, “Have character, Specialist Jester, don’t BE a character!” As I have grown as a leader, I like to use these same words with those that I mentor. Many leaders that I have spoken with over the years have stated that strong moral character is one of the top traits they value most in people. I could not agree more! The United States Army holds character as arguably the top core value of leadership. This is evidenced in every chapter of The U.S. Army Leadership Field Manual, FM 22-100 which defines character as follows:
“Character describes a person’s inner strength, the BE of BE, KNOW, DO. Your character helps you know what is right; more than that, it links the knowledge to action. Character gives you the courage to do what is right regardless of the circumstances or the consequences.” (Army Field Manual FM 22-100, 2007)
If character truly describes a person’s inner strength, then the prophet, Daniel exemplified this in every aspect of his life. Daniel refused to compromise and defile himself by eating unclean as his diet consisted of only vegetables. When Daniel interpreted King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream that none of the wise men of Baylon could understand, Daniel did not take credit. Instead, Daniel gave glory and honor to God. He always spoke truth to authority whether it was popular, no matter the consequences. Daniel never stopped praying even though he knew that it could cost him his life. Finally, even as his favor with the king grew, Daniel remained committed and loyal to his friends and beliefs. (Daniel 2:1-48)
“What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
There are also valuable cautionary tales of bad moral character in the Bible. The egotistical King Herod Agrippa I is the prime example of a leader who severely lacked character. Imprisoning Jews only to harass them and executing James by the sword even though he had committed no crime are just two examples of Herod Agrippa’s cruelty. He also enjoyed flaunting his power and position as king by wearing lavish, expensive clothing to garner praise all the while mistreating the very people he was determined to gain worship from. Unfortunately for Herod, he failed to recognize that his ego and arrogance greatly undermined his leadership.
Whether good or bad, Character is at the heart of leadership. I find that leaders who possess good moral character have what we we call, “that thing!” They have what it takes to be a successful leader. Leaders with bad moral character, or none at all are much less successful. It is hard to follow a leader who has bad character.
How do we keep from falling prey to the same bad character traits as Herod on our leadership journey? By always being humble and trainable. Identify and face your weaknesses with honesty. Then surround yourself with people of strong moral character with the strengths that you need. Role models and mentors as accountability partners are an invaluable resource as they can speak hard truths into the life of a leader that others cannot.
Be willing to listen to what followers are saying with their actions or inactions toward you. These speak loudly about your own character.