Character and CEO Leadership
I was really pleased that two extraordinary CEOs serving on this blog’s CEO Advisory Committee – Jeff Finkle, President/CEO of the International Economic Development Council, and Michelle Mason, President & CEO of the Association Forum of Chicagoland – accepted our invitation to record a podcast for this blog on the impact of a CEO’s character on her leadership. I was also quite impressed by their willingness to take on such a complex and somewhat illusive topic with so little guidance from me, demonstrating that courage is a character trait they have in common! I wrote today’s post as an introduction to Jeff’s and Michelle’s podcast, which will be published next week,
I’ve long been interested in the role that character plays in leadership, but what most recently got me thinking about it as a possible blog topic was David Brooks’ column in the New York Times a few weeks ago, “What Candidates Need,” which I shared with Jeff and Michelle. Brooks offers us the model of Abraham Lincoln, who, he writes, “gets you thinking about what sorts of things we should be looking for in a presidential candidate.” In any CEO-aspirant, I would add. Brooks goes on to say that a candidate “worthy of support should at least have in rudiments what Lincoln had in fullness: a fundamental vision, a golden temperament, and a shrewd strategy for how to cope with the political realities of the moment.”
Character is a many-splendored thing that’s hard to get your hands around. I’ve never come across a detailed, universally accepted definition of what it covers, but I think most people would agree that a person’s character comprehensively defines him in terms of his fundamental beliefs, his personality traits, and his behavior. Of course, these strands are woven into a complex tapestry and can’t neatly be extricated from each other. From what I’ve read and observed over the years, I think I can say with some assurance that we tend to take most seriously – and to follow most willingly – leaders who are principled in the sense of being guided by, and adhering to, a pretty clear set of core values; are credible in the sense that we can rely on their doing what they say – walking the talk as we say these days; are authentic in the sense of showing us their true personality day after day rather than pretending to be someone they aren’t; and are steadfast in the sense of pursuing their vision and values with dedication and tenacity.
Talking about the endlessly fascinating Abraham Lincoln in their podcast, Jeff and Michelle both note a remarkable character trait that I think of as “true humility.” A truly self-made man with less than a year of formal education, Lincoln was tremendously ambitious and proud of his success as a trial attorney and of the upper middle class life (for Springfield, Illinois, anyway in the mid-19th century) his success had made possible. He was aggressive and combative in the courtroom and on the political hustings, and he truly loved to win – both cases and elections. So you wouldn’t think of him as humble in the common sense of that word. Yet, as Doris Kearns Goodwin’s brilliant history, Team of Rivals, demonstrates, Lincoln kept things in perspective, never seeing himself as the end-all/be-all or center of the universe. He possessed the kind of fundamental self-confidence that didn’t require constant reinforcement from those around him, and he always kept his robust ego in check. This, of course, accounts for his assembling and making good use of a cabinet filled with political rivals, most of whom considered themselves better qualified for the presidency and some of whom were actively disloyal.