Character is one of those all-time fluffier business words: we all know it’s important, and we all have an idea what it looks like. But the idea varies by person and the importance declines because there’s not always a good way to measure it.
Or is there?
This is a problem we’ve generally had with leadership abilities of late: we all understand soft skills are what separates good leaders from great ones, but soft skills are much harder to track on a spreadsheet (and businesses love what can be tracked on a spreadsheet). So how do we measure for character, then?
You start by understanding what a person of character looks like. In my opinion, they would:
Deliver results: In a business context, perhaps the most important. It means the measurables are there … and a person with character doesn't get swept away by successes.
Embrace adversity: People (i.e. leaders) with character handle adversity as well as they do success; they move through it without playing the blame game, instead righting the ship.
Seek truth: Especially in a data-driven age, you will be confronted with ideas that you don’t agree with — but that the information available speaks to. People with character embrace this reality without fear.
Be trustworthy: Your word needs to be gold.
Desire growth: Some leaders end up terrified of change. While previously someone like that could stay at a high perch for decades, it’s becoming more rare. Change is a healthy part of life. It creates growth and a person with strong character gets that.
If those are the five elements driving character, then, how are they measured?
Well, it’s mostly about asking questions — of a leader, but of those he/she interacts with, reports to, manages, and knows well. (Next article will be about hiring/firing with character, to boot.)
For example, let’s say you wanted to measure out the “seek truth” element above. Let’s say we wanted to evaluate and measure a potential promotion to leadership and see if the candidate in question embraced truth. Some potential questions to ask others:
- Is he/she always in the same arguments?
- How would you describe him/her and how do you think they’d describe themselves? Are those descriptions aligned? (i.e. You see them as hard-nosed and they see themselves as easy going.)
- Do you think their behavior is inconsistent?
- How have you seen them behave in meetings driven by data or hard information?
- Do they seem to reflect reality, or often bury their head in the sand?
A few years ago, I had a client named Dean. He thought his managerial style was enthusiastic, but his team had been failing for months. Ultimately, he sought the truth — but because trying to attain it in casual settings hadn’t worked, he used an anonymous survey. The results were scathing. His team viewed him as bombastic and were often unclear on priorities.
Now Dean had the information, and he had to do the right thing with it — take the ‘seek truth’ moment and turn it into action. Many cannot do this, but thankfully Dean did. He told me, “All these people expressing the same view cannot be wrong.” We worked together to change some of his behaviors and his priority alignment, but that process of working together was only possible because he sought the truth, found it, and acted upon it. That’s a man of character.
Bottom line: the central question when determining the character of another person is, “Do people trust him/her?”
But it is possible to measure for character by going deeper on each of the five elements above? In a word, yes. In the next article we’ll talk about applying those approaches to hiring and (unfortunately) firing for character.
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