Open Letter to Emerging Leaders: 5 Character Traits You Need to Make a Positive Impact

Todd Hall
Personal Development
June 9, 2015

These past two weeks have been filled with graduations for me. Several of my students completed their PhD degree in clinical psychology, and this past week my son graduated from high school. As we’ve celebrated my son's accomplishment with him and looked toward to the future, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how I hope my son will develop in the future. This has spurred me to think about the emerging leaders I’m privileged to work with in various capacities, and my hope for their development and future.

What does it take to succeed in having a positive influence in the world today?

To my son Brennan, and to all you emerging leaders out there who desire to use your talents to make the world a better a place—whether you’ve just graduated or you’re looking for the next step in your career, here are a few thoughts to help you build a foundation that will enable you to succeed in life and work. According to a recent survey1, the most important leadership competencies to employers are: character, relationships, motivation, and strategic thinking. All four areas are crucial, but character is the foundation for a sustained positive impact. If you lack character, you’ll be motivated to pursue the wrong results, or the right results in the wrong way. And if you can’t get along with people, it won’t matter in the long run how strategic you are. Your ideas will never take root if your relationships are full of conflict. Our society and corporate culture continue to believe that the “soft skills” like character aren’t necessary for hard-hitting business results. The experience of many exemplar leaders suggests otherwise, and research is increasingly backing this up. Recently I wrote a post about a new study and book, Return on Character, that provides hard evidence that character drives the bottom line. So I want to focus here on building your character, or what I call the five relational virtues.

The 5 Relational Virtues

1. Be connected.

Character starts with deep and loving relational connections with the important people in your life, especially your caregivers, or attachment figures. These relationships are what create the capacity to connect. Connection is the ability to relate to others, based on an internal sense of security, in a way that is characterized by being emotionally attuned, in-sync, and responsive to others. If you are emotionally attuned and responsive to others, you will have a positive influence. Foster these close relationships. They will help you develop and sustain you during the hard times. They require work, but the benefit will far outweigh the work. Seek out friends who will help you grow, and mentors who will speak into your life with wisdom and compassion. Healthy relationships foster internal security, which in turn promotes healthy relationships, creating a virtuous cycle.

2. Love compassionately.

Tune into others pain and put your empathy into action. That is compassion. Always seek to promote the well being of others, and yourself. That is love. Love is how you make the world a better place, starting in your small corner of the world. For more on love, check out my previous posts: How to Create a Culture of Love at Work: 2 Myths & 4 PracticesAll You Need is Love (At Work)

Love Under a Microscope: Building Positive Connections

3. Foster humility.

Humility is one of those virtues that's hard to define, but we know it when we see it. I recently watched the documentary, Linsanity, about Jeremy Lin. In case you’re not familiar with his amazing story, Lin went from being one game away from being cut from the New York Knicks to being an international sensation in the course of two weeks.

He went in to what would likely have been his last game, and with nothing to lose, had the game of his life. He repeated his amazing performance in four of the next five games and “Linsanity” broke loose worldwide. What struck me was that in his interviews, Lin constantly pointed the attention back to his teammates and refused to take sole credit for the team’s winning streak.

He could have basked in the limelight, but instead he used the attention to shine the light on his teammates, insisting they were not getting enough credit for their great play. One of the announcers referred to Lin as the “humble hero from Harvard.”

Humble hero indeed. In their book, Character Strengths, researchers Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman defined humility as a non-defensive desire to seek the truth about one’s self and to see one’s self accurately, including strengths and weaknesses. If you have an accurate view of yourself, you’ll naturally focus on others because you'll understand your place in the world and in the lives of others. One way to think about humility is as the opposite of self-absorption. Humility may be aptly thought of as other-absorption: the capacity to set your interests aside in order to focus on others, and on larger causes beyond your immediate self-interest. Humility often gets confused with weakness. But it's definitely not weakness. In fact, humility is a display of true strength. It's the strength that comes from inner security and love for others. It can co-exist with a strong will or ambition for the good of others or the organization. In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins identified what he called “Level 5 Leaders” who tended to be at the helm in great companies. These were leaders who exhibited a seemingly paradoxical combination of humility and will (or perseverance/ambition) for the good of the organization. If you want to achieve a sustained impact, work on becoming a humble person whom others want to follow. Combine this with ambition for the greater good of your team or organization, and you will see extraordinary results.

4. Strengthen Your Courage.

When you attempt to make a positive impact, whether through formal or informal leadership, you will face opposition. At that moment you'll need courage to get you through. In his book, Virtuous Leadership, Richard Kilburg states this about courage: “It is clear from the lessons of history and practical experience that individuals in leadership positions must possess and enact a great deal of this virtue to do their work effectively.”

Sometimes we think of courage as the fearless and supremely confident hero who forges ahead despite ridiculous odds against him or her. This is the quintessential hero of Hollywood. Iron Man and Captain America of The Avengers, and Ben Gates of National Treasure come to mind.

Take Ben Gates for example. He and his compatriots are left to die by the bad guys deep underground where they’re looking for treasure. His best friend Riley voices his fear that they’re all going to die. Ben, unphased by their seemingly immanent demise, replies, “It’s going to be OK; I’m sorry I yelled at you Riley.” He’s not afraid; he knows they’ll find a way out somehow. We’re led to believe that courage looks like Ben Gates: the absence of fear. A better Hollywood depiction of courage comes from the How to Train Your Dragon movies. Hiccup, a young and clumsy Viking, wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and fight dragons. When he discovers that his people have misjudged the species, he realizes that he must fight the destructive ignorance of his people and his own father. He’s terrified, but he pushes through his fear to try to show his people the true nature of the dragon he has come to love. Courage, then, is the fortitude to do what needs to be done, in the face of opposition, to promote the good of others. This opposition often involves fear. Following this line of thinking, in their book Character Strengths, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman defined courage as “emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, either external or internal.” Part of leading with connection, then, is managing your fears and mental energy to push through the internal and external opposition to the goals you want to accomplish for the greater good of your team. This, again, goes back to security. The more secure you are, the more you will be at peace within yourself. This inner peace will help you push through your fears and the inner challenge to accomplish your goals.

5. Seek Wisdom.

It seems clear that leadership of any type requires a great deal of wisdom. In trying to live a meaningful life and lead people toward a common, positive goal, you will face important and difficult questions that you have to sort through. Like humility, wisdom is hard to define, and yet we know it when we see it. Can you think of a wise mentor or leader in your life? What is it that makes him or her wise? It’s hard to pinpoint. But when you see wisdom play out before your eyes, you intuitively know it. The Old Testament tells the story of Solomon judging over two women both claiming a child was theirs. As you may remember, he told the women that he would cut the child in half and give each woman one half. The real mother immediately gave up her claim to the child in order to save him. And Solomon knew right away that she was the true mother because she displayed sacrificial love. When we hear this, we know intuitively that this is wisdom. But how do you take these intuitive judgments from real life events and codify them into a definition of wisdom? And more importantly, how do you develop this virtue in order to lead effectively? We can think of wisdom in general as practical expertise in the pragmatics of living life well. If we extrapolate this to a leadership context, leadership wisdom is practical expertise in the pragmatics of leading teams/organizations toward intrinsically and morally good outcomes. At the end of the day, wisdom requires an incisive understanding of what is truly important in any given situation, and ultimately in life. I believe relationships are the most important thing in life, including our work life, but there are definitely strategic decisions in professional work environments that require a great amount of wisdom. Figuring out how to relate and what to decide in any given situation requires wisdom. Wisdom, then, links back to secure attachment and compassionate love because they provide experiential knowledge about what is most important in life. As you grow in these, you will pave the way for wisdom. But developing wisdom also requires experience in dealing with important issues that often have no clear solution or path forward. Experience by itself, however, will not get you very far. I once heard someone say, “The issue is: Do you have twenty years of experience, or one year of experience twenty times?”  To become wise, you must reflect on your experience and learn from it. I hope these musings on character help you develop into the person and leader you were meant to be. 

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1. How to Accelerate Leadership Development (2014). Human Capital Institute, in partnership with UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. Photo Credit: Graduate