One of my hardest days in the military came when we had been in Baghdad for about 30 days following the ground invasion into Iraq during the opening phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. I was leading a Special Operations Planning Team of 12 people and we were desperately trying to figure out the deterioration in stability, the rise of car bombings, Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence, and the use of a new devastating weapon, the Improvised Explosive Device (IED), that was already starting to kill and wound US troops.
Fellow soldiers in my planning team developed an event tracking system that we were using to predict where, what type, and when acts of violence would occur so we could use soldiers in our unit to pre-disrupt the predicted attacks. I had a background in statistical forecasting, so we predicted the levels of attack violence we expected to see in 14, 30, and 60 days. We predicted a huge rise in attacks with little end in sight.
The methods we were using and the results we were finding were new, so we were asked to present our findings and predictions to the commanding officer of all US and coalition military forces in Iraq. The general, listened for about 10 minutes, and then launched into a tirade on how our results were incorrect, our conclusions ignorant, and the predicted number of future attacks impossible. We addressed the general’s concerns but maintained that our analysis was correct and that the number of attacks would continue to escalate. The general ended the meeting early and dismissed us with a wave.
As we left, a military ambulance zoomed past us, and we entered another blazing 125oF day. Our Special Forces Commander, who proudly supported our efforts, shook our hands, and said that we all had, “incredible character,” that made him proud to lead us. That awful day in Baghdad stands 15 years in the past, but it would find us more correct than we ever wanted. It also convinced me for the rest of my life on the vital role of “character” as the most important leadership trait.
Character is Developed Working and Owning the Hardest Problems
True character seeks the flame of finding, understanding, and then attempting to resolve the hardest problems. Leaders with character in the military, politics, civic organizations, and business all focus on improving the hardest problems and not the easiest problems to solve. A key aspect of solving the hardest problems is leaders must fully “own” the resolution of these problems. Most leaders with character all “inherited” their hardest challenges but, instead of blaming, took the path to resolve the problem instead of blame others. Winston Churchill as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom inherited World War II. Churchill made the decision to lead the world to victory against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan vs. blaming his predecessors.
Character Looks Deeply into What an Organization Needs to Do to Be Successful
Character requires moral courage, the strong possibility of physical courage, but, most importantly, character always looks to what can be improved, changed, revised, and innovated to make an organization better for employees, customers, and the organization’s leaders. Success is driven by character because true character wants to solve, create, innovate, discover, and improve against problems and challenges that face organizations and those that organizations serve.
Character is Unflinchingly Open, Honest and Fact Based
The discussion of enemy attack numbers in that hot Baghdad conference room did not require any physical courage. It did require immense moral courage as well as a reliance on honesty, facts based on multiple and reliable sources, and a commitment to openly share results, methods, assumptions, and facts so everyone possessed the same information and understanding. Nothing good ever occurs in the dark, undiscussed, and unrecognized. Improvement and change come when people face understood problems with the same set of facts to resolve the problem and advance a solution.
Character Values People as the Most Important Asset of an Organization
It comes as a shock to many people and leaders that it was the military, and not corporate or civic America, taught me that the most asset an organization has or will ever have are its people. In Iraq, I concluded ever mission proposal with a set of the “Special Operation Forces (SOF) Truths.” One of the SOF Truths is “Humans are more important than hardware.” It was my job to ensure that the missions conducted by Special Forces were as safe as possible to both the Soldiers and civilians. Character recognizes that all ideas, results, innovations, and success ultimately come from people that are challenged, led, educated, respected, and appreciated. When you lose or drive away great people, success is rarely possible.
Character is Quiet so Others Can Speak Their Opinion and Leaders Can Learn
Non-military leaders assume that Patton or Rommel are the central role models for the development of great military leaders. Leaders like Rommel and Patton are exceedingly rare which is why they are studied – it is highly unlikely that a leader like them will ever emerge again. Instead, leaders that deal with the daily challenges of innovation, customers, competition, employee development, education, revenue, profitability, and engagement use their character to hold their voice. A leader with character is quiet so that others can speak, share, and describe the problems that they see and experience. A quiet leader employs learning to develop the strength of character to create positive change and improvement.
Character is Never Done, Never Static, and Always Improving
A leader with character never has enough character. Character is a leadership attribute that always needs more because the process of building character is an ongoing exercise not a “one-and-done” leadership checklist. Leaders with character constantly seek new problems, new challenges, and to develop new leaders to continue to find, improve, and ultimately resolve problems.
Character remains the ultimate attribute for leaders to exercise, to employ, and to improve so they can successfully solve problems in the civic, governmental, military, business, and international arenas. Leaders with a keen understanding of their own strengths and an appreciation of the constant requirement for character development will be able to lead teams to understand and to resolve challenges they have yet to meet.
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