Can leaders change their basic character?

01 Jul 2016. Robert E. Kaplan, Jennifer Farrer

"Holy shit! What a revelatory experience," wrote Charlotte Frye, who did not normally swear. A first-time CEO with one year on the job, she had just completed a two-day meeting to take account of her leadership. She was stunned: "I had no idea what forces were driving my behaviors." 

Those forces, deep-seated features of her character as a leader, had two detrimental effects. They ate into her sense of self-value, and they distorted the way she defined her place in the world and her role as CEO. As a result, she left personal power on the table, a serious failing that hurt her performance. In short, Charlotte Frye was not the CEO the company needed her to be. 

In a person or thing, character is the defining "mark," its ingrained nature (we don't mean character in the moral or ethical sense). It is widely believed that leaders can't change their basic character—which is understandable because often they don't. Not on their own, not with help. On the contrary we know it's possible. Charlotte Frye is a prime example.

She had been brought into the company by its two founders when it was two years old and in her first year she had performed well, going a long way toward professionalizing the organization—no mean feat since the founders were allergic to anything remotely resembling "process." But she hadn't really established herself. It was evident in the posture she struck with the founders and the board. She was too deferential, she "slouched." Ironic in a way because physically her posture was excellent. 

In particular she abdicated her role in shaping strategy, a priority for the three-year-old company, having gotten traction with its foundation product, now beset with strategic questions: how to diversify, which markets to enter, how to contend with new competitors. In strategic deliberations, rather than contribute at a content level Charlotte played the facilitator, defaulting to her process skills. It was puzzling since she knew the industry and had a good strategic head on her shoulders. As one founder put it, "She thinks strategically but if she has ideas she doesn't raise them or if she does it's tentative." 

Somehow her power was sapped like a Vermont maple tree in March. A principal speculated that "something holds her back from using her full potential."

Indeed she was undermined from within. For one, she had come to expect too much of herself. At 48 she still strived mightily to do every right thing in just the right way. You could hear it in her voice, a bit strained, as she labored to get her point across, each word precisely bitten off.  Her impossibly high expectations inadvertently marked down her value in her own eyes. 

She was also undermined by subscribing too fervently to an ideal of servant leadership. "I make other people happen," she was fond of saying. She was so averse to elevating herself above others that she over-lowered herself, first and foremost in her own mind. It's one thing to be of service, it's quite another to verge on subservience. Misguided in this way, she undercut her power.

At the board chair's suggestion she engaged us.

Early in the end-of-year meeting with us she came to a realization that punched her skewed sense of self-worth in the nose. Presented with praise and quite a few high ratings from coworkers, none of it made a dent. "It was just bouncing off me, I was giving it lip service," she recalled. Seeing that, we called a break, and she went outside to think it over. "As I looked out at the ocean—I remember it as if it were yesterday—it suddenly hit me, it brought tears to my eyes: If this appreciation is true, then I don't need to worry so much—whether I'm doing a good job, whether I'm equal to the task."

The second realization related directly to her self-lowering tendency. It struck her when the three of us viewed a video of a meeting she had had with the founders. She was shocked to view herself looking from one to the other as if she expected them to lead the meeting, shocked to hear how small her voice was when she did speak. Again she went outside to reflect and again strong feelings broke the surface. "I didn't know how often I've felt weak. I didn't know how often I don't feel good about myself, crappy really—sorry for the foul language." 

Epiphany is a word leaders often utter when they're excited by what they've just learned. A sudden, jolting realization. They see in a flash what's wrong with the way they've operated and how it can be put right. 

Her "holy shit" exclamation turned into a manifesto—she put her foot down. "I'm done with being two sizes too small for the role. I'm getting off the never-ending treadmill of trying to proving myself. I have proved myself ENOUGH (her caps)."

Plenty of leaders see the light and are galvanized by it in the moment and then nothing comes of it. We all know that to amount to anything insights have to be put into practice, a word which derives from the Greek "to act." Charlotte realized this: "Insight just puts your boat in the water. You can easily get back and never leave shore." 

The actions Charlotte took were effective yet unremarkable. She steeled herself before meetings with the founders; she forced herself to speak early in strategy meetings so her lips wouldn't seal shut; she made herself stand up to the founders when each in his own way was out of line. And she took deliberate steps to keep people's appreciation alive in her mind. Once a month she took it out and had her spouse read it to her. On the bedroom mirror she pasted, "I'm plenty good enough."

Two years later she proclaimed herself changed. "I feel like I've grown two sizes, now I fill out my suit coat. It's a feeling of power, true power. I no longer feel like I'm a pretender to the throne."

Her claim was substantiated by the two founders and the board's four-member executive committee. It was a unanimous, everyone reported a marked change. A founder declared, "She is a much stronger leader, still a servant leader but she's not putting herself below us." A board member said, "Our reaction toward Charlotte is totally different from what it was a couple of years ago. She is more confident, you can hear it in her voice. She's less empathic, more emphatic." A bit carried away, another exclaimed, "She has completely transformed. At our annual strategy meeting she led the discussion and confidently laid out her own point of view on how to diversify." Both founders were now satisfied with her contributions to strategy—she had "come out of her shell," said one. 

Of course, a leader who changes his or her basic character doesn't become a different person, which Charlotte would be the first to say. The way she put it, "I am still me but I but I am a different version of me, like 'Me 2.0.'" It pleased her greatly: "I look back and say, I rowed my boat across that pond and I'm glad I left that other shore behind." Her shift took place at the nexus of her sense of self-value and her use of power. There's nothing more basic to a leader's character than that. 

For leaders to achieve a shift in character they don't just re-gear their leadership in an outward sense, they change their minds, their mindset. Misguided thoughts—often about their role as a leader—need to be set straight. Excessive needs—to avoid pain or to gratify one's ego—need to be controlled. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay on character, "We chase some flying scheme or are haunted by some fear or command by us…. I'm environed by myself." 

At the heart of Charlotte's change was a stepped-up ability to contend with her worst tendencies. Before we met her, she was already given to saying, I "fight" this bad habit or that. "Now I know the triggers better," she told us. "And I'll say to myself, 'Oops, there's that lousy feeling again, what does it mean, oh, right, got it,' and I self-correct." Acutely aware of the naysaying voice in her head, the self-deflating muttering, she did her best to talk back to it, "knock it back," as she said. The opposition didn't go away but her work on herself made it a fair fight. 

That very type of action is also what spells success or failure in a leader's efforts to remake herself or himself. A change in character is a new equilibrium, a dynamic one at that, which must be actively, even aggressively, maintained until new habits, mental and managerial, firm up. The leader—to keep from being swept back across the pond—must constantly self-monitor, self-correct, self-coach, on the alert to contain the old forces, at the ready to bolster the new.