Getting at a Leader's Essential Character

04 Sep 2015. Jennifer Farrer, Robert E. Kaplan

When leaders are assessed to help them improve or to make staffing decisions, the final product—typically a set of strengths and weaknesses—is a superficial read that lacks coherence, lacks explanatory power. It’s a loose collection of attributes like the sets of "competencies" that it’s often based on.

Sure, for development purposes those summary lists are useful in serving up a few specific things for the person to work on, but they strike only a glancing blow. They leave development power on the table. How often do these exercises amount to nothing?

For strengths and weaknesses material to stand a good chance of bringing about meaningful change, leaders need to see the larger significance of discrete tendencies and go from surface knowledge to deep realization. They need to get it, really get it, and get it with feeling. How to make this happen? By inferring from that fragmented, disconnected collection of attributes a unifying theme, one that consolidates many of the leader’s strengths and weaknesses, and illuminates all that by tying it to what drives the individual. It's getting at the leader's character in a full sense—in a deep sense. A big thought emerges that is clear as day, something that can be seen to originate in childhood and that applies to work and to life outside of work today.

First, the scattered puzzle pieces are fitted together into a coherent picture. Actually two pictures, one of the leader's strengths and another of weaknesses. Not just fitted together but grouped around a central theme, an organizing principle, which coalesces the attributes.

To illustrate we'll pick someone with a very recognizable leadership style. All business, he sits on the edge of his seat eyes flashing, talks fast, walks fast, self-assured yet awkward interpersonally, handsome but a little out of shape. He leads a large chunk of a large organization and reports to the CEO.

His strengths:

  • brilliant
  • commanding knowledge of the business and industry
  • strong sense of purpose
  • strong sense of ownership
  • high energy; great stamina
  • can-do attitude; focused, determined
  • high integrity; ambition in check
  • what you see is what you get
  • sets clear direction, communicates it unequivocally
  • a terrific problem-solver—creative, resourceful
  • tough when necessary
  • his organization generally delivers; a generally good track record

To jump from these several positive attributes to a unifying theme is a big inferential leap. Much more than the exercise of logic, this big step grows out of significant guided personal exploration, drawing on multiple sources of data. When asked to roll up these attributes into a pithy summary statement, this is what he wrote:

"A capable guy who wants the best for the organization and gets the job done—takes personal responsibility."

On the flip side, his weaknesses:

  • shoulders too much of the load
  • spread too thin; not accessible
  • overloads the organization
  • his team not really a team; has a small inner circle made up of like types
  • too competitive—wants to win the debate
  • intolerant—of individuals who don't take total responsibility, go all out
  • too intense, bores in on people
  • distant interpersonally
  • disorganized personally
  • picks up the slack for subpar staff members
  • lack of work-life balance

How would you roll these up? This is what he came up with:

"Overly self-reliant; the lack of a team environment hurts morale and detracts from performance."

Another major way to amp up an assessment is to factor in what drives the individual. Referring to what lies beneath surface adds depth to an otherwise flat picture, the two-dimensional view suddenly becomes three-dimensional. It’s not unusual for one driver to be the strongest by a wide margin, the prime mover.

Our example’s irrepressible sense of responsibility, highly productive, narrowly channeled, is what made him and in non-trivial ways what unmakes him. It accounts for how much he and his organization accomplishes, and it accounts for the drags on his and his team’s effectiveness. It also explains his failure to take adequate care of himself (short on sleep and too busy to exercise) and his lack of availability to his wife and children—in the name of being responsible to his family.

Adding drivers to the picture reveals, or reveals more clearly, the positives and negatives as flip sides of the same coin, united and cemented together by the chief driver. He does his job to the max, he does some of yours too. Expecting the world of himself, he’s his own worse critic. Knowing that about himself, he tries his best to spare others but his negative feeling seeps through. As much as he cares for others, he is sorely limited in his ability to connect with them personally.

The drivers themselves acquire even great potency when tied to the leader's history, going back to childhood. Likely cause-and-effect connections are made. A major circumstance or set of experiences stands out above the rest, and looks every bit like the defining formative influence.

In our example, the breakthrough came from a single biographical fact and the fall-out from it.  When he was eleven years old his father died. The loss was enormous. Apart from missing his father terribly—his father had taken him under his wing—he had to grow up fast. Before long he became the man of the house, looking after his two younger sisters, making meals, finding ways to add to the family‘s income. His mother "broke her back to make ends meet" and to be a good mother. Both her example and the press of circumstances imbued him with a work ethic that knows no bounds. Driven to be the provider at work and at home, he reminded us of Atlas, the mythical figure who strained to hold the earth on his shoulders.

That difficult circumstance and his all-out long-running response to it shaped his character. Literally. Derived from the Greek, the word character originally meant a stamping tool. His upbringing stamped him with many of the qualities that distinguish him both as a person and as a leader.

The emerging sense of the leader's character is lent further weight by factoring in private life. The role taken at home is almost always marked by striking parallels to the role taken at work. In our example the senior manager instinctively assumed the role with his own family of provider and took pride in that. They lived in a nice neighborhood, they could afford for his wife to be a stay-at-home mother, they had built up substantial savings (that to him never seemed enough). But he was a distant provider—when he was home he was consumed by work or tied up with household projects that he generally did on his own. When he did interact with his wife or children, too often he was critical, only vaguely aware that he was taking small bites out of their self-esteem. The ironic bottom line: financially, he was an excellent provider, emotionally not so much. This was true at home and at work. By doing too much himself and being intolerant of other people who in his view weren't doing enough, he created, at work and at home, a morale problem and took away from other people's performance.

Each of the puzzle pieces served up in sets of strengths and weaknesses mean a lot more when placed in the context of the whole person. Then when, in addition, that sense of the whole is tied to what makes the individual tick, you have mustered the assessment power that causes leaders to call out excitedly, "This is an epiphany!" Our senior manager knew, and was gratified to know, he was highly responsible in both sectors of his life. He didn’t know that in both sectors he was in certain ways irresponsible. 

The power of getting at character is that it doesn’t just produce intellectual awareness, it kicks up great splashes of feeling. "This is unsettling," leaders say. It's a sharp clarity that generates not just light but heat. When our senior manager realized that, by being distant and intolerant, he had unwittingly hurt his wife and children, his face flushed. He was mortified. "I'm ashamed of myself," he said. It was the last thing he wanted to do. That type of clarity, searing clarity, sparks a heart-felt commitment to do better and fires a natural momentum for change.


© Kaplan DeVries Inc.