Sing a Song of Character: 8 Traits That Build a Strong Character

Whether we’re leading a business or living our life, character brings meaning, value, and vision to the world around us. It guides us and centers us.

Character is made up of many notes. We don’t all have to sing in an identical pitch; that would be impossible, and, frankly, not at all melodic. But in order to sing a leadership song that is rich, resonant, and harmonious, certain notes must be sung by us all. These common qualities of good character add up to strong leaders.

1. Honesty

Do you always speak the truth and behave honorably … even when no one’s looking?  When you fall short (and we all do occasionally), what tools and resources, both internal and external, do you have close at hand to guide you back on track and keep you in check? Can you trust yourself to self-correct?  And how are you training your employees to be the most honorable humans they can possibly be? How has honesty been woven into the fabric of your organizational culture?

Grit is determination and the will to succeed because hard work is, well, hard! You have to get in and do it with no excuses, no pity parties, no turning back just because something is difficult.

When I was 25 years old, my company relocated me to Europe. Arriving at my new flat, I was tired, lonely, hungry, and discombobulated from having to drive from the airport, after a twelve-hour flight, on the “wrong” side of the road … in a stick shift, which was new to me! And then, I locked myself out of the flat! I sat on the street curb, tears in my eyes, thinking, Maybe I’ve made a mistake. Maybe this move just wasn’t right for me. Maybe I’m not up to the task.

But then I forced myself to tap into that “gritty place” deep within me, where lived my self-confidence, resilience, and determination. Somehow, I stood up, wiped away my tears, and found a way into my new flat. And in that moment, I launched my life as a leader.

3. Humility

As you lead and live, remember that it’s not about always being right; it’s about always doing right. Leaders must be sure our employees know that we are aware of our own flaws and foibles. When we bristle at criticisms or take a little too much pleasure in proving someone wrong, we shortchange ourselves, the people we are leading, and the companies we work for. 

In truth, it feels wonderful to openly admit to an  employee, “You were right, and I was wrong. Thank you for teaching me.” It feels even better if you make this healthy admission in front of a group!

4. Openness

Resist the urge to surround yourself only with people who agree with you, who echo what they know you want to hear and are more interested in seeking your approval than expressing their own unique voices and concerns.

And even beyond resisting surrounding ourselves with sycophants, we must also actively seek dissenting opinions and encourage different ideas. Leaders who are comfortable, confident, and intelligent enough to seek opinions different from their own have learned how to move beyond their own interests and egos and stand in a more expansive place.

Be careful, though, because our subconscious bias can trick us into placing more value on the employee who is always agreeable than the one who occasionally (and respectfully) rejects the status quo. The trick is to retrain your brain so that it does not react negatively to pushback or opinions different from your own.

“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” – John Wooden

5. Neutrality

Gossip, blaming, and backbiting are both mean-spirited and unbecoming of a leader. Rising above such small-minded activities yourself is noble and necessary—but not sufficient. Leaders must also rise and conquer by canceling the culture that encourages such negativity in the first place, establishing an environment of zero-tolerance. If you see it or hear it happening, call it out. Take a stand. Discipline and/or remove employees who display this detrimental and demoralizing behavior.

6. Boldness

Uncomfortable situations will arise in the workplace that will require your attention, discernment, and involvement. It’s always best to address these issues head-on, not only for the good (and the growth) of your employees, but also to explore and expand your leadership skills.

Starting a new job early in my leadership career, I had an employee I’d been told needed to be terminated immediately. However, I decided that before I took that action, I would assess the situation myself.

In the first meeting I attended with this employee—a big meeting involving numerous managers and the company CEO—she fell asleep. Really asleep! Afterwards, I immediately pulled her aside and respectfully but firmly told her that if she wanted to continue growing in her job and be professionally successful, falling asleep in any meeting would not do! I said that if it happened again—or if it became clear that she was not performing her duties—she would be terminated. 

I urged her to think about what other issues might be at play; perhaps there was something she was missing.

Well, she went to the doctor shortly thereafter and learned that she was severely diabetic, which was causing her extreme fatigue. With that news, she thanked me for being straightforward but respectful, for handling an uncomfortable situation with dignity, compassion, and grace, and for “waking her up”—in more ways than one.

7. Investment in others

For a variety of reasons, managers and leaders are often reticent to give their employees meaningful and continuous feedback. But we need to look at feedback not as a quarterly duty or an annual, paperwork-driven obligation, but as an ongoing investment in our people and a constant part of our organizational culture. 

Without it, how will your team be led and guided? How will they know when to adjust and/ or recalibrate? The manager who doesn’t provide open, honest feedback to every employee, regardless of their protected class or status, is doing that employee and the organization a grave disservice.

8. Bravery

Often the worst experiences produce the most valuable lessons. Knowing what not to do often informs and guides our thinking as we evaluate what we should do.

I think back on my first romantic relationship, when I was a teenager. In retrospect, he was awful: controlling, demanding, jealous, and domineering. But even when the relationship became abusive, I stayed. It took me a while, and an extraordinary amount of courage, to finally walk away from that toxic relationship.

I used to feel embarrassed and disappointed in myself for suffering through the pain and indignity for as long as I did. But nowadays I understand the vital, enduring life lessons I took away from that relationship, lessons I bring into my leadership experience. 

That profoundly negative experience taught me profoundly positive lessons. I learned much about what kindness is by seeing what kindness is not. Courage in adversity has lessons of its own.

Mastering these character notes will help you grow as a leader. You might hit a little dissonance now and then (we’re all human!), but just keep practicing and you will bring harmony to your life and work.

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