U.S. Coast Guard Academy Swab Jamaal Green accepts the Class of 2016 flag from Mystic Seaport president Steve White at Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Conn., July 21, 2012. (U.S. Coast Guard photograph by Petty Officer 3rd Class Diana Honings)

Leading with Character: What Is a Leader of Character?

My book and blog are all about leading with character, and through stories I try to show what it means to be a leader of character. To do so, I first had to develop my definition of a leader of character. That wasn’t easy, and took a lot of introspection. There are tough questions to grapple with, such as what is meant by the words “leader” and “character.” For instance, history shows there have been many highly effective leaders with horrible character.

I’ve been involved in a number of training exercises that ask participants to list the qualities they believe make an exceptional leader. But a list of desirable attributes falls short of the real meat of what it means to lead with character. There’s more to it.

Although it’s hard to define, most people recognize exceptional leadership when they experience it. Exceptional leaders are those who get results while at the same time bringing out the very best in their employees. On top of that, they are guided by character-centered core values, which are shaped over a lifetime of learning and experience. The Coast Guard Academy James M. Loy Institute for Leadership offers a compelling definition of a leader of character that has helped me steer a straight course: A leader of character is one who embodies the Coast Guard Core Values and influences and inspires others to achieve a goal by seeking to discover the truth, deciding what is right, and demonstrating the courage to act accordingly, always.

Leaders of character have core values that orient their moral compass, alert them to decisions warranting deliberate moral reflection and govern their actions and behaviors. The difference between a person of character and a leader of character is action. Leaders of character navigate uncharted waters by steadying up and steering on the north star of character. They hold true to their course, demonstrating the moral courage to make tough decisions, intervene and engage to move an organization and its people toward excellence.

Those who lead with character are virtue-driven. When their actions and behaviors are in alignment with their values, they succeed, regardless of the possible adverse consequences of making difficult, value-based decisions. They are humble when on top and maintain their professional demeanor and dignity when knocked down. They work hard and persevere, never giving up on themselves or others. Leaders of character do not make excuses; they take responsibility for their actions and the actions of their subordinates.

Duty-bound by far more than achieving results and meeting organizational objectives, leaders of character are servants. They recognize their moral obligations to demonstrate ethical integrity and deliver selfless service to the people and organizations they lead. Those who lead with character inspire others to achieve their personal and professional goals, to seek the truth and to always do what is right – that is, what fidelity to their core values demands – regardless of the consequences.

The age-old question is, are leaders of character born or made? I contemplated that question throughout my career and have concluded the answer is both. Some people might possess more natural talent than others, but all leaders can develop their skills and strengthen their character. Indeed, I contend that character is dynamic. Every time leaders face a situation involving difficult moral considerations, they can choose to either strengthen their character … or erode it.

With the right tools, a person who lacks natural leadership talent can develop over time into a strong leader of character. In my book, Breaking Ice and Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters, I provide a structured and simple approach to character-centered leadership development that will help all who so desire, particularly those in entry-level and mid-level positions, to lead with character and succeed across a lifetime of learning.

Look in the mirror. What do you think, are leaders of character “born” or “made”?

Please join me again next week for more on Leading with Character.

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Vice Admiral Stosz, a Homeland Security Today editorial board member, started out in the U.S. Coast Guard as an ensign serving on polar icebreakers, conducting national security missions from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Her 40-year career is filled with leadership lessons gleaned while breaking ice and breaking glass as the first woman to command an icebreaker on the Great Lakes and to lead a U.S. armed forces service academy. She finished her career as the first woman assigned as Deputy Commandant for Mission Support, directing one of the Coast Guard’s largest enterprises. She has lectured widely on leadership, and has been featured on CSPAN and other media outlets. In 2012, Newsweek’s “The Daily Beast” named Vice Admiral Stosz to their list of 150 Women who Shake the World. Proceeds from “Breaking Ice and Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters” will be donated to the US Coast Guard Academy James M. Loy Institute for Leadership.

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