Character, Competence and High Performance Leadership

We see a breathtaking visual reminder of the importance of competence and character in this NASA photograph of a space walk. In our recent research leadership*, we discovered that high performance in more typical workplaces also leverages these two attributes. This observation promoted us to develop the following equation: Competence + Character -> High Performance.

The story of Joe illustrates the interplay of character and competence.

Joe was a highly competent first line leader and I was privileged to be a member of his team. Experienced and professional, Joe held his team to high standards of service and performance. He followed-up and followed-through on the commitments he made to his team, his peers and senior colleagues.

Joe’s competence was obvious. My appreciation for what made Joe so successful, his character, deepened when I had to do my part in implementing an unpopular change in company policy. I had to enforce the policy with a senior executive who was several levels above me.

The executive took strong exception to the policy and became quite angry. The organization had not done the best job of communicating the policy and related changes. There was legitimacy to this executive’s reaction. Fortunately for me, Joe walked into my critical moment.

After Joe listened to the exchange I had with the executive, he intervened with more than a modest dose of courage and social skill. Joe did not take the easy road and explain the truth that he had no role in communications related to the policy change. Instead he acknowledged that communications could have been better and then, calmly but firmly, explained the policy change and asked that the policy be followed. The executive threatened escalation to Joe’s boss. Joe managed these threats professionally and the encounter ended.

I later learned that Joe faced some scrutiny about this episode from his senior leadership. The executive was quite powerful and politics were involved. Joe maintained his position and ultimately prevailed. In that critical moment Joe secured deeper commitment and loyalty from me – and from my teammates. In the eyes of his team, Joe became a person of character and competence.

Let’s take a closer look at what each of these terms mean.

Character. Professors Sean Hannah and Peter Jennings, who have the distinction of having served as military officers, focus on what they call “big C character.” Big C character means upholding values on the behalf of your organization. This means acting in the best interests of the organization even in the face of adversity. In so doing, the character of high performance leaders serves as a vital part of what Jennings and Hannah call the ‘moral compass’ that guides their organizations in doing good as they strive to do well.

In our own recent study of high performance leadership, we isolated a set of behaviors related to character that direct reports observed in leaders they rated as high performing. Among our findings, we found a set of that sticking to the right thing even when this means taking a personal risk is an important differentiator of high performance leadership. Acknowledging mistakes to accelerate problem solving was a vitally important “character” behavior related to high performance.

Competence. Competence, the second part of our equation, is also indispensable to high performance. Competencies are the skills and behaviors through which character is expressed. The ability to influence others, resolve conflicts, and enroll others in pursuing shared goals- these and other competencies define high performance leadership.

Building Competence. Helping leaders build their competence requires the elements of any good development program. Clear objectives, alignment of participant goals with program objectives, skill practice and application planning and evaluating impact are key.

Building Character: Many of us think that character is a trait that one does or does not have. We believe that character can be developed. How?

1. Place people in learning situations that challenge them to step out of their comfort zone and make choices between highly important and colliding values. An example is choosing how to act in a situation in which the values of being a good team player on the one hand conflict with doing the right thing on the other.

2. Facilitate dialogue with people about how best to address these challenges.

3. Provide people the opportunity to debrief mistakes in work situations in which acting with character was critical. Help people develop “lessons learned” from these real world work experience and think through how to manage them more effectively in the future.

4. Help people turn “lessons learned” into action plans and then debrief the impact of the implementation of these plans to promote mastery.

5. Make character a critical part of a company’s leadership culture. People reflect the models they see, the messages they hear and the behavior that is reinforced.

High performance leadership requires both competence and character. We need to treat both as capabilities that we can develop in ourselves and in others. Achieving personal and organizational high performance are the result of this investment.

*Tom Rose, Ph.D., is the author of “Managing at the Leading Edge,” which will be published by McGraw Hill in 2017.