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How do leaders develop character and competence ? Dr. Bernard Banks, Colonel in the United States Army and the Deputy Department Head of West Point’s Department of Behavioral Sciences & Leadership, shares his point of view as part of our Next Gen Leaders Series.

Leadership is often equated with simply the act of getting people to do things they otherwise might choose to not to do.  while this colloquial definition might suffice in some instances, I think it fails to take into account the complexity associated with exercising leadership.

One problem is that body of literature around leadership has never distilled the phenomena’s definition down to one universally accepted statement.  Dr. Peter Northouse’s well-regarded book, Leadership: Theory and Practice (2010), noted that four components are central to all concepts of leadership.

First, leading requires two or more people acting in concert with each other.  Second, leading is a process and therefore transpires iteratively over time.  Third, leading people involves influence.  Finally, leading requires the pursuit of common goals.

Because leading involves people and requires influence, mere competence is insufficient to ensure sustained leadership effectiveness over time.  It is critical that leaders possess a solid ethical foundation as well, in order to ensure the results generated through leadership activities can be sustained over time.  Character must be integrated with competence.

The Importance of Character

In 1991, General Norman Schwarzkopf gave a famous speech at West Point to the Corps of Cadets.  The thesis statement of his remarks was that leaders must possess both competence and character.  He asserted that leaders who possess extreme competence, but lack character, can achieve many missions.

However, the manner in which they reach their objectives might place the organization and its people at risk.  Conversely, a leader who possesses impeccable character can fail to achieve assigned objectives due to a lack of competence.

Competence and character are required in order to generate sustainable positive outcomes.  Yet few private sector organizations consciously integrate character development into their leader development frameworks.  The reason lies in the difficulty associated with undertaking such a pursuit.
IBM implicitly pursues character development as part of its leader development process.  The company clearly understands the values which serve as the impetus for how it seeks to conduct business.
In the 2011 IBM annual report Sam Palmisano made the following statement.  “In the end, it comes back to our values as IBMers. It was no accident that the first major work effort I launched at that senior leadership meeting nine years ago was a collective ‘jam’ on who we are and why we exist. What resulted—the values IBMers themselves shaped—has held up remarkably well as a distillation of what it means to be ‘an IBMer.’”
Having made that statement, how can IBM intensify its character development efforts?  The answer lies in behavior.

Integrating character development within a competency-oriented leader development process requires the operationalization of behaviors associated with your organization’s values.  All organizations have well articulated values.

Too few companies have translated their values into observable behaviors which are measured throughout the company by managers.

Such behaviors should be categorized by the level of internalization (e.g., resistance, compliance, identification) or skill (e.g., novice, intermediate, expert) they reflect.  It is hard to ask a manager to have conversations with their team members concerning character development if they do not have concrete behaviors to reference.

Conversations concerning character can be very difficult ones due to the complexity associated with cultural norms and environmental factors.  Empowering managers through the creation of behavioral clarity is important if an organization truly wants to focus on character development as part of its leader development practices.

The greatest risk to an organization usually is not presented by an overabundance of leadership competence.  Quite the contrary, the greatest risk lies in a deficit of character amongst its leaders.  Organizations who want to embrace both short and long-term perspectives are wise to explore character development as part of their leader development processes.

About the Author
Bernard B. Banks, Ph.D. is a Colonel in the United States Army and the Deputy Department Head of West Point’s Department of Behavioral Sciences & Leadership.  Dr. Banks has also led organizations around the globe for over 25 years. He holds a B.S. from West Point, a M.B.A. from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, a M.P.A. from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and a Ph.D. in social-organizational psychology from Columbia University.  

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December 10, 2014
2:59 pm

Nice and informative article indeed.easy to understand and difficult to practice. However more than worth can receive
Substantial gains through sustained practice. Heartfelt thanks.

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