Edited from Lifestorming by Marshall Goldsmith and Alan Weiss
Most of us think of leaders as people of character. They aren’t people who live vicariously through others, but people who live their own lives and lead by example.
What exactly do we mean by character? Character evolves; circumstances change; what worked in one situation is unsuccessful in another. We take our definition from Robespierre, who claimed that, “No man can step outside the shadow of his own character.” And we add to it that we believe the shadow changes because of our growth and the angle of the light.
Here are six elements of what we’ve come to call character:
- Intelligence: The ability to apply critical thinking skills to problems and challenges. Separating how one thinks about something from what one feels about it. Aptitude for learning. The ability to quickly discern and apply patterns and identify distinctions.
- Drive or assertiveness: The ability to identify the need for and to create urgency. A goal orientation. Moving through and around obstacles that block others. Finding ways to make something happen rather than creating excuses about why something can’t happen.
- Happiness: As characterized in Dan Gilbert’s work at Harvard, happiness isn’t merely about the fortunate circumstances life brings us by chance, but our ability to create “synthetic” happiness (which we often dismiss negatively as rationalization). My getting fired was one of the best things that ever happened to me, just as a broken arm or a missed flight may be one of yours.
- Empathy: Part of strong character and a virtuous life is the ability to put yourself in others’ shoes and understand how they feel. The extension of kindness and the genuine regard for others is a wonderful character trait. This is why passive-aggressive behavior (“Your daughter was accepted at Michigan? Congratulations. Was that her back-up school?”) reflects weak character, because it is malicious and seeks to undermine others.
- Reciprocity and friendship: The ability to give as well as take, to contribute as much as benefit, is a strong element of character. Introversion is not a negative, but the unwillingness to help others and to create friendships is. Healthy people maintain friendships, although they frequently change with our circumstances.
- Intimacy and trust: Strong character demands the ability to form loving bonds and to allow for vulnerability. The people we coach who make the most progress the fastest are those who are comfortable exposing their fears and weaknesses—being vulnerable in front of others. People incapable of creating strong, intimate bonds in their lives are affected by a key character flaw.
Now for the test.
Rate yourself on a one-to-five scale on our six elements. Ratings are follows.
- I can’t really say that this is at all like me.
- Occasionally, I could be described this way.
- In some circumstances, I’m always like this.
- This usually describes me.
- I’m like this.
- Intelligence ____
- Drive ____
- Happiness ____
- Empathy ____
- Reciprocity ____
- Intimacy ____
We’re not asking you to total these elements because the point is to raise each of them to the maximum level. There is no total score above which you are fine if any of the individual ones are low. Our feeling is that a 4 or 5 is needed in each element. Which, if any, are your weak points?
To build character, you need to build these six elements. To evolve character, you need to evolve these elements. Our recommendations:
- Intelligence: Read widely and diversely, including fiction, history, biography, science, and philosophy. Don’t allow social media to be your news source. Read the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and similar publications daily. Try to solve word and math problems. Practice writing your opinions in a blog or newsletter, then move to letters to the editor and op-ed pieces. Attend discussion groups, participate in mastermind groups, and invest in self-development experiences. The finest return you’ll ever obtain derives from an investment in yourself.
- Drive: Create short-term deadlines. Identify two priorities a day (personal and/or professional) that must be completed. Use a calendar to record your metrics for progress by predetermined dates. Don’t look for blame; find the causes of obstacles and then work to remove them. Don’t rely on others or wait for others, take control of your route to your goals.
- Happiness: Find the silver lining in any circumstance. Convince yourself that failing is a learning experience and that failing is far better than never trying. Make the best of situations. If your travel connection is missed, use the time to call friends or prospects, or to write a proposal you’ve been meaning to get to. Buy a book you wouldn’t otherwise have picked up. At the beginning of the day remind yourself of why you’re going to make it a great one, and at the end of the day review what went well, no matter how minor. Focus on the improvements in your behavior (your character) and not on achieving victories that are defined by someone else’s criteria.
- Empathy: Think about similar circumstances you’ve experienced as you listen to someone else. Try not to make judgments, but to listen and understand. Don’t position yourself as a teacher but rather as a colleague. Ask for more details, even if you believe you’ve understood the circumstances. Encourage the other person to talk.
- Reciprocity: Identify how you would like to be treated if you were the other person (not necessarily as you’ve been treated in the past). Don’t hesitate to give more than you received. Don’t expect a thank you for something that you’re doing as a courtesy or to help. (A lot of us allow a car to cross in front of us in heavy traffic, but some of us become incensed when the other driver doesn’t offer a formal thanks!) Accept the fact that reciprocity doesn’t have to be immediate in all cases.
- Intimacy: Be willing to talk about “defeats” and setbacks. Call a failure a failure. Ask others you trust (trust, hence intimacy) what reactions and advice they have. Be open to hearing another’s burning issues even if you consider them to be trivial or irrelevant. Proactively ask for help and opinions. Make an effort to stop being embarrassed by personal questions and expressions of personal feelings.
Note 1: Stumbling on Happiness, Knopf, 2007