Leadership requires both ability and character.

Nearly all people can stand adversity, but if you want to test someone’s character, give them power. ~Abraham Lincoln

Photo by Blake Meyer on Unsplash

Ability and character: that’s the focus of a podcast I’ve been listening to recently. The premise is if a leader’s ability gets ahead of their character, eventually negative consequences will follow. Effective leadership—emphasis on the word effective—requires a balance of both ability and character.

Jim Collins, author of numerous books including Good to Great and How the Mighty Fall, concluded that “great enterprises can become insulated by success.” I would say the very same is true of individual leaders. Listen as Collins’ continues. “Accumulated momentum can carry an enterprise forward for a while, even if its leaders make poor decisions or lose discipline. When the leader becomes arrogant, regarding success virtually as an entitlement, they lose sight of the true underlying factors that created success in the first place.” That last quote certainly sounds like Collins’ is describing leaders’ character, not their ability.

Collins adds the consequences. He says, “When the rhetoric of success replaces penetrating understanding and insight, decline will very likely follow…Those who fail to acknowledge the role luck may have played in their success—and thereby overestimate their own merit and capabilities—have succumbed to hubris.” Hubris born of success is the first stage of decline.

Consider the news headlines accounting a leader’s fall. How many can you name where the leader’s ability was questioned versus the number you can name where the leader’s character was their downfall?

We have a tendency to promote people weighted by their ability far more than by their character.

Followers are Also at Fault

It’s not just about the leaders, we who are followers are at fault here as well. The podcast points out that we actually like narcissists as leaders. [I’m personally drawing the conclusion that narcissists lack character.] This phenomenon has been highlighted in HBR (Why We Love Narcissists by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, 2014).

Chamorro-Premuzic said, “Because of narcissists’ ability to accumulate power and influence, they enjoy a prominent spot in laypeople’s views about leadership. However, the idea that leaders must be overconfident, charismatic, or selfish in order to be effective is in stark contrast with reality. Yes, these characteristics help them emerge as leaders, but they are also the cause of their dishonest and incompetent behaviors once they get to the top.”

Bold Grace

This brings me back to the concept of bold grace that I’ve been focused on for the past two years. Leadership is a both/and concept. It requires both ability and character that stay in sync. It requires both boldness and grace, frequently at the very same time. I believe this is part of what makes leadership so difficult to define—there are more definitions than I can count. More importantly, it is also why it makes effective leadership so difficult to achieve.

Even if difficult, it shouldn’t stop any of us from continuing to pursue effective leadership, and lead with both boldness and grace.