Effective leaders all share this "character" trait

"Don't get confused between competence and character, because character will swallow competence every day."


Each week, it seems like headlines describe a litany of bombshell lies, scandals, and dishonorable failings from the world's top leaders. Across political and corporate sectors, it's hard not to feel like society has lost its moral center.

Reckoning with a pervasive lack of ethics in leadership, retired U.S. Army lieutenant general and current president of the University of South Carolina, Robert Caslen, recently teamed up with leading behavioral psychologist at West Point Military Academy Michael Matthews to write The Character Edge: Leading and Winning with Integrity. According to Caslen and Matthews, the world is experiencing a profound character crisis, driven in large part by social media.

"If you just look at it on the surface, you might walk away with the notion that the character crisis in America is because people's character has eroded or they're less honest," Matthews tells Inverse. "But as a psychologist — especially one who knows a lot about evolution and the brain and behavior— I don't think human beings change very much. What has changed are the tools we have, and the chief tool that stirs the pot is social media."

"When facts no longer matter, but likes are what matter, then the truth becomes distorted," Caslen tells Inverse. "And when truth no longer matters, because the facts don't matter, then trust evaporates."

Surviving this so-called character crisis requires reflecting on our values, strengthening positive ones, and then putting them into action. Carrying out this process repeatedly will embed ethics into our "very essence," Caslen and Matthews say, so that active practice becomes instinctual behavior.

This week, Strategy explores why competence, talent, and intellect only go so far when building strong leaders, and why character is an essential ingredient for success.

I’m Ali Pattillo and this is Strategy, a series packed with actionable tips to help you make the most out of your life, career, and finances.

"You can be incredibly competent; you can be number one in your class, academically or physically," Caslen says. "But if you fail in character, then you fail in leadership. And the reason you fail is because you lost trust."

Character in action — Matthews and Caslen's collaboration stems from 80 years of collective experience in the social sciences and military.

After serving as a law enforcement officer and Air Force officer, Matthews became a military psychologist, studying the values and mindsets that make a great cadet and soldier.

"Aptitude alone is not sufficient to predict success," Matthews says. "There are certain discrete, short circumstances where you could be a person of not so high character, but through force of will or a Machiavellian approach, you might carry that battle and win that day. But character is required for winning consistently over time."

While Matthews was busy studying and teaching, Caslen spent decades in the U.S. Army commanding troops in peace and wartime.

"You can see how soldiers who had strong moral character and strong personal courage could persevere in the crucible of ground combat in some really ugly situations," Caslen recalls. "You can see how well they're performing and that their unit was really close and cohesive."

In contrast, some good, competent leaders had moral issues — which not only ultimately ended their careers but hindered their unit's performance.

"What happened is they lost the trust of the leadership and lost the trust of their individual soldiers. And when you lose trust in that particular environment, you really have lost effectiveness."

"That which we practice we become."

Even in lower-stakes situations, character and trust can be pivotal factors.

"Imagine if you work for a boss or a supervisor who is competent and might be honest, but you can see that they're in it entirely for themselves and that they would run over you to get to their goals," Matthews says. "Over time, think of the impact that has on your willingness to follow and incorporate organizational values. It'd be very difficult to do that if you don't trust that supervisor."

The truth about character — From a psychological perspective, character means the positive traits, attributes, behaviors, and attitudes that are pro-social. These are traits that make a person better, the people around them better, and are consistent over time.

In their book, Matthews and Caslen outline psychologists Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson's six moral virtues with their associated character strengths:

  • wisdom and knowledge (creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective)
  • courage (bravery, persistence, integrity, zest)
  • justice (teamwork, fairness, leadership)
  • humanity (capacity to love, kindness, social intelligence)
  • temperance (forgiveness, humility, prudence, self-regulation)
  • transcendence (appreciation of beauty, gratitude, hope/optimism, humor, and spirituality)

Character isn't a one-time act of generosity or a public facade of good works amid private, deviant behavior, Matthews explains. It's habitual pro-social values in public and private life.

Caslen puts it another way.

"The values that are ingrained in you are just like a cup of coffee. If I'm holding a cup of coffee and it's filled to the top, if someone hits my arm, what's in that cup is going to spill out whether I want it to or not.”

"Whatever values I've internalized — when someone either rubs me the wrong way or I'm excited — the natural reaction is going to be the manifestation of whatever you internalized,” Caslen says.

“You may think you're a person of character, but then go back and reflect on some really tough situations that you were in and how you reacted, because that's a true measure of what your character really is."

How is character built? — Character may be heavily cast in early life, but it isn't etched in stone by the time someone turns 18, Matthews asserts.

In fact, there are certain inflection points throughout life that create opportunities to forge character. These are often significant life events, some of which are traumatic. This could be a combat experience for a veteran, a cancer diagnosis, or a car accident that shifts perspective and molds value systems.

There are also systematic strategies to strengthen character, Matthews says: explicit character education throughout life, social media training, and cultivating critical thinking skills.

“We all have weaknesses, but we also all have strengths,” Matthews says. “Becoming self-aware of those, honing those skills, and intentionally applying those strengths to the roadblocks and challenges that we face each and every day, builds character. That which we practice we become.”

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