Character-Infused Leadership Leadership

Character should be the cornerstone of your leadership.

Great leadership is a product of great character.
-Abraham Lincoln


The Future of Ethics

Professor Corey Ciocchetti led a conference recently on “The Future of Ethics” at the University of Denver (DU). It was superb. His keynote address focused on “character-infused leadership.”

The Daniels College of Business at DU is well known for its emphasis on ethics and values. The Chancellor of the university, Jeremy Haefner, and the Dean of the Daniels Business School, Vivek Choudhury, both spoke at the conference underscoring the primacy of ethics at their institution.



One’s character can be good or bad. People with good character demonstrate moral excellence and firmness. They exhibit the good qualities of a person, usually including moral strength, honesty, and fairness. Good character traits include courage, discipline, honesty, humility, loyalty, responsibility, and trustworthiness.

Aristotle defined virtues as being in the “golden mean” (or desirable middle) between the two extremes of excess and deficiency. By finding a moderate position between those extremes, a person demonstrates virtue (e.g., courage is the golden mean between cowardice and rashness, and ambition is the golden mean between sloth and greed).

At the conference, Professor C emphasized the character qualities of honesty, kindness, compassion, humility, duty, and responsibility. He urged us to “be the leader we’d want to follow” and never compromise our personal values.


Character-Infused Leadership

According to Professor C, character-infused leadership is the cornerstone of good leadership. All the other leadership skills and practices should be built on a foundation of character.

“Infusing” means permeating something, in the process altering its nature. What could be a better basis for your leadership than infusing it with good moral character and then building your leadership skills from that base?

On the other hand, leaders without good character cause big problems for themselves and their organizations.

Ninety percent of all leadership failures are character failures.
-Stephen R. Covey

As we can see in the chart below, ethical behavior from leaders has a big effect on the people on their teams.

(Source: Ethics Resource Center, 2012, cited in Laasch & Conaway, Principles of Responsible Management, Cengage Learning, 2015.)
(Source: Ethics Resource Center, 2012, cited in Laasch & Conaway, Principles of Responsible Management, Cengage Learning, 2015.)


Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. It will help you develop self-awareness and identify ways to improve your leadership.


“How Will You Measure Your Life?”

Ciochetti referenced the seminal work of the late Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen on “How Will You Measure Your Life?”—first published in a Harvard Business Review article and then as a book. Christensen wrote:

Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution
to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.

With that larger context, Christensen went on to urge people always to hold fast to their core principles:

Decide what you stand for. And then stand for it all the time….
It’s easier to hold to your principles 100 percent of the time
than it is to hold to them 98 percent of the time.”

Clayton Christensen


Character and Different Leadership Models

Character is a key component of many prominent leadership theories and frameworks and an essential theme in many influential leadership books, including:

Our work on building one’s leadership capabilities recommends you define your personal values and then place them at the center of your life and work. They are your guiding star.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


In their excellent book, Courage: The Backbone of Leadership, Gus and Diane-Elliot Lee make a case that integrity, courage, and character are the highest core values we can hold. They write:

Character is the result of sustained integrity and courage.
It derives from a Greek word that means ‘engrave, impress deeply and permanently.’
It is possessed by a person with fixed habits of moral firmness and excellence
who acts spontaneously for what is right…. Character is the most challenging
core value because it requires a lifetime to fulfill.” -Gus Lee

Courage by Gus Lee

We believe character-infused leadership is essential—and desperately needed in our society and workplaces.


Article Summary

Character is the foundation on which good leadership is built. It’s developed by defining our personal values and then living by them. It’s not easy. But it’s essential for excellent leadership and a good life.


Reflection Questions

  1. Have you defined your personal values?
  2. Does your personal moral compass include higher core values such as integrity, courage, and character?
  3. What’s stopping you from practicing character-infused leadership, starting now?


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Tools for You:


Postscript: Quotations on Character-Infused Leadership

  • “Integrity is the most important characteristic of a leader, and one that he or she must be prepared to demonstrate again and again.” -Warren Bennis
  • “The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionable integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.” -Dwight D. Eisenhower, former five-star Army general and U.S. president
  • “Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike.” -Theodore Roosevelt
  • “Leadership is character and competence. If you can have only one, opt for character.” -Norman Schwarzkopf
  • “I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.” -George Washington
  • “The time is always right to do what is right.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • “When wealth is lost, nothing is lost; when health is lost, something is lost; when character is lost, all is lost.” -Billy Graham
  • “Human greatness does not lie in wealth or power, but in character and goodness.” -Anne Frank
  • “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” -John Wooden, basketball coach and player
  • “You cannot dream yourself into a character; you must hammer and forge yourself one.” -James A. Froude
  • “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” -Helen Keller
  • “Good character is not formed in a week or a month. It is created little by little, day by day. Protracted and patient effort is needed to develop good character.” -Heraclitus, Greek philosopher
  • “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • “The fruit of this life is good character and acts for the common good.” -Marcus Aurelius
  • “Character is destiny.” -Heraclitus

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Bob Vanourek and Gregg Vanourek are leadership practitioners, teachers, and award-winning authors. They are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards. Check out their Leadership Derailers Assessment or get their monthly newsletter. If you found value in this, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps! Leadership

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