Leadership character, the third part in the Army’s BE–KNOW–DO trilogy, is extremely important for effective leadership. Nothing destroys morale or undermines trust quicker than failure to uphold values. If you want to attract the best people, and the right people, leaders must not only set the example, but uphold their organization’s values and beliefs.
As you peel back the onion, character gets down to whether you are able to consistently do the right thing. It isn’t easy, but if you don’t believe in your organization’s principles, it’s impossible.
Why is Leadership Character so Important?
Beliefs matter because they represent our convictions, and our values represent our deepest personal beliefs. We all want to work in an environment that allows us to be our true self, so naturally, we expect leadership to uphold the values and beliefs that attracted us in the first place.
Throughout ROTC, I felt like I was in the right place, in an organization where I believed I’d be able to live within my set of values and beliefs. During my basic training, however, my roommate caused me to wonder whether I made the right career decision. It was more than a year later before I had my answer.
A Test of Leadership Character
After flight school, my test came within three months of arrival at my first assignment. The short version of this story goes like this…
South Korea. I was a brand new pilot, officer, and platoon leader, eager to fly one Saturday morning. As I returned from my pre-flight, Jon (my Instructor Pilot) told me that he smelled alcohol on Sergeant X (our crew chief); this violated our “12-hour, bottle to throttle” rule. Despite my youth and inexperience, Sergeant X worked for me, and, it was up to me to take action — but I had no clue.
Jon recommended that I take Sergeant X in for a drug and alcohol test. I was concerned because Sergeant X had a wife and family and I didn’t think things would go well for him; my hesitation showed.
Jon: “Sir, you really need to take him in.”
All I wanted to do that Saturday was fly and get better, not face this test answer whether I was committed to the Army’s values or our aviation policies. Instead of flying, I found myself escorting my sergeant to the nearest medical facility.
Why Enforce the Standard?
Leadership is the primary influencer of employee engagement and organizational results. It is about communicating and building teams. Leaders absolutely must exhibit character in order to gain trust and confidence, and to sustain morale.
Most important, I chose to work within this culture! When I accepted my leadership role, I implicitly agreed to uphold the Army’s principles.
Later, I realized that:
- If I did not support the Army’s values and beliefs, I would not have upheld the “12-hour, bottle to throttle” standard
- Unpleasant as it was, I would have let down those who chose to work within these rules
- Had I not held Sergeant X accountable, I would have failed to carry out one of my key, implied responsibilities
- Despite my position of authority, as a new leader I had to be willing to listen to someone with more experience
- If I wasn’t committed to the Army’s values and beliefs, I would have found a reason to avoid holding my soldier accountable
- Upholding values… this is what your team wants and expects from you
Another Leadership Metaphor
In my article about leadership presence, or the Army’s BE, I shared the tree metaphor Bob Rosen uses in his 2014 book, Grounded. He suggested that your outward appearance, your branches and leaves, what others see. They represent your character. But it is what people can’t see, your roots, that define who you are.
- Did you know that the roots of a tree extend beyond its branches?
It is much easier to focus on what others see, but leadership presence determines leadership character. In the end, your actions define your leadership character. It’s all about what you DO.
Leaders who are committed to their organization’s values have a much easier time following through when the tough decisions arise!