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Character Trumps Competence

Character is at the very top of the list when it comes determining what will make or break a leader. More often than not, character is the key failing when a leader cracks. Business writer and leadership expert Steve Watkins tells leaders how to make sure their character stays intact. He advises:

Make it a priority. Many competent, strategic and forceful leaders fail, says Tim Irwin, co-author of Derailed: Five Lessons Learned From Catastrophic Failures of Leadership. He profiles several of them in his book, but in addition to their positive leadership traits, each one possessed serious character flaws. Those flaws included their arrogance plus they lacked authenticity and were dismissive. “Character trumps competence,” Irwin says.

Know the stakes. Today ministry constituents and business consumers are focused more on an organization’s reputation than in times past. People prefer to be associated with a ministry or enterprise that does not abuse its staff members or hurt the environment. Depending no how you look at it, one of the blessings of the Internet is that it makes it easier for people to spread the word of an organization’s good and not-so good deeds. “The terms of corporate survival have changed,” said Peter Firestein, author of the book, Crisis of Character. In it he writes, “People are selecting companies (and ministries) like they do politicians, based on values and character.”

Listen. An important part of a leader’s responsibility is to make it their habit to be open to the ideas and opinions of fellow employees and peers, says Irwin, who in addition to being a writer is also a popular speaker and leadership development consultant. He strongly urges leaders to accept feedback from advisers they trust. He says, “Arrogance is the mother of all derailers. It causes people to not be open to others. As a result, they’re truth-starved.”

Be aware of warning signs. Perceptive leaders should be able to read the signals that they are veering off-track and need to get back on course. Irwin counsels leaders to pay attention and take action. For example, a leader’s board may want them to hire new talent, or several of their team members tell them a new strategy or approach won’t work. A leader has the responsibility to be alert to signals such as these. Leaders who have developed valuable trust relationships with others can let these individuals help guide them to the right decision.

Build faith. Perhaps more than any other single factor, people genuinely desire to be able to trust their leader. People will not trust leaders who do not or will not act with authenticity. 

Watch the bottom line. Both ministries and businesses should always be trying to enhance their reputations in honorable way because it’s good for “business,” says Firestein, who is also a corporate reputation consultant. He mentions Wal-Mart as an example. Two of its stated corporate policies (1) reducing packaging on merchandise it sells and (2) making substantial investments to insure its truck fleet is more fuel-efficient are especially popular. The retail giant’s conservation moves help them win customers and boost profits. 

Be proactive. Firestein also had discovered that most of his consulting clients are industry leaders. They have earned strong reputations, and they go to a lot of effort to make sure they sustain that standing. If a leader waits until they have a crisis, they are too late. “The CEO has to prepare every day,” Firestein said.

Be transparent. Perrier, the one-time premier drinking-water company, faced a serious crisis in the early 1990s when the chemical benzene showed up in some of its bottles of water. It quickly identified one problem source and addressed it, but soon after that others popped up. Consumers lost trust in the brand. “They should have tried to find out exactly what happened and told people,” Firestein said. However Perrier’s poor method of handling the situation was deeply embedded in the organization’s culture.

Look in the mirror. “A lack of self-awareness is a common denominator of derailment,” Irwin said. It may not be a pleasant experience, but every leader must periodically take a brutally honest look at themselves and their organization.

Get your people’s backing. Every ministry or organization’s team members need to buy into any values the leader sets. This means it’s important to get their input before deciding what those values are. “In order to get the commitment out of the field, the field has to be part of the process,” Firestein said. 

(Character Holds the Key by Steve Watkins, Investor’s Business Daily 11/25/09)  

Adapted by Gary D. Foster
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Gary D. Foster founded and leads Gary D. Foster Consulting, a marketing and management service specializing in helping religious product companies and ministries discover and optimize new revenue streams and to better leverage existing ones. He served as an executive with Focus on the Family, where he managed their award-winning book publishing operation and $110 million direct-mail fundraising division. He also spent 12 years with the Christian Booksellers Association, where he served as President and CEO of CBA Service Corporation. He also served in executive product development and marketing positions with Cook Communications Ministries, Moody Press and Moody Magazine. Learn more about Gary at www.GaryDFoster.com.