The True Character of Leadership

“America suffers from a leadership crisis.”

The first line of the introduction of the New York Times best selling author Donovan Campbell’s book, “The Leaders Code”.

Don’t get me wrong, it is not just America. It is all over the world. The high tension in the United States at the moment has highlighted this crisis more than ever.

Citizens across the country are worried about the direction the United States is going. The worry has been building for years now and there doesn’t seem to be anything to calm that down.

The tension and worry are symptoms of a bigger problem. Campbell writes in his book:

“As the disease (the leadership crisis) has deepened, institutions that define our views of ourselves and of our country, among them business and government, have lost credibility. Their leaders are largely viewed as greedy, selfish, hypocritical, criminal, shortsighted, incompetent, or all of the above.”

This lack of trust has left many people in despair and worried about what is to come.

According to Campbell, for the first time since modern polling has began, a majority of Americans believe their country will be worse for their children than it is for them.

We have lost faith in the people who lead our institutions and without faith, there is no hope for improvement.

A large amount of blame belongs to the business class. Prices are going up while quality is going down. The recent recession opened the eyes of the public to the outcome of bad decisions.

The only thing worse than our trust in business is our trust in politics. Those elected to create laws seem to have trouble following them. Leaders on both sides of the aisle publicly support reform, but privately block efforts to do so.

Even our sports heroes seem to be untrustworthy.

From Alex Rodriguez to Lance Armstrong, cheating seems to be at an all-time high. The NFL has a big problem with its athletes continually breaking the law. When at one time sports heroes were seen as larger than life, now we just beg them to stay out of trouble.

Making things worse, you rarely see these leaders admit fault and take responsibility for their actions.

The cause for the current mess is a multiplicity of things. One thing seems to be common though. Campbell writes:

“… Many in our leadership class have ceased to focus on building individual character. They may pursue a winning business strategy or a political victory, but they very rarely chase after virtue with the same energy with which they chase after fame and fortune.”

Leadership books have been a major reason this push toward leaders without values has happened. The books focus on steps to get where you want to go. Very few highlight morals or character traits necessary to live a meaningful life of leadership.

“However, there is one national institution that is widely respected both for its virtue and its effectiveness,” Campbell writes. “This institution teaches a strong, clear leadership model, one that is routinely put to the test under the most demanding circumstances imaginable. This Institution bases its model on well defined virtues – personal character traits – and it teaches these virtues to every one of its leaders through rigorous training that happens immediately upon entrance.”

The Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Va., can be seen prior to the Sunset Parade June 4, 2013. Sunset Parades are held every Tuesday during the summer months. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Adrian R. Rowan/Released)

This institution is the United States Military.

It appears the U.S. military might be the only institution Americans almost universally trust. According to Campbell, a recent poll showed the approval rating at over 70 percent. Why?

There are varying views on war, but most people recognize the men and women of our military volunteer to serve their country.

The military’s mission is one which all people can respect and honor — “to serve America by protecting her from all enemies foreign and domestic.”

I understand the military has its faults and those are well documented. That being said, they usually do a good job of correcting them when they can.

The members of the military sacrifice themselves, time with their families, material wealth and possessions. They are the antithesis of the “how-to leaders” because they don’t chase wealth, fame or possessions.  In his book, Campbell states:

“ … they deploy to the most dangerous countries in the world, endure some of the harshest conditions imaginable, and occasionally give up life and limb.”

In return, they get very little compared to how much they give. They do what they do because they believe in their mission. The military is one of the only places where leaders actions back up their words.

Despite the admiration for the military, most misunderstand how their system works.

“Most believe it’s a hierarchical, top down institution in which orders are unquestioningly obeyed and decisions and information flow one way,” Campbell writes.

According to Campbell, people are completely wrong on that assumption.

The military teaches a servant-leadership model.  A leader exists to serve the mission first, their team second and themselves “a distant third.”

U.S. military leaders put the health of their organization and their mission ahead of their own well-being. They lead by example, always showing others their actions instead of just ordering around with their words.

 “Servant leadership compels leaders to bring their moral character to life every day in a way that allows others to believe in them, their mission, and their values.”

It inspires their team to follow because they want to. The men and women in our military risk their lives because they are serving something bigger than themselves — serving with others who feel the same way. They have the character to recognize they aren’t the most important things, not even to themselves.

Although character is a word often thrown around, it rarely is used in deciding success.

In the business and sports worlds, individual performance is used to choose who is promoted. In the academic word, emphasis is focused on how to accomplish something rather than the study of morals or character.

The problem is the skills needed to excel individually are very different than the ones needed to be a real leader.

While most institutions value character training in word, in practice they assume it will happen elsewhere — in church, at school or by someone else. Rarely do you see teaching or practice of moral character and values.

Predictably, character is rarely pursued as much as personal success. It’s almost impossible when there is no guidance in the first place.

The Lincoln Memorial is an American national monument built to honor the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. It is located on the western end of the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Character is not something we are born with. It must be pursued intentionally.  Character does not happen by accident. Just like being a good leader must be pursued and practiced.

Good leadership is always characterized by success of those who follow you. In turn, good leaders always put their followers ahead of themselves. A lot of people preach this, but far fewer put it into practice.

In fact, this is a very hard thing to do. To do it well, you have to go back to the pursuit of character. Campbell breaks down the leader’s code into three parts:

  1. Accomplish a worthy mission

  2. Pursue character above all else

  3. Serve others before serving yourself

According to Campbell, you have to be disciplined and constantly be honest with yourself. One should reflect and analyze to check if he or she is following the code. It is a constant pursuit, one which can always be improved upon.

This book really resonated with me. At the current time in our country, large groups of people on either side are further apart now than ever. People’s emotions and anger are higher than ever. How can anything get done if there is no one who can lead effectively?

I believe we can be better. Not just in the United States, but throughout the world. I think the code Campbell puts forth — and the military uses — is a way we can do that.

I’ll leave you with this famous military saying Campbell mentions in his book: “If not me, then who? If not now, then when?”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *