Skills describe how role model leaders function; character attributes describe their humanity. Character attributes are the foundation of the role model leader's social and emotional level of performance. To illustrate this point, when you irst meet someone, you perceive that person as intelligent and likeable. The irst attribute, intelligence, relates to function; the second attribute, likeability, relates to character. It is largely on the latter trait that you will base a relationship. Character, then, relates mainly to social and emotional intelligence and less so to mental intelligence. The latter is what delineates a leader's functional skills.
In a conventional organization, the engineer doing process work in a manufacturing plant or design work in an engineering department is dedicated to achieving objectives. This entails carrying out tasks that will have clear outputs. Designing a distillation column for a new manufacturing area in a pharmaceutical company is challenging work, and the engineer and his supervisor or manager will agree on the expected result within a given time frame. It is different in the developmental organization, where everyone is developing leadership competency. The engineer who is designing a distillation column will be expected to achieve the same results as those in a conventional managing process, but he will be encouraged to look for ways to carry out the task in innovative ways by changing things and making them better than the last time. And in seeking better ways to carry out the functional work, he will also be seeking better ways to interact with others, including with the supervising leader. Clearly, then, the leader-engineer will be expected to exhibit strong interpersonal capabilities along with functional skills. For example, he will be expected to exhibit the character attribute of tenacity in pursuing a design that is more eficient and effective than previous ones. The leader-engineer will seek input from
others, and not necessarily in his immediate area – perhaps he will approach the company's marketing people to determine the customer's quality needs. In this way he will be demonstrating respect for the opinions of others. Also, the leader-engineer will communicate clearly and often with all those directly engaged in the work and with those who are less engaged but who are still affected by the work. In short, the leader-engineer in the developmental organization will demonstrate strong character and humanity as an essential part of the work.
When I think about people of great character in a work environment, I think about an engineer I know well, who rose above others equally talented in terms of skill and functioning ability. Bryan (not his real name) was the research engineer on a business team I knew well at DuPont Canada. The team was interfunctional and was comprised of seven highly skilled people. Five were engineers or scientists; the other two held degrees in English literature and sociology, respectively. Each member made a diverse but valuable contribution to the team's work. But that is not the story I want to tell here.
That team had a challenging goal, which was to develop a new (at the time) specialty ibre for automotive air bags. Our Kingston nylon operation produced a variety of products, but this one would be unique because often it would make the difference between life and death in a car crash. And we would be developing it here in Canada, at DuPont Canada's own research facilities.
The challenges during the early stages were often technical ones, and Bryan took the lead in meeting them. It was he who provided the team with the much-needed technology input. The team's marketing person was a talented engineer as well, as was the inance person, who had come out of the R&D department many years earlier to become a talented inancial analyst. These two team members were both a challenge and a help to Bryan, because they sometimes reverted to their engineering expertise and gave advice to him – advice that was sometimes useful, sometimes not. Bryan would listen intently and either accept the advice or reject it. But he always gave good reasons for rejecting it; he had great respect for his team members. They sometimes didn't like his answers, but they were pleased with his attitude.
From the time the team was formed, the other members admired Bryan's high technological competence. They saw him as a humble, quiet, introverted person with a good sense of humour that only sometimes came out and that was much appreciated when it did. Like any good comic, he picked times when the team needed to have its spirits raised. The team's designated organizational leader encouraged the members to give Bryan time to speak and participate. A number of the team members were inclined to talk rather than listen; Bryan was the opposite. But when he did speak, everyone listened because his contributions were vital to the team's success. At this point in the product's life cycle, there were a multitude of product and process issues, and he expressed his ideas about them in a way that beneited the whole team.
Bryan was passionate about his personal goals as part of the team. He knew that meeting those goals would be important to the team's success, yet he always communicated to the others that their goals were equally important. At almost every team meeting, he would connect his personal work to the team's goals. Everyone felt good after Bryan made a presentation.
Bryan was a master of communication – not in quantity, but in quality. His points were always valid and he knew how to make them clearly. Also, he was truthful at all times about the technology issues he was dealing with – he did not brag about his successes, nor did he sugarcoat his failures. As a consequence, the team trusted and respected him for “telling it like it is.” He had a compelling way of weaving the personal values that he held for the business into our project discussions. For example, he once explained to the team that his goal was to increase the strength of the air bag ibre while reducing the size of the ilaments, while at the same time reminding us that what was important was not the ultimate lower cost of the stronger ibre but the safety of the people in the vehicles that used it.
Bryan had great respect for us, our customers, and society, and the team respected him, trusted him, and learned from him. And probably because of that, they liked him a great deal. This role model leader of great character inspired the team with his technology contributions, his actions, and his character. He contributed greatly to the goals they achieved. Ultimately, his team met all of its challenges and DuPont Canada became the supplier of a large share of the world's airbag nylon.
An aspiring role model leader must develop character attributes if he hopes to lead himself and thereby learn to lead others. I distinguish between personality and character. Personality is your visible persona. Shyness, extroversion, cheerfulness, and charm are all personality traits. Character has to do with whether you are reputable, admirable, honourable … or not.
Character attributes can be learned. For example, you can learn that it is important for leaders to be able to inspire others. You can then dedicate
your intelligence – mental, emotional, social, physical – to developing that character attribute. Having done so, you can apply that attribute to inluence others. In the following pages I discuss those learnable character attributes that best prepare people to become role model leaders.