What makes a great leader? Someone who takes risks, or thinks outside the proverbial box, or has charisma and influence? Leadership is often defined and spoken about by those who have achieved a certain level of success and/or fame. The concept of leadership is a familiar topic in books, articles, and on talk shows. However, if you ask Warren Buffet, he might say character. The Oracle of Omaha’s annual shareholder letter was released recently, and in it, among some amusing anecdotes and tangible statistics about Berkshire Hathaway’s performance, were his comments on the next ideal CEO for Berkshire:
“Character is crucial: A Berkshire CEO must be all in for the company, not for himself. (I’m using male pronouns to avoid awkward wording, but gender should never decide who becomes CEO.)…But it’s important that neither ego nor avarice motivate him to reach for pay matching his most lavishly-compensated peers…a CEO’s behavior has a huge impact on managers down the line: if it’s clear to them that shareholders’ interests are paramount to him, they will, with few exceptions, also embrace that way of thinking. My successor will need one other particular strength: the ability to fight off the ABCs of business decay, which are arrogance, bureaucracy, and complacency. When these corporate cancers metastasize, even the strongest of companies can falter.”
Buffett’s message is clear. The buck stops here, at the top, and character is the foundation for a strong CEO who can lead a company and facilitate its success. It certainly doesn’t make for flashy self-help books, and you’re probably not going to hear character being discussed on the next morning show. What qualities make up the character of a strong leader?
“Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
We sometimes view integrity and character as interchangeable. However, character can refer to whatever qualities make up a person. Integrity is defined as having strong moral principles. A leader who makes the morally correct choice will undoubtedly inspire others to follow, as Buffett says in the example of shareholder interests above. A leader who demonstrates integrity does not change their beliefs depending on the circumstance and support and respect their teams at all levels.
“Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.” Albert Einstein
Closely aligned with integrity is honesty, but it deserves its own special mention simply because honesty is not necessarily at the forefront of corporate affairs and politics. And frankly, honesty is not an easy quality to adhere to day in and day out. We have come to expect dishonesty in the business world. Yet, as a leader setting an example, honesty is vital. For example, when re-organizations or layoffs are imminent, C-suite executives tend to clam up. Middle managers are at a loss when employees ask about rumors of such changes. Yet, had the highest levels of executives simply confirmed what was happening, productivity and morale would not likely dip.
As Buffett himself said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” Trust is less an inherent trait than a way in which you are perceived. But it is part and parcel of the qualities of honesty and integrity. If you possess such characteristics and act upon them, you will be viewed as trustworthy. What else builds trust? Sharing credit for successes but also taking responsibility for failure. Nothing spells distrust in a leader quicker than being in a meeting when a manager accepts praise – or worse, promotion – for a project you worked on or an idea you came up with.
The importance of character in leadership cannot be understated. But in our rush to continually deliver, to meet expectations, and to push forward in a rapidly changing world, acting with integrity and honesty and building trust with employees may be the first to go. However, it is the hardest ideals that are the most important to maintain.