“Among outstanding leaders, however, selflessness and humility are internalized and part of their character; they are characteristics, not techniques. Such characteristics are not merely things a leader should do. They represent instead what a leader must be.”Thomas A. Kolitz writing in In Extremis Leadership: Leading As If Your Life Depended On It

I love the distinction suggested by the ideas of “must do” versus “must be” when it comes to selecting and developing new managers and emerging leaders. While not wanting to revive the tired debate of, “Are great leaders born versus made?” the issue of character is ALWAYS central to manager selection and development.

Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities Are Not Substitutes for Character

Most leadership development and training and most books and blogs emphasize knowledge, skills, and abilities or KSAs. While there’s nothing wrong with talking about and training for KSAs—they are important tools of the trade for managers and leaders. However, they aren’t substitutes for character.

  • Knowledge is gained through teaching and training.
  • Skills are cultivated through training and practice.
  • Abilities are both innate and developed through all of the above.

Selflessness and humility, however, are baked-in to the individual’s character. When choosing new managers and deciding to invest time and treasure developing emerging leaders, character trumps all else. (See my article, When Developing New Managers, It’s Foundation First)

Don’t Conflate Selflessness and Humility with Soft or Weak

For some reason in discussions around this topic, many conflate core character traits of selflessness and humility with weakness. I disagree.

For those serving and leading in dangerous situations, examples abound of individuals who put their team-members first and sublimate their own needs for safety and security to the needs of the team. Evidencing these behaviors takes strength driven by something deep inside—a strong sense of “must be.”

In organizational settings, the leaders who accept accountability for the big decisions and misfires, and who push team members into the spotlight of successes while standing off-stage are far from weak.

For new or first-time managers, the team’s recognition of these traits translates into trust and respect. People move mountains for those they trust and respect.

Spend enough time with these leaders who put the interests of their team members and the organization ahead of their own, and you begin to realize how innately strong they truly are.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I want the strongest individuals on my team. I suspect you do as well. Just be certain to gauge strength properly, when evaluating new managers or deciding to invest in your emerging leaders. I opt for those who are driven by the “must be.”

Art's Signature