Among the many quotes and tributes broadcast about the late president, George H.W. Bush over the weekend of his passing was one that jumped out at me as particularly powerful for all of us. Speaking of what a person serving as president must bring to the office, he offered: “I think it’s important for the president to have character and a moral compass.

Before you jump to the conclusion that I’m offering a comparison to any other presidents, calm your growing outrage and relax. This isn’t a political blog. I am, however, drawing a point from the late president’s quote that I believe is critically important for everyone aspiring to or engaged in the role of leading and guiding any group—character and moral compass are essential. They’re hard to define in concrete terms, but we sure know them when we see them in those in leadership roles in our lives.

Bring Your Leadership Character and Moral Compass to Life

From first-time supervisors to newly anointed executives and CEOs, I ask everyone I coach to work through the same two exercises that go at least to the heart of their leadership character and moral compass. They’re the things we don’t think about a great deal in our fast-paced work lives where we’re measured mostly on outcomes and not the critical inputs that generate those outcomes. The exercises are in my opinion, things we all need to spend a little more time thinking about and talking about with our teams, and then translating them into action.

Why Do You Want to Lead?

I love the question, “Why do you want to lead?” for the powerful simplicity and for the thinking it prompts. Most initial responses are some form of tongue-tied gobbledygook that beg both introspection and clarification.

So, let me ask you, “Why do you want to lead?”

While you might feel compelled to produce an answer steeped in a noble cause—and that’s fine if you do—sometimes the answer is relatively straightforward and slightly less lofty. I appreciate the simple responses because they feel just a bit more genuine than the noble one people might expect. Two of my favorite answers were:

  • “I know how to help us succeed and want to do this at scale.”
  • “I can give more to my company by helping create a group of great engineers than I can do trying to be a great engineer myself.”

Don’t overthink it. But do think about it and then articulate to those around you what drives you in this role. When leaders share what motivates them, they tend to gain broader support for their cause from those who want to be a part of your story. And for others who don’t share the same drive, it gives them an opportunity to opt out, creating room for someone who appreciates the cause.

How Will You Lead?

It’s never too early nor too late to ask and answer the question: “How will I lead?” While it would be sailboat tackingconvenient to think it through early in your career and then live to this compass setting, finding your true leadership self is much like sailing into the wind: you have to tack a great deal to get to your destination.

I typically couch this issue in a personal leadership values exercise where I encourage individuals to think through and articulate how they aspire to serve, guide, decide, and create a culture of accountability and learning. I also ask these emerging leaders to do something that is inherently uncomfortable and ask their team members two more questions:

  1. How do you want me to lead?
  2. What do you need from me to help you succeed?

I love this exercise because it tackles the myth that those around us know by some magical or divine inspiration what it means to lead and how they should lead. Frankly, no one has a clue how to get this role right until they’ve tripped all over themselves for a long time. Having the courage to ask and then listen and act accordingly short-circuits an awful lot of flailing and tripping.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

You need to lead yourself before you can lead others. As the late president suggested, it’s essential to bring character and a moral compass to your job. My add-on is that this is critical whether you are leading a country or a customer support team answering questions on your firm’s industrial water pumps. Tuning in to the “Why” and “How” is an essential first step to leading yourself.

Art's Signature


p.s. The passing of a president is a time for pause and reflection for those of us who lived through this era. I remember George H.W. Bush as a good and honorable man with his sure hands on the wheel of state during an inflection point in twentieth-century and world history. As a citizen and beneficiary of this man’s service, I am grateful.