Coach John Wooden of UCLA basketball fame said that “Character is what you do when you think no one is looking.”
For leaders today, especially in an environment in which everything they say and do publicly and even behind closed doors is reported, leadership requires a much higher level of character than ever before.
Abraham Lincoln famously said that “All [people] can stand adversity, but if you want to test a [person’s] character, give [that person] power.”
Relative to President Trump, we are today watching the death of character not only in this President but in far too many Republican leaders who are either too frightened to challenge Trump openly or who refuse to objectively regard his actions and speech relative to the US Constitution.
In watching Trump’s rapid moral and ethical demise relative to his behavior as President, I’ve thought much about what makes for an effective and ethical leader in politics and government, in business and the arts, in the non-profit sector and religion. After spending 40 years as a congregational rabbi, I have learned that character is everything and that effective leadership depends on one’s maintenance of good character.
Here are a few thoughts about character that I believe are essential to great leadership.
Strong and effective leadership always means putting the group above oneself. It means thinking through one’s responses to challenges before reacting. It means studying and reading what experts think about any matter at hand and then listening carefully to determine the best and most wise policy going forward. It means listening carefully to friends, colleagues, and allies. It means understanding the narrative of one’s opponents especially when those narratives are different from one’s own. It means developing empathy through understanding of the “other.” It means knowing one’s subject well and then wisely deciding on the best possible action. It means demonstrating competence in judgment. It means being able to see down the road to anticipate the consequences of one’s decisions. It means clarifying one’s greater vision with and for the people one leads. It means inspiring, guiding, and coaching others to make the most of their own strengths to help achieve that common vision. It means being pragmatic without losing a sense of idealism and greater purpose. It means trusting the people one leads, being kind and supportive of them always, and treating every individual, friend and foe, with respect and dignity. It means telling the truth and admitting when one is wrong. It means apologizing for missteps, accepting responsibility for failure, and learning from one’s mistakes and judgement errors. It means caring deeply about the people for whom and issues for which one is responsible. It means speaking and writing with clarity and precision. It means following the rules of the game, and in the case of the President and US government officials, it means respecting not only the United States Constitution but the established norms of the democratic institutions that make American democracy what it is. It means respecting the independence and integrity of the fourth estate. And it means behaving, acting, and speaking with dignity and integrity.
Sadly, President Trump fails miserably as a leader in virtually all of the above qualities necessary for ethical and constructive leadership.
As Congress proceeds with its hearings, it seems to me that articles of impeachment by the House of Representatives and removal from office by the United States Senate is the logical and necessary action to be taken. What our leaders decide to do will define their own personal legacy. Let us hope that they place country over tribal party loyalties, and decency over corruption.