The definition of the word "character" dates back to ancient Greece. In Greek mythology, Zeus observed that humans were naturally endowed with a variety of talents, but they seemed to lack an inclination to live together in communities. So, he sent Hermes to bring humankind two moral virtues, a sense of right or justice (Dikê) and conscience (Aidos). These were considered "political virtues."  

Character and its companion elements, virtues, were not seen as inborn traits. Rather, as Aristotle put it, "we are equipped by nature to acquire the virtues, but we achieve them only by practice" (Ethos). Our character and virtues are cultivated over time through the influence of our family, elders, and cultural and religious values.

Even after our basic moral character is shaped, however, there remains the more advanced development of "practical wisdom" (Phronesis). This latter stage of development involves a capacity mind and reflection to deliberate on complicated issues and articulate our reasons for taking a particular course of action.

So, character alone, even very good character, may not be quite enough for leaders. For our good character without practical wisdom leads to good habits and good conduct, but does not necessarily rise to a level of consciousness that allow us to articulate and reason. What we think of as character, then, is essential, yet the way we express our character must be developed.

When the layers of executive presence that we refer to as substance and style are informed consistently by good character and practical wisdom, one's executive presence will register with authenticity. Our work with leaders has, therefore, been grounded in understanding who they are and even helping them mine their experience for stories that exemplify their identity and character.

Such stories, when used by leaders to provide perspective, context, and reasons for action can be particularly compelling. When this happens their presence has impact, it affects peoples' hearts and minds.

Back to the 21st Century

Today, of course, we have available to us many ways of conceptualizing the core part of the person that we denote with the word character. My opinion is that none of our concepts can eclipse the wisdom of ancient Greece, but they can be a helpful complement. We can now break down the whole of character into three component elements.

1) Moral character remains the core. It represents our fundamental identity as free agents guided by values and principles that represent a fundamental vision of what goodness and a good life means. Recognition of this elemental aspect of self, reminds us of our freedom and our responsibility. For leaders, grounding their approach in this core is vital.  

2) Temperament is the next element. There are certain biologically determined features of our being that affect our baseline tendencies to be reflective, active, patient, impatient, upbeat, serious, etc. Some of what Zeus observed as natural talents (intellectual & physical aptitudes) are also elemental to our core as a person. Temperament is rather stable, but it is also amenable to moderation and shaping.

3) Personality is the broader set of personal tendencies. This part of our core is mostly learned and shaped in early life. Our motivations, sense of identity, feelings of well-being, social-emotional tendencies for interpersonal relations and communications are all affected very much by the quality of relations with our parents and caregivers. Not to worry, deficits here are also open to re-shaping.

This three-dimensional model of character should remind us that there is much to discover about ourselves through self-examination. In fact, to cite our ancient Greek colleagues, "the unexamined life is not worth living." Why? Because if it remains unexamined we are doomed to act out of mere habit or impulse, not practical wisdom. And that would limit our ability to effectively communicate as leaders.


So, what is the role of character in executive presence? It is fundamental. Knowing who we are as persons, what our basic tendencies are and how they help and hinder our cause, this is vital knowledge. It empowers everything else we say and do. If our communications are to be authentic, and if we our actions are to be congruent with our message, character is king.

Leaders must be able to provide direction, urge re-direction, and sustain goal-directed energies even in the face of daunting challenges. How does a leader do that without knowing why it makes difference and why she has a right to ask others to make that commitment? Leaders must be able to articulate their underlying practical wisdom.

You and those you rely upon to lead your organization are not invincible. You will make errors, and you will stumble. There may even be periods when you feel that you have lost your way. When you feel these pangs of frustration, doubt, fatigue, or even guilt, it is time to recheck alignment with your core. Perhaps it is time to revitalize your sense of alignment and direction.

We seldom do this by ourselves. As another colleague and mentor of mine says, relationships are the cauldron within which most important development is wrought. In these relationships we find stimulation, perspective, encouragement, and challenge. They make time and space for learning, deliberate change, and they provide a safe harbor for re-launching after setbacks. 

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