When Leaders Fall Short: Why Character Matters

5 min read

As we come into another election cycle, candidates will soon be spewing opinions about issues, attacking each other without mercy, and making extravagant promises to the electorate. However, I observe that often it is the unforeseen events that no candidate can predict that rattle us to our core and disrupt our daily lives—events that become the defining inflection point of an administration. Over the past 23 years, those events have included 9/11, the COVID pandemic, sudden breakouts of war in Ukraine and Israel, and numerous regional weather disasters.

The wisdom and competence with which our leaders respond to the unpredictable is directly related to their underlying character as leaders. Our collective ability to trust our leaders in times of crisis is a function of our appraisal of that character.

Yet as an electorate, we tend to pay more attention to TV attack ads than to a serious evaluation of the integrity, values, and judgment of our candidates. But why is character so fundamental to leadership success, and how can we become better judges of character?

Dr. Mike Matthews, professor of engineering psychology at West Point, is a Psychology Today contributor who has authored over 250 articles and seven books in the area of character and leadership. I interviewed him for my podcast to explore more about his research in this area.

Mike is an advocate of the school of positive psychology, which has arguably allowed him to play an important part in shaping the character development of West Point cadets, the future leaders of the U.S. military. He commented that even if a cadet is at the top of his class academically and athletically, he will fail as a leader if he has not developed critical leadership skills, and his writing has laid out the case for this view.

Positive psychology founders Martin Seligman and Neil Mayerson explored 24 traits that comprise character. They fall into six groups: wisdom, temperance, transcendence, justice, humanity, and courage.

Mike’s research demonstrates that each of us has a unique profile of character strengths and relative weaknesses. Developing and strengthening character begins with understanding one’s own particular strengths and building on those by choosing paths that rely on one’s strengths and strategies to mitigate weaknesses.

A leader’s profile of strengths and weaknesses will have a profound impact on how he or she governs at a time of unpredicted crisis. Our elected leaders—mayors, governors, the President—do not lead in a vacuum, receiving wisdom from the ether. The best leaders are excellent judges of character and have a Rolodex of long relationships with others of high character whom they appoint to fill posts of sub-leadership, such as in disaster response, public health, and communication with the public. Leaders and sub-leaders meet regularly to ensure that goals are met that align with the explicit shared values.

Excellent leaders communicate with the public in an open and honest way to build trust and convey their genuine caring about the welfare of their electorate. When a crisis does occur, the teams they have developed are already in position with recommendations about strategic responses, and the leader chooses from an array of possible courses of action.

In other words, the leader will have already exercised the intellectual discipline to imagine and prepare for crises; the managerial skills required to assemble, charge, monitor, and support teams of excellence; and the ability to communicate with the electorate in a trustworthy way that demonstrates his or her deep regard for their welfare.

Our collective experience during the COVID crisis demonstrates the importance of the electorate’s ability to trust their leaders and unite behind a shared plan of action. The American political environment inevitably undermines that trust, as opposition leaders seek to diminish the credibility of the leader. Again, the character strengths of the leader come into play as the public witnesses their ability to make good decisions, remain calm and purpose-driven, and provide a model of stability for the public to emulate.

A simple definition of character in a leader is the demonstrated commitment to base decisions on the welfare of the public, as opposed to a personal need such as to get re-elected. I personally like the honor code of West Point and the Air Force Academy cadets: We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.

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The message is clear: The character of each of us is defined not only by our commitment to honor but whether we insist on high character in those whom we choose as leaders. Those leaders in turn serve as role models for the entire population and have the opportunity to inspire us as individuals and elevate our national character.

To hear the entire interview with Dr. Mike Matthews, listen to “They’re Driving Me Nuts!” on all major podcast platforms.

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