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How Character Sustains Leaders

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A critical mistake that I made as a young leader was that I used to think that charisma was the most important aspect of leadership. In the beginning, I focused on charisma because I knew that leadership attracts, and leadership influences people. Therefore I thought, “Well, if I’m going to influence people I’ve got to develop charisma in my life.” I’ve been around enough boring leaders to say that is a desire that most of us should have!

What I learned is that character is the most important aspect of leadership, not charisma. Charisma attracts, but character sustains. In fact, I think charisma, in the area of leadership, is overrated.

Character embodies who you really are. It’s the inner fiber of your being. It is your inner self in action. It reveals what you are truly made of, it’s your substance. Character is, as D. L. Moody said, “What you are in the dark.”

If you have charisma without character, it’s only a matter of time before people find you out. Without character you cannot sustain meaningful relationships, and without relationships your ability to lead and influence others is anemic.

So what is it about character that really makes a difference?

Character sets you apart.
There was a time when people who lacked integrity stood out from the crowd. Now the opposite is true—charisma can make people stand out for a moment, but character can set them apart for a lifetime.

Character creates trust.
Leadership functions only on the basis of trust. If you pull out trust, then you will lose your leadership foundation.

Character promotes excellence.
If you lead people, good character sets a standard for everyone who is following you. People will eventually become like their leader. If leaders compromise on their standards, cheat the company, or take shortcuts, so will their followers.

Character gives staying power.
During the tough times that all leaders face, character has the ability to carry you through, which is something that charisma can never do. When you are weary and inclined to quit, the self-discipline of character keeps you going.

Character extends influence.
Charisma, by its nature, doesn’t last long or extend very far. It’s like a flash of gunpowder. It produces a quick, blinding light, but then it’s gone. The only thing left is smoke. Character, on the other hand, is more like a bonfire. Its effects are long-lasting. It produces warmth and light, and as it continues to burn it gets hotter, giving fuel that burns brighter.

If you’re currently leading people, you probably have some measure of both charisma and character. The question is which one are you relying on to lead? The answer can be found in your response to this great question, “As time goes by, does it get easier or harder to lead?”

Without character, leadership becomes harder to sustain. You constantly have to perform to get people to notice you; but with character, as time goes by, leadership strengthens, builds, and continues to attract the people. And best of all, the ones who do come to enjoy your fire stay with you a lot longer than the ones who only want to see a show.

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