Growing Leaders of Character

Q&A with Author Gene Klann

By Don Jacobson

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In his new book Building Character: Strengthening the Heart of Good Leadership, Gene Klann argues that leaders have a responsibility to guide the character development of those coming up behind them in their organization.  Klann, who teaches leadership at the Center for Creative Leadership recently discussed his book in a Q&A with  

GovLeaders: What made you decide to write a book about character development?

GK: We routinely hear in the news of dramatic character failures of senior leaders whether it is in business, the government, non-profit, etc. The purpose of my book is to provide a preventive model or framework for senior leaders to use to further develop the leadership character of their cadre of leaders. Cadre of leaders is defined as their subordinate leaders, those being prepared for leadership roles, other high potentials, and finally, their key (and influential) individual contributors. The model is focused on leaders and leadership behavior but it could actually be used for all employees.

Senior leaders understand that they have a responsibility to further develop their cadre of leaders. That includes the area of character. But how are they to do that?? This book gives them a guide and the tools to initiate just such a process.

GovLeaders: How does character development differ from leadership development?

GK: There are many components of leadership and therefore leadership development. Character development is one of the components of leadership development. Some would say it is the most important one. This leadership character development model is unique because it focuses specifically on behaviors, i.e., positive, constructive, and effective behaviors. Leadership character is defined as a consistent pattern of behavior that has a positive influence on others. That behavioral focus is what sets this developmental process aside and separates it from “general” leadership development.

GovLeaders: Some people argue that a person’s character is formed during childhood. Can an adult really learn to improve their character?

GK: Anyone can improve their character because they can change their behaviors to ones that are more constructive, effective, and positive. Consider these examples. When a person joins the military his or her behavior changes based on their training and the discipline inherent to military life. Some people have had dramatic changes in their behavior based on a religious conversion or experience. Then too, many adults have adjusted their behavior to gain something positive or to avoid something negative. For example, if I am told that I will be promoted if I am a bit more assertive or aggressive, I will probably adjust my behavior accordingly. If I am told that if I continue to be abrasive and obnoxious I may get fired, I will probably adjust my behavior once again. Adjusting my behavior in these instances is in my best interest so therefore I will probably do it.

GovLeaders: In your book you assert that “stretch assignments are the most valuable developers of leadership and character.” What makes challenging assignments so valuable?

GK: In challenging assignments, or to put it in another way, in “stretch” assignments, the cadre of leaders could be exposed to and learn things that routine assignments cannot teach. Stretch assignments can accelerate and condense the time it takes to learn essential leadership behaviors. This could include but would not necessarily be limited to key items such as:
  • The value of prevention, anticipation and being proactive;
  • The value of social and interpersonal skills, including networking;
  • How to hire, fire, select, place, coach, counsel, motivate,
    make formal presentations, deal with senior leaders, and ask questions;
  • The value of hard work in reaching one’s full potential;
  • How to manage stress, pressure, and time; and
  • How to deal with ambiguity and also get information.

GovLeaders: Given the difficulty of moving people between roles in the Civil Service, what can government agencies do to facilitate this process?

GK: Since it is not always possible to move a leader from job to job in some agencies, senior leaders should explore other options for stretch assignments. These might include placing the junior leader on a task force, special project, committee, multifunctional team, temporary assignment, and so on. All of these can greatly enhance the leaders’ understanding of how their behavior impacts others and how they may need to adjust it in order to be more effective and influential. These type of assignments, can also expose them to experiences that they may not be able to have in their current position. Therefore, their character development can be enhanced without the turmoil of being transferred from one formal position to another.

GovLeaders: You also say in the book that setting a positive leadership example “is the highest form of leadership.” Could you explain why that is?

GK: It is based on the reality that humans, by nature, tend to imitate those they admire, respect, or are in positions of authority. Albert Schweitzer, the great humanitarian, said that example is not the main thing in influencing others, IT IS THE ONLY THING. Leaders can leverage this tendency to imitate by behaving in the manner that they would want their cadre of leaders to behave. What leaders do therefore, is much more important than what they say or put out in writing. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that your actions are speaking so loudly that I can’t hear a word you are saying. Leaders live in fish bowl and are always being watched. They should always be conscious of that fact and take advantage of it.

GovLeaders: In the current budget environment, many government agencies are concerned about the impact that shrinking budgets will have on training. How critical is formal training to an agency’s ability to grow leaders of character?

GK: Formal training is important but it is not the end all. In my Five E model it is one of five components, but only one. That being said, I would also add that with some creativity and innovation, senior leaders could use internal assets for leader character development training. Training for this model does not have to be a big budget item. Senior leaders can use the leaders within the agency to facilitate these character development sessions. This could start with them. All of these leaders who would facilitate could share their biggest ethical leadership challenge to date and how they handled it. They could also lead discussions on various scenarios involving ethical challenges and crisis situations that various leaders have confronted. (This is a common approach in university business schools.) Internal leaders who have had unique or international experiences could also share their insights gained from those experiences. Senior leaders both within the agency and from sister agencies could also facilitate some of the sessions.

The agency training department could help with classes on traditional topics involving character such as diversity, workplace violence, discrimination, and standards of conduct. To connect specifically with my model, these classes could focus on positive and constructive behaviors in these areas and also negative and destructive behaviors. Various leaders could be assigned to read biographies of contemporary and historical leaders and discuss their behaviors in the context of character.

GovLeaders: Thanks very much for your insights. Do you have any final advice for public managers who would like to develop leaders of character?

GK: Implementing a character development process for leaders requires an investment of time, resources, and focused effort. However, this investment is really quite small when one looks at the cost of a lapse of leader character. These costs could include huge litigation fees, the loss of the organization’s reputation and credibility, reduced productivity, a major drop in employee morale, and the human suffering that can occur in an organization where a leader has had a character meltdown. When all is said and done, implementing a character development program for leaders is worth the investment!!

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