Tim and I drive between Hobart and Launceston for work.
It takes a few hours and we chat about random stuff.
Last month, our conversation drifted to the topic of leadership (yes, the drive gets boring!) We want to be good leaders and we want to recruit good leaders. So we ended up discussing this question …
When it comes to leadership, what’s more important – character or competency?
Over the years, both of us have worked with a lot of leaders. Some have been brilliant. Some disappointing. One or two a total nightmare!
As we chatted, we realised that disappointing leaders in our lives often displayed similar traits. They’ve been polished on the outside – smart, articulate, even charismatic – yet lacking in depth and security on the inside.
The inside of a person seemed to make a difference. Character therefore trumps competency. That was how our conversation ended.
A Fallen Star
A few weeks later, I opened our local newspaper and read this headline:
Jane Holden Removed As CEO Of Tasmania’s Biggest Hospital.
This is my hospital – the Royal Hobart Hospital – where I had worked as a physiotherapist and service manager for 8 years.
According to the investigation, “Ms Holden and north-west colleague Gavin Austin had engaged in nepotism and misconduct, hiring family members without following proper process” to the cost of $500,000. Ms Holden’s employment was subsequently terminated – seemingly for political reasons – with her maintaining her innocence and indicating a legal challenge to clear her name.
As you can imagine, the media was outraged. So was the Tasmanian public. Yet in contrast, I just felt sad and disappointed.
Why sad? I think I felt sad because I wasn’t surprised.
I’ve simply seen too many capable leaders become a statistic. Too many leaders start well but finish badly; promise much but deliver little; abuse trust and misuse power; crash and burn, hurting others as they fall.
Sometimes it’s a competency problem. But usually it’s about character.[note b]
Why Character Trumps Competency
Good character is hard to find. It takes years to build. It’s hidden and it’s slow. It grows through trial and error and is shaped by our response to challenge.
Character trumps competency in leaders because:
- Character is largely unseen (you can’t get a degree in good character) but it shapes everything a person thinks, says and does.
- Character takes time to develop – often a lifetime – and sometimes can’t be taught. In contrast, skills can be learnt relatively quickly. (From my experience, performance managing people who lack character is near impossible, whereas skills can be learnt.)
- Character in the small things impacts the big things – it’s the difference between stopping and seeing the value of a junior staff member, instead of dismissing them in a hurry.
- Character influences how a person deals with conflict and challenge when (and not if) it happens.
- Character shapes succession planning, because only secure leaders create space for others to thrive and overtake them.
Good Leadership Starts With You
Why does the fall of Jane Holden matter?
It’s because too many leaders disappoint us. It’s because we need better leaders. And because better leadership starts with you and I.
It’s easy to point the finger at the misconduct of another person. It’s much harder to pause and reflect on one’s own imperfect character and performance – then to do something about it!
Am I fit for leadership and growing in character?
How do I become more patient, thoughtful, resilient, trust-worthy and kind? Are my motivations self-interested or in the service of others? Am I resting enough to live well and to think well? Am I encouraging others to grow? Am I leaving my teams and my organisation stronger than before I arrived?
In short, am I becoming a person of good character?
Tell us what you think – is character more important than competency when picking a leader?
- (Note b) In health, we love to assess the root causes of problems. We ask “why” until we discover the reason an event occurred. In this situation, I doubt that the root cause was simply a failure to declare a conflict of interest. Nor was it a lack of time to transfer handwritten notes into a proper selection report. I suspect, at the root of this issue, we have a character problem.↵