March brought with it International Women’s Day and, in the United States, the national celebration of Women’s History Month. I found myself reflecting on the inspired leadership of those that we have honored over the years in TIAW – those World of Difference Award-winners who have literally moved mountains in terms of women’s economic empowerment. These women are natural leaders; they know exactly who they are, what needs to be done, took action and were consistent to the core in their character.
Leadership is grounded on character, which is developed by incorporating desirable behaviors into habits to the point where these behaviors become natural to us. What are the ‘desirable behaviors’? I think the minimum list includes patience, kindness, humility, respectfulness, selflessness, honesty and commitment. Character provides the substance behind the servant leader; indeed, he/she cannot have trust and authenticity without it. Take a look at this list of five characteristics of the servant leader developed by author James Autry:
- Be authentic by always showing your real self
- Be vulnerable by being honest with your feelings
- Be accepting, which is not necessarily agreeing or approving
- Be present and fully participating in every conversation and encounter
- Be useful, understanding this is the very foundation of service
The connection between behavior and effective leadership is compelling. Does this mean leaders are perfect? No, I don’t believe they are, but I do believe that they are perfectly consistent in character. A favorite quotation comes from Robert K. Cooper who said so eloquently “no one expects you to be perfect – only genuine and honest. And so it is with the notable men and women who have the courage to find themselves, to tell the truth about who they are, the mistakes they have made, the dreams they hold dear and what they’re most concerned about.”
Let your leadership rise with your character. Be honest about the character habits you know you need to cultivate and then deploy your self-discipline to create those habits. You will soon find yourself unconsciously competent with these new behaviors, and your natural leadership will emerge. The servant leadership you have cultivated can now help create meaning and purpose for others, as eloquently posited by Robert Greenleaf in the 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader”:
“Do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”
Your character is the greatest single factor shaping the culture of the company or organization you lead. It will manifest itself in the values of your employees or staff quicker than anything else you may intend or direct, or any policy manual you may write. These values become the context in which you and/or your employees work every day. They shoulder with you the responsibility to carry out the mission and achieve the vision you intend. Equip them with a sure foundation by being a leader of character and service that they are sure to model.
Lisa Kaiser Hickey