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The Character of a Contagious Leader
The Character of a Contagious Leader
By John Hersey and Beverly Belury
Ask any business person and they’ll tell you that the character of their employees is important. Ask them to then define character or better yet, to measure an employee’s relative degree of character, and they will either shrug their shoulders or look at you in utter bewilderment.

Make no mistake about it: Character counts. It always has and always will. In fact, there is very strong evidence that the importance of character is growing. Our corporate clients are in complete agreement that the biggest challenge facing businesses of all shapes, sizes and configurations over the next decade is attracting, developing and retaining great people. To overcome this challenge, these and other companies are searching for leaders rather than managers. This search, like the search for character, takes place in the soft skills. Not the routine background, education, experience stuff we see in resumes, but the stuff behind the resume, the stuff inside the person.

This is so important that it is worth repeating. The people at the top in most companies, that is, the people who ultimately make all the hiring, firing and promotion decisions, believe that character is vital to the future success of their company. These executives may not be able to define character but they instinctively know that employees with character make better employees, better managers, better communicators and better future executives. Moreover, they know that employees with character remain with the company longer, thereby reducing turnover, which is an enormous drain on earnings. Rather than debating the relative importance of character, we suggest that executives, managers, supervisors and employees use their valuable time and resources to learn four things about character: how to define it, how to measure it, how to integrate it and how to monitor the development of it.

Defining Character
What is character, anyway? As we stated earlier, most of us do not have a clue. James Michener, one of the world’s most respected writers and someone who should know the meaning of words, offered one definition. He said, “Character is what we do on the third and fourth tries.”

For the most part we think he was correct. We do not believe that character is relegated to the third or fourth try, however. As a matter of fact, our experience tells us that consistency in displaying character often distinguishes just how much of it we really have.

Another aspect of Michener’s definition needs clarification. The word “do” may be open to some misinterpretation. Having “selective character” or character only when it serves our purpose is tantamount to not having any character at all. Are we displaying character because doing so is consistent with our belief system (who we are) or is it consistent with some strategy for personal gain? We do not think Mr. Michener had the latter in mind.

Our extensive research into defining, measuring and monitoring character has led us to conclude that it is not one thing but rather the sum of 13 separate elements. It is rather like defining a wonderful meal. Is it the wine that defines the meal? How about the entrée or the dessert or the service? You cannot define the meal without considering the whole. Together, the 13 elements define “character.” Now there may be more elements, but every time we try to add one it is usually embodied by one of the original 13. So, until convinced otherwise, we’ll call them “The Character of a Contagious Leader.” We do not present them in any particular order of importance. In fact, it is our experience that individuals tend to rank the importance of the individual elements differently. Keeping this in mind, the 13 elements of the character of a contagious leader are:

Attitude – W. Clement Stone said “there is very little difference in people, but that little difference makes a big difference. The little difference is attitude. The big difference is whether it is positive or negative.”

Having a “can-do” attitude, not a “perhaps-I-might-be-able-to-do” or, worse yet, a “can’t-do” attitude, will make all the difference in your ability to lead and succeed in any endeavor.

Authentic – Being authentic is about knowing and being true to who we are, not who we pretend to be. Many of us have been acting the part of the successful executive for so long that we forget who we really are. Did you know that 40 percent of corporate executives would change careers if they could maintain their current income level? Many have just gotten tired of not being true to themselves, of being in jobs and cultures that require them to be other than who they are. If you expect to be a consistent winner over the long haul, being authentic is the place to start.

Embracing Change – Contagious leaders embrace change. They participate in change. Some even revel in change, looking for it and, more often than not, causing the change that usually disturbs most non-winners. It has been said that we can only count on two things in our lives – death and taxes. Recent experience suggests that we can comfortably add “change” to the list. We can count on it like the sun rising in Arizona. Fighting change wastes valuable energy. Using that energy to make our jobs, departments and companies more productive and successful is the way of contagious leaders.

Commitment – Contagious leaders make deep commitments. They are never committed just when it suits them to be so. They are either in or they are out. When they are in, they are in for the duration. Even when their business is not going as well as they would like, they ask “What can I do to make it better,” not “Where can I go to find a better deal?” Contagious leaders are careful about their commitments. They take their commitments seriously.

Contribution – Contagious leaders are about making things better. They make a difference in their companies, communities, families and churches. They know there is a world outside those hallowed halls of our corporations, a world that needs leadership so that it can be a better place for all of us. Contagious leaders fill that need, provide the leadership and make a difference.

Determination – When he delivered the graduation address to his alma mater, Winston Churchill stood slowly, walked across the platform, faced the stone-silent crowd and said, “Never, never, never, never, never give up.” Determination is a characteristic of a contagious leader. While not blind to potential setback, in the face of adversity winners become even more determined. They dig in, consider alternatives, become more creative and look outside the box for solutions.

Discipline – Aristotle said, “What it lies in our power to do, it lies in our power not to do.” The good news is that each of us has awesome power. That is also the bad news. Sometimes, the discipline to use that power, to develop and execute plans is the difference of winning or not. Consistently winning at any game takes great discipline.

Drive – Everyone wants to make more money, right? WRONG! People want what they want and it is up to each person, every executive, every manager and every supervisor to know their drive and the drive of those they manage.

Integrity – Integrity isn’t just about telling the truth. Integrity is about being our word, always being our word, every day and in everything we do – not just when it serves us but particularly when it does not serve us.

Focus – Beverly once said that, “Idea-people are valuable but implementers are priceless.” Implementers have a well-developed ability to stay focused. We all experience so many distractions that it is difficult to stay focused, stay on plan, stay on track. Contagious leaders do not allow distractions; they remain focused.

Motivation – There are three types of motivation: fear, incentive and causal. Fear and incentive motivation never work, at least not for very long, because the stimuli (either fear or incentive) need to be constantly present. Take away the fear (you are fired if you don’t measure up) or the incentive (the winner of this month’s sales contest and the trip to Bali is Harry!) and nothing happens. Causal motivation is about working to be the best we can be without any outside stimuli. Contagious leaders don’t wait for any external motivation. They make things happen. They operate by that old adage, “If it’s to be it’s up to me.”

Creating Possibility – For any circumstance, challenge or effort, there are three possible sandboxes in which we can play: the “what-has-been” box, the “what-is” box and the “what-could-be” box. In the “what-has-been” box is everything we have ever learned. We visit this box to resolve familiar challenges. In the “what-is” box is the way things are. This is where we go when we settle. The “what-could-be” box is where contagious leaders reside. This is where possibility lives.

Risk – Wayne Gretsky, the greatest hockey player of all time, once said, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.” Everything worth doing involves risk. The willingness to take risk, not to be reckless, but to risk is what separates contagious leaders from all others. 
Measuring Character
Now that we can define character, the big question is how do we measure it? How much of each element do we have? Relatively speaking, in which elements are we underperforming, which are we in acceptable ranges and in which are we overperforming? The answers require us to set up some guidelines.

To some people, performance on each element “should be” a black or white situation. We often say that integrity is either black (not good) or white (good), for example. You either have it or you don’t. Unfortunately, it isn’t always that simple. The world isn’t black or white. The world, and the character of a contagious leader, is in shades of gray. We have to be careful here because sometimes when we operate in the shades of gray, it is easy to relax our definition of the elements. Relax the definition too often or for too long and we forget it altogether. That is not our intention. We realize that perfection, although a noble concept, is just not possible, at least not in every element, every hour of every day. Furthermore, even if it were possible, some of us would not choose perfection in each and every element.

Keeping in mind that we are focused on our jobs, departments and companies, if we were to use a scale of 1-10 with 10 being perfection, an individual may, for example, learn that he or she scored 4 on the “risk” element. Then the person might decide that this is an acceptable score for his or her particular job, company and culture. Move that person to another position in another department or company and we may find that a score of 4 is woefully inadequate. Similarly, dedication in one culture may have to fall between 7-10 to be acceptable while a 5 is just fine in another situation. Measurement for each element will depend on the individual, the job, the supervisor, the culture they operate in, the person’s own behavioral style and many other factors. What we have done is create a system whereby individuals can conduct a self-assessment on each element. Although the results are qualitative, they give us a benchmark as to where we stand with each element, helping us identify areas that we would like to improve upon, those that we feel good about and perhaps even the ones that we are over-delivering on.

The following character self-assessment is the short version. We also developed one with multiple questions for each element. As you assess yourself for each of the following elements, please be brutally honest and avoid any inclination to fall victim to the “should-bes.” You know, “I am a 4 when it comes to risk but I should be a 9 so I’ll give myself a 7.” That accomplishes nothing at all.

On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being perfect, rate your performance on each element. Total your scores and enter it on the total line following each element.
Integrating Character

This is the easy part. If you agree with everything (or at least most) that we have said thus far, then you will want everyone in your company to complete either this brief self-assessment, or better yet, the more comprehensive multi-question model. If you want to have some real fun, you could have everyone in your department do the self-assessment and then average the scores. It will give you a good indication as to the character of your department and how each person in the department compares. Furthermore, you could implement the multi-question model as a 360-degree feedback and then do quarterly updates as part of your performance review system. If, on the other hand, it is just you, then you might choose to pick one element and practice living into that for one month. At the end of a year you notice an enormous difference in every aspect of your performance and the performance of those around you.

”The Character of a Contagious Leader” can be a great help to any individual or company that strives for success and is dedicated to being an “A” player and fielding teams of “A” players for their company. Integrating this as part of an existing performance appraisal system may appear to be a bit difficult. I assure you that it would indeed be a challenge. After all, it would require commitment, discipline, focus, drive, motivation, believing in possibility, determination, integrity, and risk. You would have to be totally authentic and willing to firmly embrace change to accomplish this awesome task. But just think of the contribution you would make.         

John Hersey is a businessman, speaker and author who has written the book “Creating Contagious Leadership” and has spoken before audiences throughout the United States, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines and Singapore. He can be reached at

Posted on Thursday, June 30, 2005 (Archive on Wednesday, September 28, 2005)
Posted by kdroney  Contributed by kdroney


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