Leadership is a question of character

“Which leadership book or training can you recommend me?” These simple questions require very complex answers if you consider all dimensions of leadership. I combine abstraction and maturity levels for clarifying the field. Kegan and Lahey* define three levels of adult development. And from Robert Dilts we learned the different logical levels in looking at situations.


Young, socializing, team player, aligning, dependent

Self-Authoring, Independent, own compass, responsible, learns to lead

Self-transforming, interdependent, leads to learn, dialectical

Behaviours (what do I need to do, know?)
Style (what are my values?)
Identity (who am I?)

At the concrete level you can look at tasks and behaviours: what does a leader do? If you link those behaviours to outcomes, you have a theory: “if you master this or that quality you will be successful in this or that situation.” Leadership scientists test these assumptions. A lot of organisation leadership models make the same assumptions, but without examining their validity. They are intuition based.

This prescriptive and concrete approach is useful for starting the leadership journey. First time leaders need help and direction. Training in the right kind of competencies makes a huge difference for their success or failure. A more fundamental approach is not needed and can even be dysfunctional. They can go a long way socializing to the rules of their environment.

At the other end of the spectrum are the leaders who can only be their own guides: entrepreneurs, organizational leaders. They are confronted with unique challenges and dilemmas.  It’s lonely up there. They can only craft their own answer and stand by it. The choices are fundamental and personal. Their learning is per definition open-ended. New perspectives and insights can help them and clarify the dilemmas they face.

This is what Badaracco** does in his book on Leadership Questions of Character. He frames leadership dilemmas and explores answers using literature: “What distinguishes a realistic dream from a delusive and potentially destructive fantasy? How flexible is my moral code? And how do I combine pragmatism and principles? Which role models do I follow and what is their impact? Do I really care and am I deeply accountable to myself? Am I ready to take responsibility? Can I resist the flow of success?  Am I encouraging real dialogue?”

Literature doesn’t give yes or no answers. There are no shortcuts to such personal questions. But the stories of e.g. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Scott Fitzgerald’s The love of the last tycoon, Sophocles’ Antigone along with the comments of Badaracco are inspiring and push for discussion and reflection.  They touch our identity and help to clarify the pitfalls of the leadership journey.  This book concretes what high level leadership takes on an identity level. Without turning into psycho-analyzing. Such books, and a fortiori, such development approaches, are rare.  Thx Laurent (http://laurentledoux.blogactiv.eu/) for pointing me to this author.

Any Comment?

*KEGAN, R., & LAHEY, L. (2010). Adult Development and organisational leadership. In handbook of leadership theory and practice. Boston: Harvard Business Press, 769-788.

**BADARACCO, J. (2006). Questions of character. Illuminating the heart of leadership through literature. Boston: Harvard Business Press, 221 p.


About Koen Marichal

Director Future Leadership Initiative at Antwerp Management School
This entry was posted in 5. Awareness & empowerment, 8. Development & mindset, Academic insights & evidence, English and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Leadership is a question of character

  1. Pingback: Leadership thought 18: “Leadership is all about having your own story and being true to it.” | Thefutureleadershipinitiative

  2. Pingback: Leiderschap volgens Jesse Segers: “een zwerm vogels en vier paar schoenen.” | Thefutureleadershipinitiative

  3. Pingback: Authentic Leadership 2.0. | Thefutureleadershipinitiative

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