With Martin G. Moore

Episode #125

Can You Coach Character? What strong leaders do

How do you develop a mindset to make decisions confidently, while removing any concerns about the implications it could have for your job – your promotability and future prospects?

This can be a particularly vexed question when you work in a larger organisation, where the politics can sometimes be quite vicious.

So how do you learn to take smart career risks, knowing that things will work out for the best? Is it at all possible to teach this to others?

In this episode, I offer some practical suggestions that you can use to help build character. It may even help your people to develop it as well!

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Episode #125 Can You Coach Character? What strong leaders do

Hey there and welcome to Episode 125 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. This week’s episode; Can You Coach Character? What strong leaders do. Over the new year, I caught up with Wil, one of our Leadership Beyond the Theory alumni. We had a fantastic conversation. Wil had a really interesting question, which I’m going to attempt to roughly paraphrase. “How do you develop a mindset that will enable you to make decisions while removing any concerns about the implications it could have for your job, your promotability and future prospects?” Now in my experience, this is particularly the case when you work in a larger company where the politics can sometimes be quite vicious. How do you learn to take the smart career risks, knowing that things will work out for the best, and is it possible to teach this to others? Now as I reflected on this after our conversation, I realised that Will’s fundamental question was “How do you coach people to develop their character?” It’s a great question with no simple answers, but in this episode, I’m going to give you some practical things that you can do to build your character and how to help your people to develop it as well. So we’ll start by exploring what we actually mean by character. I’ll then give you some examples of how to develop character in yourself. And I’ll finish with some suggestions for helping the people that you lead to develop their own character. So let’s get into it.

Everyone has a character, the same way everyone has a personality, and character is a collective set of behaviours that make up the person that others know you to be. Thus, when you act in a way that’s not in line with those perceptions, the expression “out of character” is often used. So when I was researching this episode, I found this great website called charactercounts.org. Now on this website, it defines six pillars of character and they are: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. And when used on its own, the word character is also used to describe the more noble, personal attributes of resilience, courage, and perseverance in the face of extreme pressure. They talk about the character of a sports person who comes through when the chips are down in a clutch situation. They refuse to give up. They redouble their efforts. They somehow find a way to eek out that little bit of extra effort, extra genius, and extra performance, when it counts the most.

This is Andre Agassi coming back to beat Andre Medvedev in the 1999 French Open final. After being completely humbled in the first two sets 1-6, 2-6, Agassi rallied to win three sets to two. It’s the New England Patriots coming back to defeat the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI to become the 2016 season NFL champions. They were down 28-3, and it was almost the end of the third quarter, but the Patriots came back to win in overtime 34-28. They overcame a 25 point deficit. Prior to that, the largest comeback in a Super Bowl was a deficit of 10 points. That’s why probably Patriots coach, Bill Belichick famously said, “Talent sets the floor. Character sets the ceiling“. It’s the whistleblower who won’t sit by and idly watch unscrupulous people do bad things, but instead puts herself at risk to expose the situation.

And they make movies about these people, right? Russell Crowe blowing the lid on big tobacco in The Insider, Julie Roberts’ compelling portrayal of Erin Brockovich and so forth. But it’s also the business leader, who stands up in a crisis and puts self-interest aside to do what’s best for their stakeholders. The one who pays little heed to the potential personal fallout of the decisions and actions that they know they must take. It’s the one who’s guided only by doing what’s right. And these leaders don’t follow the path of least resistance. And they would be said to be men and women of character. Character can be elusive and difficult to define. And it’s not always obvious when you look at someone at face value. In my experience, it’s completely true that you only see what a leader is truly made of when things get tough. Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.

Leaders espouse all sorts of noble and virtuous character traits when things are going smoothly. But, see how they react when their annual financial bonus is under threat, or when a mistake that they uncover could lead to either a media scandal or have an impact on the company share price. Even worse, when you’re working in the lower level of an organisation, whether a leader will cross the line for an unethical or immoral boss, when there’s a threat of potentially losing their job. It’s only at those times that you discover the true character of a person.

How do you develop your own character? Aristotle once said, “Excellence is not an act, but a habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, and brave by doing brave acts“. Let’s think about the six theoretical pillars of character we spoke about earlier. Trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. Now I want to make this a little easier to understand by breaking these down into some more fundamental behaviours. You could pull these apart individually, but I’ve got a few ideas about how to distil them into the practical things that will build character. So I think the first two pillars trust and respect come from demonstrating that you will make decisions based on doing what’s right, and putting your self interest aside. So let’s work on reducing our innate quota of self-interest. Now this is super hard. We’re all intrinsically driven by our own self-interest. It’s the way we’re wired. Just ask Abraham Maslow. But you can learn to temper that, and instead look at the upside of long-term thinking. I did an episode, almost two years ago, Episode 29: Winning without self-interest. This is great story that just talks about how putting your self-interest aside can actually be viewed as long-term gratification as opposed to short-term gratification.

The third pillar is responsibility. And at the risk of oversimplifying this, responsibility comes to you much more comfortably if you have an internal locus of control, rather than an external locus of control. With an internal locus of control, your worldview is like this. “I have the power to influence my environment. I choose to make things happen for better or for worse. I’m prepared to take the rewards and face the consequences for my choices, decisions, and actions. I chart my own path. I’m not a victim.”

Contrary to that, with an external locus of control, it’s very much a victim mentality. “Things happen to me that I can’t control. I’m a victim of my circumstances, I’m a victim of other people and of unseen forces that conspire against me”. Now if you want to bone up on this, you’ve got to read Stephen Covey’s classic, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He treats this really, really well.

The final three pillars, fairness, caring, and citizenship. Now, when we think about concepts like these, a lot of it comes down to your level of empathy. How well can you put yourself in other people’s shoes and picture the world from their perspective? Now I’ve just got on to this excellent new app called Clubhouse. It’s fantastic. It’s basically a set up of chat rooms where people can start a conversation and anyone can join in. And you’ve got some really, really interesting and high powered people discussing all sorts of different topics. It’s like a mini live podcast that you can participate in. I was in on a Clubhouse conversation the other day with the guys who established the Hacking Your Leadership podcast, so big shout out to Lorenzo and Chris. They were moderating a conversation about why there are so many bad leaders out there. Now, I can’t remember who made the comment, but there was a comment made that there is such a thing as too much empathy. Now I know exactly what they mean by that and I totally agree with the principle, but I view it slightly differently. It’s when empathy turns to sympathy, and leaders relax essential standards of behaviour and performance because of their inappropriate connection to an individual circumstances, that it becomes a real problem. Everyone needs to be cut a little slack from time to time, that’s okay. But my view is there is no such thing as too much empathy. The more adept you are at understanding another person and their perspective, the better. But, if you’re a weak leader, empathy morphs into sympathy and you’re screwed. Now, I’m actually going to do a whole podcast episode on this shortly. Having an extremely high level of empathy backed by a strong sense of personal boundaries and individual accountability should land you in the right place. So I’m going to use empathy as a proxy for fairness, caring and citizenship. Just remember, you still got to stay strong.

What would be some of the practical things you can do as a leader to remove self-interest, take greater accountability and build empathy? Well, here’s a little hack you can use to remove your self-interest. What’s the most critical area of self-interest that’s deeply programmed into our DNA? Survival. When we make decisions, we tend to think about how it affects us first and foremost. A really good decision will only consider what’s right. What’s best for the organisation that’s paying our salary and the stakeholders it serves. So what if your life depended on making the right decision? Put every major decision through this lens, “If I make an ethical, prudent decision, that’s in the best interest of my organisation and all its stakeholders, then I’m okay. And I have to present the rationale for every decision to a judge who would rule on the evidence presented under threat of death”.

Well, I don’t know about you, but preservation of life is a lot more important than missing out on a bonus or having to retract a decision or even being fired, pretty much anything. So this is a pretty useful frame. You use the most powerful driver of self-interest to remove all the little insidious creeping self- interests that can affect our decisions, our trust, and of course, our character. Now like anything, you’re not just going to wake up tomorrow morning and decide that you’re going to be a completely different person. It doesn’t work that way. So you’ve got to build this over time. And I remember an example going a long way back, 25 years ago. There was a project that I was working on that was distressed, to say the least. I’d been brought in as an independent project director to get the project back on track and deliver it. It was a 12 to 18 month job, but after 3 to 4 weeks of getting my feet under the desk, I realised that the project was in much worse shape than anyone had said. The technology being used was so flaky that it was unlikely to work at any point. The project plans were wildly out of step with reality and the risks to almost every area were intolerable. So I had two choices. Stay there, do my best, and a deliver product that I knew in my heart of hearts would be delivered late, well over budget, and much less functional than the business case had suggested. My other choice, was that I could call it out and recommend that the project be cancelled before any more money was spent. I understood the principle of not putting good money after bad. Now I chose to do the latter, and I will knew that this meant I would be out of a job. A job that I just moved cities for and was paying me a very tidy premium to the other market options I had at the time. So cancel the project they did, but, the word got around about how I’d handled myself. And before I even landed back in my hometown, I was offered an even better job in the same organisation. You need to believe that doing the right thing always yields the best result. If not immediately, then at least in the longer term.

Alright, so that’s all about self-interest. Now let’s talk about responsibility. No matter what you’re doing, own it. I see too many leaders trying to fob off accountability onto others, and I’m sure you see it every day in your ecosystems. I think a large part of resilience, is the willingness to step into the vacuum and grab a problem by the scruff of the neck. Now, few people are wired like this, or have an appetite for taking control of something that’s difficult or uncertain. But, if you own it, you’d be surprised the positive effects that it can have for you and for the people around you. Nothing feels as though it’s out of your control when your habit is to take accountability and nail your colours to the mast. Saying, “This is mine. I’ve got this and I’m going to find a way to get it done. Follow me”. It’s incredibly powerful. I learned this lesson particularly early in my professional career, and I’m talking the mid 1980s. As a young and inexperienced software developer, I was accountable for the implementation of a new general ledger system for a major bank in Sydney. The software itself was okay, but the implementation, which we did over a weekend so it as not to disruptive the business, suffered a big technical glitch. This caused an outage in the cut-over and the whole suite of financial tools that people relied upon were unavailable when they came into work on the Monday morning. We worked pretty tirelessly to get everything back up and running, and eventually the systems were restored to their former glory, but not until after a full day of access to the systems had been lost. Now, in retrospect, not a big deal, right? But at the time, it seemed like it was a big issue for a young guy who had just made a big mistake. As I was up on the 21st floor, talking to some of the finance team who’d been affected by the outage, the financial controller called me into her office. Her only sentence, “Martin, what the hell happened?” I looked her in the eye and said, “Mary, this is entirely my fault. I completely overlooked something that I should have picked up on. I just didn’t anticipate it at all, and by the time we realised what was going on, it was too late to go back”.

What did she say? “Oh, that’s okay, Martin, you’ve done a great job. Sometimes these things are unavoidable”. I got to tell you, I felt like Samuel L. Jackson, in that scene from Pulp Fiction where a guy unloads half a dozen gunshots at him from point blank range, and they all miss, leaving him without a scratch. From that day on, I was her favourite IT guy, not that that’s a particularly high bar to get over, I guess.

Let’s move on to building empathy. This can be a bit harder. You have to train yourself to see things through other people’s eyes. Asking yourself constantly, “I wonder how Greg will see this or what would this mean to Jenny?” It means really listening in conversations, really listening. Last week’s episode addressed presentation skills, and what I didn’t say, is that one of the most important elements of verbal communication, is listening. You have to listen to your people, you have to connect with them, watch them and get to know how they respond to things. Most people you lead will only ever want to show you their game face. So you have to get really good at reading them to get below that surface. So, do you want a quick and easy hack for building your EQ? I bet you do. Sorry guys. No silver bullets here.

There’s only one way. Do the difficult things. Have the difficult conversations that force you to be emotionally connected to people. Face into conflict and adversity and do it willingly. Always try to remain curious, rather than fearful, with any challenges you face and do shit tons of it. Remember, if you choose to do the hard things in life, life becomes easy, but if you choose to do the easy things in life, life becomes hard. So start small. You don’t have to make big moves in any of these areas. Prove to yourself that these principles work. You need to step off the ledge and have faith that you’re not going to crash 200 metres to the bottom of the cliff below. Just take baby steps until your confidence builds. But repetition and results create a virtuous circle. Build your confidence and then get more ambitious as you go to see and feel how these principles actually work.

Now, we started this section with a quote from Aristotle, so I’m going to finish with a quote from Aristotle as well. “Good habits formed at youth, make all the difference”. Good habits formed at youth. Now, obviously I don’t know how old you are now, but no matter how old you are, don’t put this off for a rainy day. The earlier you do it the better. So start thinking about what you’re going to do differently, when this episode ends.

How do you teach others to do this? How can you help the people around you and the people that you lead to build character? Well first of all, remember that you can’t make anyone do anything. And if you’re in any doubt about this, go back and have a listen to episode 65, How do you make someone change? This will really help you with that mindset problem. Now, a way to help others develop their character is to forward this episode to them and talk about the methods for building character. It’s probably a little easier to give them some practical guidance than trying to explain the principles yourself. Often, when we hear leaders talking about empathy, respect, and accountability, they come across as being platitudes. There’s no roadmap for how to build these attributes, and they end up sounding like aspirational drivel. Your best chance of influencing anyone’s behaviour though is by the example you set. If you build your own character, so that you win trust, demonstrate personal accountability, and have high empathy, of course offsetting this empathy with an uncompromising set of standards for behaviour and performance, your people will have an example to follow.

And a lot of this learning is done by osmosis. You’ll set the standard by the way you behave. If you’re a weak character, your people are also likely to be weak. They don’t feel any compulsion to be better than you, and it’s only those with real innate drive and ambition to learn and grow, that will actually do so. So work on yourself and know each of your people well enough to know their fundamental character. After all that, I’m not sure I actually answered Will’s question in the end, but I feel as though the conversation is a good one to have in anyone’s terms. General Norman Schwarzkopf said “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character, but if you have to be without one, be without the strategy”.

All right, so that brings us to the end of Episode, 125. Thanks so much for joining us, and remember at Your CEO Mentor, our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. So please take a few moments to rate and review the podcast or share it with your network. I’ll look forward to next week’s episode, Selling a Proposal to Your Boss.

Until then, I know you’ll take every opportunity you can, to be a no bullsh!t leader.


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