Leading from the inside out – why great leadership is inseparable from having a strong character

October 23, 2017

“We must be the change we wish to see in the world.”

– Mahatma Gandhi


There are currently some 1,500 definitions of leadership and around 40 theories of leadership, according to Barbara Kellerman, who lectures at Harvard University’s John F Kennedy School of Government.

Reflecting on all these different frameworks can be overwhelming, and even having all this knowledge is clearly not enough to ensure that people are genuinely able to lead effectively.

Almost everywhere we look, levels of trust in, and approval of, leaders, in politics and business, are at all-time lows and still falling. It seems we must be getting something spectacularly wrong in our approach to leadership development.

Today, most of the advice on leadership development focuses on ‘methods’, ‘techniques’ or ‘tips’ – seemingly a search to identify the ‘silver bullet’ that will magically transform people into great leaders.

But that approach is hugely confusing, needing an encyclopaedia to cover all the angles. Even then there would still be gaps. What if all of definitions, tips and techniques could be replaced with a set of solid principles, based in sound understandings about how our minds and brains work, which would enable great leadership?

To me, this is the way forward. How much better and easier would it be to operate from the principles that produce success, rather than just seeking to imitate the actions of successful leaders?

We need to become more like those leaders who get results, not only in action, but also in thought. In this approach, the starting point is the set of internal beliefs, values, and rules that shape our interaction with the world such that we can maximise our influence with others.


Developing Influence


“Before you can inspire with emotion you must be swamped with it yourself.

Before you can move their tears, your own must flow.

To convince them, you must yourself believe.”

– Winston Churchill


One of the critical characteristics that all successful leaders have in common is the ability to take others on the journey with them. Clearly, leaders must know where they are going, which requires vision, but that is of no value if they can’t then influence people at a deep level such that they are prepared to follow.

I like the definition of influence which says that it is, “a power affecting a person, thing, or course of events, especially one that operates without any direct or apparent effort.”

The importance of the words, “without any direct or apparent effort” cannot be underestimated, because they point to where so many leaders go wrong. Although the use of force can create limited influence by stimulating some behaviour change in others, it never engages hearts and minds.

People will only do a good job if they want to. They must make the choice to give their discretionary effort, which never happens when a leader attempts to use coercive, manipulative, controlling or bullying tactics. So, well-developed influencing skills are key to leading successfully: some would say that this represents the very essence of leadership.

Unfortunately, we gain little influence from the position we hold, our qualifications, or how we present a speech or express ourselves in a meeting. Instead, influence comes from the life we live and how we show up on a daily basis. It reflects who we are, not who we say we are – or even who we think we are, because whatever behaviours a leader displays will be modelled in his or her followers, whether good or bad. Anyone with children can clearly see this in action: it is who we are that we reproduce, and this is largely determined by our character.


Character – The Core of Leadership

A review of many of the writings on leadership highlights that most researchers, analysts, and commentators agree that being of strong character is at the core of leadership. General Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the Coalition Forces in the Gulf War of 1991, said, “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character but if you must be without one, be without strategy.” Character in and of itself is not enough to be a great leader, but leaders do not become great without it.

So, what does this quality referred to as character really refer to? Definitions vary, but almost all have their foundations in the attributes of moral or ethical strength from which desirable, outer leadership behaviours and attributes flow. These visible traits are relatively easy to recognise, for example:


  • Being impeccable with your word, never falling short of doing what you say you will do
  • Modelling what you expect of others
  • Preparedness to be honest and open about your flaws
  • Basing your decisions on the needs of the organisation, not on your personal agenda
  • Approachability and willingness to receive feedback with an open mind
  • Treating everyone in the same way and exemplifying humility
  • Demonstrating support for others and working collaboratively
  • Demonstrating persistence in the face of difficulties
  • Preparedness to make the tough choices, especially where personal reputation or popularity could be at stake
  • The ability to manage your own emotional state as the environment around you changes.


Such qualities cannot be ‘done’ with consistency. As Gandhi counselled in the opening quote, we must instead seek to become the sort of person for whom behaving this way is automatic. That requires that we undertake the hard work of inner transformation.


About the author:

Michael NicholasMichael Nicholas is an award-winning professional speaker and leadership coach, and author of The Little Black Book of Decision Making: Making Complex Decisions in a Fast-Moving World, (Capstone, 2017).

He helps people improve their performance by challenging them to revolutionise their thinking and behaviour. His insightful, results-oriented training is grounded in 30 years of real-world experience gained through working with leaders from a wide variety of industries, holding senior business positions himself, and serving on active duty as a military officer. He specialises in decision-making, emotional intelligence, and employee engagement.


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