The Most Important Part of Leadership... That's Rarely Discussed

Since releasing The Heart of Leadership, I've received a lot of feedback supporting the big idea of the book:  If your heart is not right, no one cares about your skills. If this is true, why does leadership character get so little attention?

I’ve been asking others and myself this question. Here’s what I’ve concluded.
Many are unsure what leadership character looks like.
If you can’t define something, or even identify it, it’s unlikely you’ll give it much attention. Unfortunately, not talking about something doesn’t diminish its existence or its relevance. That’s one of the primary objectives of my book: To depict leadership character in action – to make it visible.
We don’t differentiate leadership character from other “baseline” character traits.
This is the trap I was in for years. When someone would ask me about leadership character, I would quickly begin to talk about integrity, honesty, loyalty and the like. That was the wrong answer! These traits I just mentioned, and others like them, should be present in all our people. Yes, leaders must embody these baseline character traits; however, these alone will not make the person a leader. Leadership character consists of additional traits - traits that differentiate leaders from followers.
It’s easier to see skill gaps – leadership character gaps are often masked.
If a leader cannot cast vision, build an effective team or solve problems, these gaps manifest themselves in a very public forum. Skills gaps are there for all to see. Issues of the heart are often veiled. Unfortunately, leadership character issues can sometimes go undetected for a long time. In part, because there’s no common language around leadership character. If that’s the case, you may hear people say things like, “I don’t know why exactly, but I don’t trust that leader.”
Leadership skill issues are easier to remedy than leadership character issues.
Let’s suppose you see a leader who hasn’t mastered the core practices of leadership. Perhaps he or she cannot communicate vision in a clear and compelling fashion – what do you do? That’s easy. You start by giving them some feedback and coaching. If that doesn’t work, you send them to a public speaking course and you get them an outside coach. The same general prescription can be used for virtually any skill gap. It’s easy, predictable and has a high success rate. That’s why we focus on skill over leadership character. Character issues, on the other hand, are much harder to address and the prescription is less clear. That’s why I knew The Heart of Leadership had to provide specific action steps to strengthen leadership character. It’s hard, often slow work, but it is doable.
If you know a leader who has historically focused exclusively on building the skills of leadership; or a leader who has huge upside potential if he or she can strengthen their leadership character; send them a copy of The Heart of Leadership. It could be the catalyst they need to reach their full leadership potential.
The truth is we all need to strengthen our leadership character. It’s a never-ending process with huge consequences – good or bad. The best leadership advice I ever received was this…

Above all else, guard your heart. For everything you do flows from it.[GLS_Shield]

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David Sparks

9 years ago

Enjoyed the element of support in your post for helping people develop their skills - to support improvement. Not many would voice support for "a public speaking course and you get them an outside coach" even though that investment would be minor compared to the cost of doing nothing.

Character & Leadership | The Leader's Brand

9 years ago

[…] The Most Important Part of Leadership…That’s Rarely Discussed […]

Frank Fortner

9 years ago

Hi Mark,
I just ordered the book (haven't read it yet) but I love where it seems to be headed. I remind myself as often as I can to "guard my heart" as everything in life flows from it.
Looking forward to another good read!

Gail Severini

9 years ago

Mark, this really resonates for me and I have been searching for good content for a while now. I will be subscribing to your blog and just wanted to share two other resources you might also find useful:
- through the Institute of Corporate Directors I attended a presentation of this paper last week "Leadership Character and Corporate Governance" ( I am a neophyte to the discipline so I am probably easily impressed. One of the co-authors, Jeffrey Gandz, presented and was clear that this is a work in progress - he noted that this is version 24 and the authors expect to continue making adjustments for some time. He, like you, noted that there is no language yet for discussing this important topic. There are follow-on presentations over the next few weeks (links here
- also Daryl Conner, more well known for his thought leadership in strategy execution and change management, is deepening work around "increasing one’s effectiveness has more to do with who you are than what you know how to do". There is an intro here with a link to the experiential learning program "Raising your game" offered through The Center for
Leadership Studies
Looking forward to hearing more from you on the blog and twitter.


9 years ago

Thanks, Gail. I appreciate the recommended resources (and I know other readers do too). I've already tweeted Daryl's comment about effectiveness - so true. Thanks for joining the conversation! Mark

5 for Leadership (2/15/14) | Gary Runn5 for Leadership (2/15/14) - Gary Runn

9 years ago

[…] The Most Important Part of Leadership . . . That’s Rarely Discussed  “If your heart is not right, no one cares about your skills. If this is true, why does leadership character get so little attention?” Mark Miller, a Vice President with Chick-Fil-A, dives into this important topic, with a very personal perspective. Take a look at Mark’s blog-there are many great resources here. […]


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