The Importance of Character in Executive Leadership - Boardroom News

The Importance of Character in Executive Leadership

The New York Times columnist David Brooks makes a distinction between “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.”

While your resume virtues focus on your professional competencies, your eulogy virtues focus on your personal character — the things you want to be remembered for. 

Unfortunately, executive leaders and board members are often valued for their resume virtues rather than their eulogy virtues, which can have a negative impact on the companies and organizations they lead.

The Crisis of Character in Executive Leadership

Leaders set the tone for the entire organization. But in some cases, leaders rise to the top based solely on their “resume virtues.” Once they reach a position of authority, it becomes clear that they lack the character traits and soft skills necessary to effectively lead an organization.

What are some of the warning signs that your organization is facing a leadership crisis? Here are some things to watch for in your board members, managers, or corporate leaders.

A Culture of Idol Worship

Today’s CEOs Are Multifaceted Leaders

In some cases, the leader becomes the “hero” of the entire organization.

This type of leader sees themselves as vital to the success of the company — a delusion they often pass down to their employees. When the leader is genuinely charismatic, it can be even easier to slide into a sort of idol worship.

As a result, the leader’s decisions are never questioned. Instead, the leader’s opinions and values dominate every decision, and employees are expected to follow along.

New hires quickly find themselves forced to get in line by employees who have been indoctrinated in the “cult of personality,” which allows no room for new ideas or to challenge current assumptions.

A Culture of Authority

This type of leadership culture can be harder to spot. After all, leaders are supposed to wield authority for the good of the company or their workers. But leaders can become authoritarian, which means that instead of equipping and empowering their employees they function only as a boss, handing down orders and expecting blind loyalty from their subordinates.

The problem with this approach is twofold. First, it robs employees of their agency, which also means that nothing can get done without the leader’s direct input. That’s a surefire way to slow down your business processes. But second, that’s also a good way to burn out your employees. 

A culture of authority soon backfires, leading to less productivity than if the leader had been more intentional about empowering workers.

A Culture Lacking in Communication

Some of the worst leaders are those who fail to regularly or clearly communicate. In some cases, this can be a simple lack of leadership discipline — a failure to keep team members in the loop about what’s going on in the company or even what’s expected of them in their role.

A lack of communication may also be the by-product of the culture of idol worship or authority. In both of these cases, the leader may feel it unnecessary to communicate with staff members, let alone provide a space for employees to contribute to decisions or voice their concerns. The end result is confusion and resentment among employees who feel cut off from leadership.

A Culture of Stagnation

One of the most serious signs of a leadership problem is a culture of stagnation. A lack of progress can be a death sentence for many organizations since it gives competing businesses an opportunity to adapt to new economic conditions and dominate the market.

Beware of leaders who insist, “That’s the way we’ve always done things.” This kind of thinking can become a pair of shackles that attach to the wrists of every employee. And workers who want to see progress and change may soon decide to find a different culture at another company.

Eulogy Virtues for Corporate Leaders

How can companies avoid creating the kinds of cultures listed above? While core competencies will always be essential, companies should not neglect the “eulogy virtues,” the personal character that makes for a great leader. Here are some qualities that leaders should strive for and executive search teams should aim to find in future leaders.

Ability to Delegate

No leader should be afraid to delegate roles and responsibilities to their employees. Delegating ensures that business processes are taken care of and that workers are empowered and equipped to accomplish the company mission.


The best leaders are driven by purpose, and that drive spills over to others. Workers need to understand how their role contributes to the company’s bigger picture. Leaders can help their teams understand the company’s goals and how their work aligns with those goals.


Leaders lead people, and to lead people, you have to understand people. Leaders can practice empathy by listening to their employees’ concerns. While not every concern warrants a response, employees will be more engaged when they know their voices are heard and understood.


Instead of a cult of personality, leaders should strive for a culture of humility. This demands the courage to say “I don’t know.” Modeling this virtue can provoke a willingness to learn and grow by seeking out answers to tough questions.


Leaders must hold themselves to the highest ethical standards. This is important so the company complies with legal and regulatory standards, but it also ensures that leaders can serve as a model of integrity for their workforce or even for other board members.


The economic world is constantly changing. Leaders must learn to adapt to shifting conditions and teach their teams to do the same. Maintaining flexibility in terms of business processes and decisions will ensure that companies remain resilient regardless of the current economic climate.

Overcoming the Crisis of Leadership

They say that leaders aren’t born; they’re made. That is, leadership qualities aren’t just confined to a resume but are forged in the experiences of life and the workplace. The qualities above can prevent a crisis of leadership in the workforce today and ensure that organizations place emphasis on both success and integrity.

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