Emotional intelligence Leadership Personal growth Sustainability

Character Leadership: Being a Light in the Dark

A Lighthouse In The Dark By The Sea Storm Illustration

Daily headlines remind us that we face the impact of converging global crises – from climate to conflict, to health and wellness, to injustice and inequality, to erosion of social cohesion and societal polarization. Yet, at the heart of these issues lies one common crisis: leadership.

The Core Crisis: Leadership Deficit

Inhabiting our current landscape is a dearth of visionary, solution-seeking and collaborative leadership that instills hope, builds trust, inspires others, and is willing to compromise so that today’s decisions ensure the ability for tomorrow’s flourishing. In short, much of today’s leadership is character-deficient.

When speaking with global leaders for our book Character: What Contemporary Leaders Can Teach Us About Building a More Just, Prosperous, and Sustainable Future, the criticality of including character in leadership development at all levels was reinforced. Strong, well-developed character is foundational to excellence in judgement and decision-making, and no level of competence or skill can compensate for a lack of character in leaders.

To achieve the vision of creating a sustainable, thriving world, we need leaders with the judgment necessary to balance urgent, complex, and competing stakeholder interests and the strength of character to navigate an uncertain and volatile world wisely. As such, we must teach current and future leaders how to exercise the following character dimensions in contextually appropriate levels to arrive at that sound judgment: accountability, collaboration, courage, drive, humanity, humility, integrity, justice, temperance, and transcendence.

Character Development in Leadership

Character can be observed, measured, and developed in each of us. Hence, through education and our outreach with public, private, and not-for-profit organizations, we seek to inspire individuals to undertake a life-long journey to understand and cultivate character within their own lives. Our aim is to make character development deliberate and informed, moving it from being an inconsequential component of leadership education to understanding its very consequential impact on our selves, families, workplaces, and communities.

We are optimistic in our pursuit because people have the potential to constantly learn and adapt as they make their way in life – and the development of character is no exception. It has been said many times before that leadership is a journey – and many leaders evolve and grow as they mature and deal with personal and professional challenges that, in many cases, make them even better leaders.

We are not naïve and understand that character is not a panacea to solving every crisis and challenge. Further, for every story that captures the perspective and actions of a character-infused leader, we can offer an equivalent amount of those whose lack of character has or is causing harm to individuals, organizations, communities, or nations. But they, too, can provide lessons.

As English novelist Catherine Aird said, “If you can't be a good example, you will have to be a horrible warning."

Sometimes, those warnings come as a cautionary tale of those whose character generated compromised judgement, resulting in significant consequences or, if sustained, their downfall. We encourage you to deeply reflect on the character of the story's protagonist the next time you watch, read, or listen to the news. Don't just examine what they did but also consider the dimensions of their character that led them to their decisions and actions. Learn and then apply the inevitable leadership lessons embedded in these events.

Harnessing Character for Global Solutions

Of course, it is reasonable to experience resentment or even deep anger when confronted with failings of character. But anger, like a hammer, can build or destroy depending on what you choose to do with it. Righteous anger is justified and can be harnessed as fuel for change.

As the American poet Marge Piercy once wrote, "A good anger acted upon / is beautiful as lightning / and swift with power."

This quote may serve as a battle cry so we can act with a strong sense of urgency, as we can no longer afford to wait to address and solve the crises and challenges of our lifetime. Character-based leadership is what the world needs right now.

It is not a stretch to argue that leadership is salient to a nation's social, political, and economic development and well-being. Therefore, it is critical that we develop, support, vote for, promote and be leaders with strength of character to tackle today's boundary-crossing grand challenges. It is possible, but it will take many of us to draw on the best part of ourselves and to fight against being overwhelmed, cynical, selfish, or just plain tired.

In Character, we encourage individuals to be a beacon of hope. Being a beacon - being a lighthouse in the dark - is not only the first job of a leader but the everyday and ultimate job of a leader. In these stormy times, aspire to be that ever-present, always visible lighthouse illuminating the shore to your constituent 'vessels' on the open seas, reassuring them that solid ground is present and will be found again. Skeptics may say this is unlikely to happen. We say there is no alternative that makes sense for our social, political, and economic survival, development, and well-being. Our lives and the flourishing of future generations depend on it.


Gerard Seijts is Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Ivey Business School.  Kimberley Young Milani is the Director of the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership at the Ivey Business School. Their new book, Character: What Contemporary Leaders Can Teach Us About Building a More Just, Prosperous, and Sustainable Future, shares research insights on Leader Character and features interviews with individuals who have demonstrated incredible leader character. The book, released on April 30, 2024 is available for order now.

About the Book

Print copy of Character: what contemporary leaders can teach us about building a more just, prosperous, and sustainable future

The latest book from the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership provides an exceptional opportunity to become a better leader by applying the extraordinary yet down-to-earth insights from the authors’, Gerard Seijts and Kimberly Young Milani, accessible scholarship and interviews with truly distinguished leaders whose lessons on building stronger societies through character-based leadership are moving, powerful, and evergreen. 

Rated Amazon's #1 Best Seller in Business Ethics, you can order your copy of Character: What Contemporary Leaders Can Teach Us About Building a More Just, Prosperous, and Sustainable Future:

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