Leadership Failures Are Usually Character Failures

Leadership is a blend of competence and character.

BG (Retired) Jim Anderson, my father, taught me that. In 41 years in the Army, including two tours in Vietnam, he saw a lot of great leaders and a lot of leadership failures that formed his philosophy.

I started this website with this post.  I have learned a lot since then.  Thank you for joining me and contributing.  Every time you comment on a blog, you make me better.  Thank you for that!

Leadership Philosophy

At work, in the news and in the history books, failures in leadership are almost never a result of failures in competence. They are failures in character. Here is a short list of examples I’ve seen and the character trait that was exposed in those failures:

  • Bernie Madoff lied to his clients and stole millions. He lacked integrity not competence in handling money. He is doing time.
  • A sales manager I know who badgered sales people to sell more so “I can win this year’s award trip.” He was selfish not incompetent. His people were disgruntled and low performers. He was fired.
  • Leaders at Penn State were unwilling to speak out or act when the allegations of abuse were first reported. That is cowardice not the inability to run an athletic department. That story isn’t finished.

So what is character?


  • Begins with our thoughts.
  • Our thoughts become our words.
  • Our words lead to our actions.
  • Our actions become habits.
  • Our habits determine our character.

I believe our character is our habitual way of operating. My habits, the good, the bad and the ugly ones paint a pretty clear picture of my character.

So how can I become a leader of character? I am going to unpack that more on my 2/29/12 post. I’d love to hear your thoughts on character or your stories about great leaders of character you have encountered. Share them here.

12 Responses to “Leadership Failures Are Usually Character Failures”

  1. Mike Reppert February 26, 2012 at 8:27 pm #

    You’ve hit the nail on the head Dave. People who lack character as you describe might be successful for a while but in the end will fail or lose everything that matters. You say character begins with our thoughts… So what kind of thoughts should we think on or about to build character?

    • Dave Anderson February 27, 2012 at 5:28 am #


      Our thoughts are influenced often by what we expose our brains to. What books do we read? What shows do we watch? Who do we listen to for advice? What attitudes do those people have.

      Read virtuous things: The Bible, biographies of great people, some books I will recommend on my resources page.

      This is just one way. I will unpack more on this on Wednesday’s blog.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Eric February 26, 2012 at 9:10 pm #

    You hit the nail directly on the head. Throughout my adult life, I’ve noticed that incompetence is demonstrated very early. (Everyone identified the “idiot” and was never surprised by a relief for cause or immediate termination. ) No, it was the character imperfections and flaws that caight everyone by surprise.

    “DUI? I didn’t even knew he drank.”

    “Sexual harassment? But wasn’t he married?”

    “Fraud? But he was making so much in salary. Why?”

    • Dave Anderson February 27, 2012 at 5:32 am #


      Deep seated character issues are hard to uncover. Lots of times they manifest themselves in a terrible way, just as you have pointed out.

      As a leader, I must first work on myself. Second, I have to Hire For Character. Third, I need to put character issues out in front of my people and begin discussing them. Make this about who you are as an organization.

      Thanks for checking in. More on character in future posts. It is a hot topic for me…as you will see.


  3. Garrett Miller February 27, 2012 at 6:25 pm #

    Great article. That is why I wrote Hire on a WHIM. There are qualities that you must hire because you can not teach. If you hire someone without all four qualities you are going to bump into an HR issue. One of the qualities, humility (I define as: the ability and willingness to learn and be taught), is often missing or deemed unimportant in leadership. Some even see it as a weakness. I’d never follow a leader who did not display humility. Many of the leadership failures are do to this missing quality.

    • Dave Anderson February 28, 2012 at 5:18 am #


      Bingo! Great point. I am very interested in that topic as well. You should read Hiring for Attitude by Mark Murphey. Great book that works on this area as well.

      Let’s talk soon. Thanks for checking out the site. I hope you will continue to come back. God Bless.


  4. Dad, Jim Anderson March 3, 2012 at 12:13 pm #

    I like what you are doing here!!!

    We should always remember that developing our “Character” is a life-long pursuit. If we are going to be “Leaders of Character” we must be prepared to “talk the talk” of “Character”. Many leaders are afraid to talk to their followers about “Character” because they do not spend enough time reading and studying what it really means. You are doing a great service by helping interested leaders to learn to “talk the talk” of what is “Character”.

    • Dave Anderson March 4, 2012 at 10:08 am #

      Thanks Dad.

      So much of what I say in this site stem from the lessons I learned watching you and listening to you. (I heard you all the time…I just didn’t listen very well as a teenager!)

      There is more to come on this topic to include practical suggestions on how leaders can speak about character in the workplace.

  5. Dave May 16, 2012 at 4:27 am #

    This is wisdom put succinctly. I started writing a paper on relationship between leadership and character some time ago and with recent research I have found that there is new range of evidence of importance of character. It’s not some archaic outmoded idea that we don’t need anymore. On the contrary we need our ethical compass more than ever in complex situations we can face at work and general life. I think the points made in discussions about servant leadership are very relevant for leaders with character also.

  6. John February 27, 2013 at 1:16 pm #

    Nice article .They say if you want to test someone’s character just give them power . I believe that you may fail the first time you are put in a position of leadership if you are not prepared for it properly, but you will learn from it and move on. If you have certain Character flows that do not allow you to examine and review your short comings you will never grow as a true leader. To lead is to keep your ego in check, serve and put others best interests first. One of the leaders I have the most respect for is George Washington who was the first leader in the history to walk away from power and all of its temptations

  7. Dave Anderson February 28, 2013 at 7:12 am #

    When a tree stops growing, it starts dying. A leader of character is always looking for ways to grow. The way to start is to recognize my mistakes, admit them, and grow.

  8. Doug Mayblum March 1, 2013 at 1:57 pm #

    Thanks for the insight, Dave.
    In my own facilitation program character is stressed as the critical foundational block. Without it, its a house without a ground floor.

    It wasn’t always that way. In my formative years as a leader I was counseled (actually, ordered) to lead from a “Darwinian” approach. Survival of the fittest was the mantra so I had no alternative but to practice appropriate characteristics in secret.
    I’m pleased that the approach you advocate receives the attention it deserves.
    Character cascades to a healthy organizational culture that cascades to bottom line results.

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