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John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

Strong character trumps perfection

Question: Despite suspension over honor code violations and an ongoing investigation into his recruitment, Auburn's Cam Newton last week won the Heisman Trophy--an award meant to honor "pursuit of excellence with integrity." The award raises a dilemma faced by many organizations: In dealing with top performers, how much should leaders overlook corner cutting, rule breaking and other integrity issues?

Integrity is the cornerstone of sound leadership. It is what gives managers the character they need to insist on doing the right thing, as well as doing it the right way.

Integrity is not a process; it is a value that is practiced by individuals, managers and employees alike. So it matters what employees do and how they do it. As a veteran executive once told me, hire for character. Don't expect to develop something that is not there. If a person lacks a moral compass, don't think you can give him one.

Managers, like all of us, want to succeed; and since their success is based upon getting the best people they can to work for them, good managers are on the look out for talent for their teams. It is easy to be dazzled by an individual's success--be it the attainment of a sales goal, the launch of a new product or the successful adoption of a corporate initiative.

These accomplishments merit attention, but it is always wise to peek behind the curtain to see how these successes were achieved. And to do it, consider three questions:

How well does the individual work with others? Teams need leaders who are willing to work with others. The ability to cooperate is essential to team work. From it can emerge collaboration that is essential to team success.

How does the individual deal with adversity? Setbacks are inevitable. A leader must be one who can address an obstacle with a clear head. Knowing how to deal with adversity is a measure of a leader's ability to achieve.

How do others regard this individual? Everyone wants to be liked, but affinity comes second to respect. Respect is rooted in integrity and reinforced by competency and credibility.

Simple questions, yes, but their answers will give you insight into the character of the individual. Character is a reflection of integrity; it is the framework upon which a person's behavior is based.

Judging character is not a mystery; it is a matter of watching how a person interacts with others and the effect that individual has on others. A truism in drama is that character is action; the same holds for leadership. How an individual acts defines who he is.

Perfection is not what managers should look for. "The first time you see Winston Churchill you see all his faults," said Lady Lytton, "and the rest of your life you spend discovering his virtues." Churchill could be abrasive, cantankerous and impetuous, but he was also faithful, magnanimous and valiant.

Managers therefore may do well to tolerate an individual who exhibits quirky habits, so long as those quirks do not harm others or the team. And never should an employee (or manager) be allowed to cross ethical boundaries in business or in personal relations. Character matters.

Managers who hire people without integrity not only imperil their teams but also the character of their organizations.

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By John Baldoni

 |  December 13, 2010; 6:54 PM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Corporate leadership , Ethics , Leadership personalities , Leadership weaknesses , Organizational Culture , Quarterbacks , Sports Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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