Academicians and the popular press both have tried to uncover reasons behind high-profile ethics scandals by highlighting the role of character flaws in organizational or personal failures.
We conducted a research study taking an alternative approach, looking at the importance of character strengths in the performance of leaders in organizations.
We examined the relationship between job performance of C-level executives and middle-level managers, and found that these are the 4 character traits that leaders need:
- perspective, and
- social intelligence.
Overall, we found the more integrity, bravery, perspective, and social intelligence leaders have, the higher their performance ratings.
No real surprise there; these are widely understood to be among the characteristics of a good leader.
But that’s not the whole story.
A Character Trait That Matters Even More at the Top Leader Level: Integrity
We then examined the character traits together to determine their relative importance for performance. We also compared the findings from our middle-level manager sample to the findings from our top-level executive sample.
What we found was surprising and perhaps a little disconcerting. Some character traits are more important than others when you consider leader level, and their importance differs for middle-level managers as compared to top executives. We found that:
- Social intelligence was the most important character trait for middle-level managers’ performance, while
- Integrity was the most important character trait for top-level executives’ performance.
Further, when comparing the findings across the 2 samples, both integrity and bravery were significantly more important predictors of performance for top-level executives than for middle-level managers.
Given that social intelligence was the most important of the 4 character strengths for middle-level managers’ performance, we encourage middle-level managers to go through leadership training initiatives aimed at improving their social intelligence.
Middle-level managers can become “stuck in the middle” of the organizational hierarchy. They are tasked with communicating the vision of those at the top to others at lower levels in an organization, while simultaneously, they have to engage with lower-level employees in the day-to-day, ground-level work. These are among the challenges faced by leaders in the middle.
To develop greater social intelligence, mid-level managers should obtain on-the-job developmental experiences or invest in a leadership development program so they can learn to enhance workplace relationships, given their special place in organizations.
We found that top-level executives should also pay attention to these character strengths, particularly integrity and bravery, which may go hand-in-hand:
- Integrity is needed when deciding what action should be taken.
- Bravery is needed to take actions that might be unpopular.
In addition to the most important leadership competencies for function leaders, these character traits are key for senior executives.
The Irony (and Trouble) with Our Findings on Character Traits of Leaders
Our research found that while integrity is the most important character strength for the performance of top-level executives, it has less to do with the performance of middle-level managers.
The irony of this statement may provide insight into why there are ethical failures at the top of organizations.
Job performance is a well-used proxy for promotability. Managers who perform the best in their current roles are usually the ones promoted to higher levels of management.
Yet based on our results, middle-level managers may be promoted to top-level positions with little explicit regard to their integrity, as it is not as considered as important as other factors in evaluations of their current performance.
So when middle managers are promoted to the C-suite, they may or may not have the integrity to perform effectively at higher levels. Because integrity hasn’t mattered to their performance up to that point, it may not be considered in their promotion.
Organizations may be promoting people up their ranks without knowledge of a crucial character strength needed in those top-level positions. When middle-level managers get to the top of organizations, they may neither have, nor have developed, the integrity needed at the highest of leadership levels.
What’s even more troubling, executives may not know they have problems with integrity when they become a CEO or get their C-suite office. The top-level executives in our study overrated their integrity in comparison to ratings of their integrity provided by their direct reports. The same pattern was not found for middle-level managers. The ratings of integrity by middle-level managers were much closer to (in agreement with) the ratings provided by their direct reports.
What does this mean? Integrity is a potential blind spot of serious concern.
Middle-level managers should focus on social intelligence as well as integrity, particularly if they have aspirations for succeeding in top-level positions, where integrity is of the utmost importance.
And those at the very top of organizations should try to get as much honest feedback about their integrity as they can.
If not addressed in time, this blind spot could lead to failure, infamy, or worse, and may affect far more than just the primary individuals involved, as evidenced by the devastating and far-reaching consequences of many well-publicized scandals in politics and the business world.