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Leading with Character and Competence

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Leading with Character and Competence
Moving beyond Title, Position, and Authority

“Leadership is an applied discipline, not a foamy concept to muse about,” says three-time CEO, Oxford-trained scholar, and consultant Timothy R. Clark. “In fact, it's the most important applied discipline in the world.” The success of any organization can be traced directly to leadership. And leadership can be learned. But too many books and development programs focus exclusively on skills.

In reality, performance and ultimate credibility are based on a combination of character and competence. As Clark puts it, character is the core and competence the crust. He shows how greatness emerges from a powerful combination of the two, although in the end character is more important. A leader with character but no competence will be ineffective, while a leader with competence but no character is dangerous.

Clark spotlights the four most important components of character and competence and offers a series of eloquent, inspiring, and actionable reflections on what's needed to build each one. Fundamentally, he sees leadership as influence—leaders influence people “to climb, stretch, and become.” You need character to influence positively and competence to influence effectively.

This is a book for anyone, no matter where he or she is on the organization chart. Because today employees at all levels are being asked to step up, not only can everyone be a leader, everyone has to be. Clark's insights are profound, and his passion is infectious. “Leadership” he writes, “is the most engaging, inspiring, and deeply satisfying activity known to humankind. Through leadership we have the opportunity to progress, overcome adversity, change lives, and bless the race.”

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10 Chapters

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The Four Cornerstones of Character

The First Cornerstone of Character: Integrity

The Second Cornerstone of Character: Humility

The Third Cornerstone of Character: Accountability

The Fourth Cornerstone of Character: Courage

The Four Cornerstones of Competence

The First Cornerstone of Competence: Learning

The Second Cornerstone of Competence: Change

The Third Cornerstone of Competence: Judgment

The Fourth Cornerstone of Competence: Vision


Chapter 1 The First Cornerstone of Character: Integrity


I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence.

Frederick Douglass (1818–1895)
African-American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845)

The first cornerstone of character is integrity—but let’s not get philosophical about what that means. We are talking about basic, straight-up honesty. Unfortunately, corruption is the pandemic of our time.1 Most nations on planet Earth are deeply and almost irretrievably corrupt. They have become undrainable swamps. Greek philosopher Aristotle said, “The mass of citizens is less corruptible than the few.”2 For the sake of civil society, we need that to be true. Yet according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, three out of four institutions globally are losing the public’s trust.3

Consider that in this country we are chasing after dreamy egalitarianism with fiscal recklessness. We like rights and dislike responsibility. With our no-fault philosophy, we suffer from the tyranny of tolerance. We have adopted a spray-on-tan culture of YOLO narcissism. Indeed, if we can clear the decks of right and wrong—disavow, repudiate, and savage the concepts—we can give ourselves permission to do anything we want.4 And if we want to sound erudite about it, we call morality “cultural relativism.”5 As one observer said, “As truth has been relativized—absolutely relativized, so to speak—so has morality.”6


Chapter 2 The Second Cornerstone of Character: Humility


[The highest level of leadership] builds
enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend
of personal humility and professional will.

James C. “Jim” Collins (1958–)
American business consultant, lecturer, and author
Good to Great (2001)

The second cornerstone of character is humility. People will tell you politely that humility is important, but most don’t really believe it. As an attribute, humility has a weak public reputation and a bad name. People think it’s soft, cowering, and acquiescent when in fact the opposite is true. So my first job is to puncture that myth. The bottom line is that humility is a performance accelerator. It allows you to develop, grow, and progress faster. This unadorned attribute is shockingly powerful. Ironically, it is also one of the most difficult to cultivate.

In his autobiography Benjamin Franklin said, “In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history; for, even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.”1


Chapter 3 The Third Cornerstone of Character: Accountability


The key to your happiness is to own your own slippers, own who you are, own how you look, own your family, own the talents you have, and own the ones you don’t. If you keep saying your slippers aren’t yours, then you’ll die searching, you’ll die bitter, always feeling you were promised more. Not only our actions, but also our omissions, become our destiny.

Abraham Verghese (1955–)
Physician, professor of medicine at Stanford University, and author Cutting for Stone (2009)

The third cornerstone of character is personal accountability. A leader must demand accountability of himself. Go back with me to 1783 and let me introduce you to the most accountable man of his generation.

It’s a cold December day. You are standing in a crowded public gallery. Suddenly, your eyes meet the image of a stately figure entering the chamber. Silence ordered, this man of commanding presence bows, delivers a short speech, and then pulls from his military dress uniform a document and hands it to the ranking official. The visitor turns to face what has become a sea of swollen eyes and watery cheeks. He bows again, waves farewell, and then rides off to have Christmas dinner with his family.


Chapter 4 The Fourth Cornerstone of Character: Courage


Whether called to public station or in the more private walks; following no man and no cause because of popularity, shunning no man and no cause you believe to be right because of unpopularity or reproach; but avoiding the parasite and self-seeker, and standing bravely by your own convictions.

Major Simon Willard (1606–1676)
English army major, politician, and magistrate
In a letter to his children

The fourth and final cornerstone of character is courage. The US Marine Corps handbook defines courage in this way: “Moral, mental, and physical strength to resist opposition, face danger, and endure hardship.”1 Does that sound more like leadership or more like management? Leadership requires a larger quantum of courage than management.

It will always be easier to criticize leaders more than managers. Why? Because leaders need more courage to take more risks, which always leads to more unforced errors. Leadership is a tougher game than management. Leaders are burdened with an act of creation. Managers, on the other hand, are burdened with an act of maintenance. Thus, in a strict sense, leaders are creators and managers are caretakers.


Chapter 5 The First Cornerstone of Competence: Learning


In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.

Eric Hoffer (1902–1983)
Author and moral and social philosopher
Reflections on the Human Condition (1973)

The first cornerstone of competence is learning. On one occasion I had the opportunity to advise leaders at a technology company. On one visit to the company, I struck up a conversation with a gentleman and learned that he trained people in cell phone forensics. I asked him how often he had to update his teaching curriculum to stay current with technology. Answer: every two months. Can you imagine your knowledge and skills becoming obsolete in eight weeks? This may be the exception, but it illustrates the hyperspeed of change in the twenty-first century.

The question is, What are you going to do about it? The new normal is visible to all but not felt by all. Are you still untouched and unconverted by the riptide of change? You may not feel it now, but eventually we must all yield or bow out. The new normal antagonizes the inflexible, persecutes the nonlearner, and punishes the resister. The placid years of docile domestic markets are gone. The cherished employer/employee compact is gone. The “learn, earn, and burn” model of career progression—learn your profession, earn your living, and burn your banked resources during your golden years—that’s gone too.


Chapter 6 The Second Cornerstone of Competence: Change


[Humans tend to] seek a state of well-ordered, painless, contented, self-perpetuating equilibrium.

Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997)
Social and political theorist, philosopher, and historian of ideas
“The Intellectual Life of American Universities” (speech, 1949)

Author and journalist Sylvia Nasar wrote, “From the beginning of civilization to the 19th century, 90 percent of humanity was stuck in place, even if their country did comparatively well. Average people lived like livestock—they didn’t go anywhere, read anything, or wear much; they ate bad food and didn’t live a very long time.”1

I would not trade centuries with those people, but at least they took some comfort in the familiar. Today we live in a near-constant state of disturbance. We are anything but stuck in place, which makes leadership a more dangerous calling. The principles have not changed, but the conditions have. In education, government, healthcare, and the nonprofit sectors, market upheaval, technological disruption, demographic churning, and political unrest are not going away. Even the hale and hearty must shake hands with radical change here and there. There are no storm-proof organizations, and there are no sources of competitive advantage that last forever. It’s all ice. The only question is the rate of the melt.


Chapter 7 The Third Cornerstone of Competence: Judgment


A decision is a judgment. It is a choice between alternatives. It is rarely a choice between right and wrong. It is at best a choice between “almost right” and “probably wrong”—but much more often a choice between two courses of action neither of which is provably more nearly right than the other.

Peter F. Drucker (1909–2005)
Austrian-born American management consultant, educator, and author
Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, and Practices (1993)

In 1952 a group of renowned scientists gathered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for what would become known as the Summer Study Group. In the background Cold War tensions were escalating between the United States and the Soviet Union. What concerned national security experts most was the possibility that Moscow could dispatch long-range bombers armed with nuclear warheads and send them over the polar region undetected. In response the US government commissioned its scientists to make a detailed study of North American vulnerability to such an attack. Out of the deliberations came an urgent recommendation to build a distant early-warning system—what became known as the DEW Line—consisting of state-of-the-art radar stations arrayed across the Arctic Circle.


Chapter 8 The Fourth Cornerstone of Competence: Vision


Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.

Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846–1912)
American architect and urban designer
Quoted in Daniel H. Burnham, Architect, Planner of Cities (1921)

The fourth and final cornerstone of competence is vision. I want to focus mainly on personal vision—to have vision to see what does not exist, to see what others cannot see, and to see potential and possibility in both yourself and others. A vision is a seedling of reality, a portrait of the future, a life-giving force. It taps mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical energy and propels you forward. It is both a catalyst to start and a sustainer to continue.1

A vision points to the future. Even a crude, opaque hint of your potential can be enormously motivating. When you gain a personal vision of what you can become, that internal sense of a future state changes behavior. That unseen impression or mental engraving of your potential draws you forward. Leaders do this for others. They see what you can’t see in yourself, and they carry that vision for you until you can lift your gaze. Your vision will increase as your confidence grows because vision and confidence grow together. That is what leaders do. They have done it for you, and now you must do it for others.




It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.

J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973)
British writer, poet, philologist, and university professor
The Return of the King (1955)

TITLE, POSITION, AND AUTHORITY ARE NOT ONLY ACCESSORIES; they are beguiling ones. In the long run, they don’t pay. In and of themselves, they are meaningless objects of worship. Writer David Foster Wallace described it thus:

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship….If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.1



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