Post sponsored by

Source: Massey University

Leadership researcher Dr Suze Wilson says character counts when it comes to effective political leadership.

Parties, policies and personalities influence our choice as voters, with the personalities of most interest to us likely being the leaders of the various parties contesting the election. How we as voters regard a given party leader is, ultimately, in the eye of the beholder. To bring more rigor to our decision, what should we be looking for? What’s desirable and what should be avoided when it comes to leading well?  Why does a leader’s character matter?

While there are many possible frameworks to draw on, scholars have for centuries been interested in the character virtues that enable leaders to exercise good judgement recognizing that, especially at a senior level, leaders must frequently make decisions on complex, ambiguous issues, with far-reaching consequences. Recent research highlights drive, collaboration, humanity, humility, integrity, temperance, fairness, accountability, courage and an optimistic, future-focussed orientation as the ideal set of leader characteristics.  

The more a given leader demonstrates these qualities, the more likely they are to act wisely and in ways that serve the greater good. The fewer of these qualities they have, and if they overdo a given quality – for example courage overdone becomes reckless risk-taking – the more preventable mistakes they will make. And, they are more likely they will be to behave in ways that undermine the solemn and sacred trust that governments should act in the interests of their citizens. 

Significant character flaws could expose us to leaders seeking power for its own sake or out of a sense of entitlement – hubris, in other words. Hubristic leaders are poor decision-makers and burn off relationships due to an overweening belief they know best. This kind of arrogant approach is a major derailing factor in organizational leadership and is equally undesirable amongst political leaders. While confidence certainly is important for leaders, over-confidence is harmful. The theatre of politics may well encourage bold, aggressive behaviours, as if these somehow prove someone is a ‘strong’ leader. However, the reality is that such tactics not only lack virtue – they create fear, mistrust and resentment, inhibit open debate, and undermine a leader’s ability to exercise sound judgement.  

A leader who possesses humility and temperance as part of their character will foster an environment in which genuine debate is possible, leading to better decisions. If they are future-oriented and optimistic, they can motivate and inspire others to excel. If they have humanity, they will be considerate of others’ needs, empathic and compassionate. If they have integrity, they will be transparent, candid, principled and authentic – matters vital to ensuring our government is trustworthy. All these factors also help foster better quality decision-making because they create an open, safe environment in which people feel valued and heard.  

Character flaws can lead to bad decisions

If, however, these character virtues are weak or absent, an arrogant, impatient, or impetuous leader will intimidate those around them. They will de-motivate – even if they have a vision – through behaving in ways that are insensitive to others. They will foster a chilly atmosphere in which people are afraid to say what they really think. A lack of integrity will erode trust in government, weakening social cohesion and the rule of law. The chances of wise decisions being made are undermined if a leader has these character flaws, and negative effects on the nation’s success flow from this. Character does matter.   

While a New Zealand Prime Minister has, constitutionally speaking, quite limited powers, the reality is they ‘set the tone’ for their government and for the nation as a whole. It’s an incredibly difficult role and no one will do it perfectly.  

Whoever is our next PM will make mistakes from time to time. These mistakes may not arise due to character weaknesses. Rather, many decisions have to be made in uncertain, evolving situations, where the information available is incomplete or possibly even incorrect.  

Where character matters, however, is how a leader responds once it’s clear a decision or action was flawed in some way: do they own it and work to fix it, or blame others, or deny there’s a problem? The first demonstrates the virtue of accountability and is the ideal approach – but blaming and denial are indicative of possible character weaknesses. 

Consider carefully, then, how each leader functions when the heat is on because things are not going well. In an age of sophistical political marketing, much of a leader’s character can potentially be disguised in set-piece speeches or engagements with only the party faithful. However, when a leader has to face up to crises, problems and mistakes then their character strengths and limitations will be more apparent. The judgement they show in those key ‘moments’ – which will sometimes last days, weeks or even months depending on the nature of the situation – will reveal if they are worthy of the sacred responsibility of being our nation’s leader.  

Dr Suze Wilson is a senior lecturer in Massey University’s Executive Development/School of Management.