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Where character meets leadership

Stan Soderstrom | Jan 13, 2020

Stan Soderstrom

When it comes to leadership, we usually get so much talk about “character” that we often come to think of the two qualities as the same. But there is a distinction — and a recent book reminded me how important it is.   

sailing true north “Leadership is broadly understood to be the ability to influence others, generally in order to accomplish a specific purpose,” writes James Stavridis, a retired formal admiral in the U.S. Navy, in “Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character.” (An extra point of pride for me and my fellow Kiwanians: Stavridis is also a former member of Key Club, the Kiwanis program for high school students.)

But character? As Stavridis points out, character is not a single, simple element that exists the same way in each person — not even among history’s great figures. In fact, “Sailing True North” examines leadership and character, and the ways they diverge and intertwine, through the examples of 10 naval admirals throughout history.  

After reading the book, I have good news for the rest of us: great leadership has never required human perfection.

Of course, there are such things as good character and bad character. And history has shown that someone with the latter can still be a leader — the kind who often leads others to terrible ends.  

But for the vast majority, character does not exist in such an obvious or straightforward way. People are complicated — we have strengths and assets, and we have flaws and weak spots.  

From Themistocles in ancient Greece to U.S. Rear Admiral Grace Hopper in the 20th century, Stavridis explores how unique combinations of talent, vision and personality have gotten people through various challenges to the achievements for which they’re known.

As I read, I found a theme emerging: “The test of character,” Stavridis writes, “is taking the ‘hard right’ over the ‘easy wrong.’”

Difficult situations amount to one of the harshest but least avoidable aspects of leadership. But if you have a vision for the future, you’ll see beyond the present difficulty to a clearer idea about the long-term benefit or detriment of any decision. You might even see the difficulty itself more realistically.

“In my own case,” Stavridis writes, “I learned early that in order to exercise vision, you need the qualities of character that underlie it — patience, diligence, and a willingness to send your ideas into the world knowing they will be battered and belittled more often than not.”

He offers that reflection in his chapter about Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mayan, whose influence has been largely intellectual. But he makes a similar observation about Admiral Hyman Rickover (“The Master of Anger”), whose impatience could be both help and hindrance: “You also need the deepest reserves of character — strategic patience especially — to implement vision.”   

In addition to being a great read, “Sailing True North” reminded me how many ways there are to be an effective leader, and how many types of people can reach that status.

I also realized how perfect a metaphor sailing is for leadership. Ultimately, the successful leader must navigate. That requires more than an ability to influence others — it requires a combination of vision, character and resilience.

Stan Soderstrom is the executive director of Kiwanis International and the Kiwanis Children's Fund.

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