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Leading with Character: The Three I’s of Leadership

Last week, I talked about initiative and imagination. That got me onto an “I” kick! So many powerful leadership-centric words start with an “I”. It’s often said, “leadership is influence.” Although “influence” is a powerful word, it strikes me as a somewhat lonely word with a hint of a hard edge. I envision an individual who seeks to dominate a topic or even an industry. To me, leadership is more than influence. It’s a balance between the harder edge and the softer middle.

Leadership is a Balance
A more complete way of looking at leadership is to view it in three parts, like a three-legged stool. Character-driven leadership is influence, impact, and inspiration. As with a three-legged stool, all three parts must be in balance to be effective.

Influence is a leader’s ability to project his or her will, thoughts, or ideas to others. As with impact and inspiration, a leader can influence both in person and virtually. For instance, it’s all the rage on social media these days for people to establish themselves as “influencers” seeking followers. The ability to help shape conversations and strategies is an important quality, but one must guard against the insidious creep toward self-centeredness. Followers can morph into worshippers in the eyes of someone who becomes filled with hubris. Examples abound of people in highly visible, influential roles who have succumbed to the hubris trap. To succeed as a respected influencer, leaders of character must ground themselves in their core values and balance influence with humility.

Influence without impact is empty. The best leaders search for new ways to create value, to improve workplace climate, to make a difference in someone’s life. Making a positive impact takes hard work, not bluster. It requires building trust and earning respect by reaching out to others every day to deepen relationships and increase understanding. That is even harder in the virtual workplaces that have sprung up during the Covid pandemic. Leaders have to reach deeper and focus with more intention to make an impact in remote conditions.

The very best leaders inspire others to reach high and strive to achieve their full potential. They encourage people to use initiative and to seek innovative solutions. Inspiration is different from influence because it transfers the power from the leader to others. It creates excitement, enthusiasm, and hope that result in personal and professional productivity. It encourages teamwork and commitment to a shared purpose. The most inspirational leaders I’ve worked with inspire not only their subordinates but their peers and yes, their supervisors.

Recently, I attended the retirement ceremony for the Coast Guard’s Vice Commandant, Admiral Charlie Ray. The Coast Guard’s service secretary, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayarkos, stood up to make the briefest of remarks (he wisely leveraged the axiom that sometimes shorter can be more impactful). He recounted a story that exemplified Admiral Ray’s inspirational leadership. Upon informing his staff that he had made the decision to attend Admiral Ray’s retirement, a Coast Guard member emphatically stated, “Mr. Secretary, we revere Admiral Ray.” The absolute silence of the hundreds of people in attendance attested to the impact of Secretary Mayarkos’s statement eloquently describing a truly humble servant leader.

Look in the mirror. Is your three-legged leadership stool stable? Are you striving to be an inspirational leader, who understands how to properly use influence in making a positive impact?

Please join me again next week for more on Leading with Character.