Charm, humor do not count as effective leadership

Nov 10, 2015 by Paul Ferdais

I recently re-read the book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey, which I highly recommend. I was reminded of the difference between relying on character to be a leader and relying on personality and techniques.

The long history of leadership teaches us that genuine leaders rely on deeply held principles to guide them. Principles are guidelines for conduct and have an enduring value that people recognize and aspire to. The deeply held principles of a leader get turned into action that people see. What is observed is character.

Leaders who lead with character behave in ways that demonstrate integrity, humility, loyalty, self-restraint, courage, justice and patience, among others. The opposite of character includes lying, cheating, stealing, being untrustworthy, being self-centered, etc.

The basic principles of character help us be successful as leaders because they are the same principles that enable us to be successful as people. These principles don’t get switched on when they’re needed and switched off when they’re not. They’re on display for everyone to see at all times, in all situations.

This is why some people are considered natural leaders. They display character that encourages people to follow. From this view, any person of character can be successful as a leader.

Compare this with leaders who rely on personality to guide their leadership. Relying on personality means using charm, humor or appearance to be seen as the leader. Unfortunately, these traits can be more of a public relations campaign than genuine leadership.

Personality doesn’t require leaders to behave from a genuine place of principle. Leading through personality can come across as fake, manipulative or deceptive, as the leader uses a technique to get someone to do something rather than behaving in a way that genuinely develops followers.

For example, consider a first mate who spends most of his time behind a computer and doesn’t work with the team. When the mate goes out on deck to give the deck crew a work list, he may think his leadership is most effective when being funny or charming.

However, he’s not demonstrating his true character, which has nothing to do with what he says. His actions speak volumes. If the mate hides away all day and expects others to do the hard work, that action is what his crew will respond to.

Leaders of character also develop deep, lasting loyalty with their crew. They don’t rely on superficial personality behaviors as part of their leadership. For example, a captain who’s funny and a nice guy doesn’t necessarily develop strong bonds of loyalty. The crew may like him, but that doesn’t mean they would quit their job to follow him to another boat should he leave.   

I don’t suggest that personality isn’t important to leadership. But it is an extra component, a secondary behavior to character.

Leadership is not about a quick application of a behavior for a few moments or a technique that gets used in a specific situation with a certain group of people. Leadership requires that leaders know who they are and what makes them behave the way they do.

This is why leadership can be difficult to understand sometimes. People who have been leaders for a short time often come to the realization that they need to improve themselves first. So they seek out and participate in a training program or take a course that seems to fit their requirements.

Unfortunately, a training course alone is only a Band-aid. No quick fix can translate into long-term success. Leadership is practice. Only by doing, participating and being involved will a person become a better leader.

Principles, values and character. These are deep, personal ideas that don’t often get much thought when we talk about leadership. If you can determine how to include these ideas in your leadership, you’ll see a change in how and why people follow you.

A former first officer, Paul Ferdais is founder and CEO of The Marine Leadership Group. Contact him through