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What Is a Leader Without Character?


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Character is a concept that can be difficult to understand, but leading business executive J. Phillip "Jack" London says it's the most important trait for leaders of organizations. "Good leaders aim to do the right thing," London says in his book, Character: The Ultimate Success Factor. "They respect and trust the people they lead, empowering them to achieve their best."

London is executive chairman and chairman of the board at CACI International, an information solutions and services firm the does a lot of business with the federal government. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School, and he holds a doctorate from the George Washington University.

In his book, London says character is "a complex aggregate of mental and ethical traits that form the nature of a person" and the most important indicator of an individual’s success. He says people with strong character also tend to be fulfilled in their life.

In a podcast interview with Government Executive, London suggested that "character" is not "wealth" or even any traditional measure of success."When I talk about character, I'm talking about an individual who believes that they'd done the right thing," he said. "When I talk about success, I'm not talking about how wealthy you become or how famous. I'm talking about the personal aspect of success."

For large organizations, character is doubly important and needs to be emphasized. "What you're really after in organizational culture is an institutional importance of that," London said. Character is something that comes from the top. In addition to encouraging executive role-modeling, CACI has a written statement of values and tries to be a leader in the industry. Being diligent in promoting character is key, he explained.

"We make it a continuing effort and we make it a priority." London said.

He offers examples of leaders who have displayed character in difficult situations, citing in his book Maj. John Wesley Powell, Harry Truman and even Charles Darwin. London writes that "the mechanics of leadership can be learned, and skills can’t be compromised" and "character is the most important component of leadership."

London talked to us about George Washington's humility and strength as traits that exemplify great character-based leadership. "Washington's role in leading the American revolution, the military side would not have been a success without him and his leadership role in the presidency, refusing to be called the king and recommending he be called 'Mr. President' as opposed to some other exalted title," London explained.

London also said that he's found that character has declined in his lifetime in the United States. Citing the military sexual assault scandals, London said he thinks our nation's fallen a bit.

"I lamented the fact that these fine people -- and I know some of them," London explained. "I'm thinking how sad it is that we're in this condition."

Prior to joining Government Executive’s staff, Ross Gianfortune worked at The Washington Post, The Gazette Newspapers, WXRT Radio and The Columbia Missourian. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from University of Missouri and a master's in communications from the American University.

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