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The Burning Leadership Question: Are You a Flame or an Ember?

It may not be flashy, but moral character trumps charisma.

Michael is a leader in a high-tech organization. He’s charismatic, affable and the ideal networker due to his highly social nature. He gets along with nearly everyone and can lighten the mood of even the toughest meeting with his playfulness and sense of humor.

Cara is a leader in the same organization. She’s lower-key and less likely to crack a joke. But she has a reputation for being fair and principled. Others know they can count on her for the straight scoop, even when it’s uncomfortable.

Which leader leaves the best impression with others? Which would leave the best impression with you?

According research by Geoffrey Goodwin, Jared Piazza, and Paul Rozin from the University of Pennsylvania published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “moral character information is more important than warmth information in impression formation.” The researchers describe “warmth” as sociable, happy and agreeable and “moral” is fair, responsible and honest. And they’ve determined that when it comes to how we fundamentally size up others, moral trumps warmth.

This research resonates for me because it wraps adult words around a childhood/young adult experience I could only express in unsophisticated, visual terms. I remember looking at people and clearly recognizing that they fell into two categories: flames and embers. Flames were my heroes. They walked into a room and it lit up. They were high energy, engaging and immediately drew people to them. They were fun and funny, and I wanted to be just like them. I guess I admired them so because I, on the other hand, was more of an ember. I didn’t make that immediate, visceral impression. No jokes. No dazzle. My attraction was less immediate, slower to build. I felt dull and boring by comparison.

But, as I looked around, I saw other embers and noticed some important things about them. Their draw was less dynamic but more enduring. They might not turn heads immediately, but they turned hearts over time. Their relationships, while slower to build, were deeper and more long-lasting. Trust and confidence grew stronger as weeks and years passed. Whereas flames burned themselves out, embers glowed on an on.

Based upon the work of Goodwin, et al, it might be argued that embers are the leaders whose impressions are based upon moral character versus the warmth that characterizes flames.

So, what do embers do to create that impression and contribute to long-term, sustainable leadership? They demonstrate these powerful characteristics:

  • Courageous. Embers do the hard, scary stuff that others might shy away from. They take unpopular action when needed. They have hard conversations and unflinchingly do what’s right.
  • Responsible. As boring as it is, embers say what they’ll do and do what they say. They are consistent, dependable, and accountable— always.
  • Fair. Embers value justice and being equitable, making sure that the needs of others are considered with the same (or more) care as their own. They are unbiased, impartial and transparent in all dealings.
  • Principled. High-minded and incorruptible, embers work to hold themselves to high standards, doing the right thing—whether anyone is watching or will ever know.
  • Honest. You can count on embers to be candid, frank and forthright in all matters. They tell the truth, even (especially) when it’s challenging.

While it’s less flashy and fun, the impression of moral character over warmth may serve leaders and organizations well—or at least inspire an inferno of conversation. What about you? Are you attracted to flames or embers? Warmth or moral character?

Julie Winkle Giulioni is a performance and training consultant and co-author of Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want, with Bev Kaye. Learn more about her consulting, speaking and blog at JulieWinkleGiulioni.com.

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