The Advancing Leadership Blog

Personal Qualities of a Leader

A new book by Tim Irwin entitled Derailed provides an interesting analysis of six leading companies that became derailed because of serious character flaws in their leaders. From his analysis of six high-profile CEOs, Irwin identifies at least four critical lessons all related to personal character to help leaders stay on track and avoid derailing their enterprises.

  • Over the long-term character is more important than competence. The qualities of authenticity, wisdom, humility, and courage have the greatest impact.
  • Arrogance – including the failure to listen to others and self promotion – is at the root of many leaders’ undoing. A deep respect for others is critical to the long-term success of an organization.
  • Lack of awareness in self and others is a common flaw in failed leaders.
  • Without attention to personal growth and development, failure as a leader is highly probable.

As Irwin points out, self-awareness and personal growth are critical to self-management and to regulate interactions with others. Equally important to successful leadership is humility, a much misunderstood word and a quality too often undervalued in our competitive society.

The derivation of the word humility is from the Latin, humus, meaning earth, and originally it meant to be so psychologically grounded, to be so firmly anchored in one’s own identity as to be able to clearly recognize one’s own weaknesses and strengths, as well as the weaknesses and strengths of others. Irwin contends the leader who acts with humility, along with courage, wisdom, authenticity, and respect (which often come as by-products of humility) are best able to sustain the health and longevity of the organization over the long term. Without these qualities, even the most capable and competent of leaders too often ignore even the most glaring signals that something is wrong.

Self awareness contributes to becoming a strong and effective leader.

Patrick Lencioni makes a somewhat similar case in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Using the narrative format of the fable, Lencioni lucidly and intriguingly identifies five key behaviours every team must develop to achieve success.

  1. Trust one another.
  2. Engage in unfiltered conflict around ideas.
  3. Commit to decisions and plans of action.
  4. Hold one another accountable for delivering against these plans.
  5. Focus on the achievement of collective results.

To make these five behaviors a team’s “code of conduct” requires members to adopt many of the same personal qualities Irwin identifies as critical to successful leadership.


The kind of trust Lencioni is referring to is, in my experience, generally beyond what most organizations ever develop in their leadership teams or their employees. Members of high functioning teams must be able to admit mistakes and weaknesses, readily ask for help, accept questions and input about areas of responsibility, give fellow team members the benefit of the doubt, take risks in giving constructive feedback and assistance, offer and accept apologies without hesitation. Most organizations are too competitive and individual performance too important to foster these behaviours.

Lencioni says to be able to behave in this way means team members must develop enough trust that they willing to be vulnerable. For this to occur team members (as well as employees) must foster many of the same personal qualities Irwin identifies for successful leadership – courage, a deep respect for others, honesty, authenticity, humility, self-awareness. Only then are members able to successfully implement Lencioni’s second critical behaviour – the ability to engage in constructive, unfiltered conflict about key ideas.


Team members who trust one another, explains Lencioni, engage in purposeful, constructive conflict as the most cost-effective way of arriving at the best possible solution in the shortest period of time – and to emerge from such conflicts with no residual negative feelings or collateral damage. In my experience, achieving this is only possible if members develop enough self-awareness and self-management to build a foundation of personal and professional respect and authenticity, and to interact with each other from a position of humility as the word has been defined earlier in this commentary.


Lencioni defines commitment as being 1) the quality of decisions a team makes and 2) the ability of a team to stand by them. High functioning teams make clear, bold decisions while at the same time remaining alert and ready to change course (and just as boldly) when evidence proves otherwise. Great teams also recognize the importance of genuinely considering everyone’s views and then to collectively rally round the final decision.

In my experience, to define and achieve commitment as Lencioni describes it requires all team members to develop many of the personal qualities Irwin identifies as fundamental to successful leadership, especially humility, and a genuine respect for everyone on their team and their contribution. The arrogance of even one team member makes commitment as Lencioni identifies it impossible.


Unfortunately, as Lencioni comments, although the word accountability has become overused it does not diminish its fundamental importance to any organization. Team members who hold each other accountable ensure the organization operates at the highest level possible and achieves it goals. To foster mutual accountability in a manner that strengthens the team and builds success requires team members to cultivate the same personal qualities Irwin identifies as essential to superior leadership, especially courage, honesty, and a genuine respect for the unique abilities and talents each member brings to the team.

Collective Results

Lencioni insists an “unrelenting focus on a clearly defined outcome and specific objectives is a requirement of any team that judges itself on performance.” However, he defines key outcomes as more than just financial goals; he equally insists that a functional team must make the results of the group more important than the individual goals of each member. Clearly, these behaviours depend on many personal qualities especially humility and selflessness.

In Summary

Lencioni insists developing a successful team simply comes down to the practice of a small set of principles over a long period of time. Many of these principles are founded on ethical leadership and the personal qualities Irwin identifies as crucial to successful leadership and the success and longevitiy of any organization. Lencioni insists it is not finance, strategy, or technology, but the creation of a successful team that “remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because to build a high functioning is so powerful and rare.” Recent research has begun to support Lencioni’s claim. Studies conducted by the Institute of British Ethics and other organizations indicate conducting business with integrity and fairness is not only the right thing to do, it is also good for the bottom line.

Lencioni closes by noting the irony of teams – they ultimately succeed because they are exceedingly human. “By acknowledging the imperfections of humanity, members overcome the natural tendencies that make trust, conflict, conflict, commitment, accountability and a focus on results so elusive.”

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