Personality vs Character in Leadership

A recent, and much discussed event in the news has started me thinking about the difference between personality and character.   There are perhaps some who have spent little time considering if there even is a difference between them.  Even the Thesaurus on my laptop suggests the word ‘character’ as an acceptable substitute for the word ‘personality’.  But to me, they are quite different.  And, especially if you are a leader, understanding the distinction between them is critically important.

With my strictly layperson’s eye, I see that distinction as this:

Personality refers to our basic nature.  For instance, some of us are extraverted and some introverted.  Some of us are even-tempered, some hotheaded, and so on.  In short, personality mainly consists of those things we inherit genetically.  It dictates our personal preferences and choices. And, it drives our social interaction with others.

Character refers to how we choose to use our inheritance to make our way in the world.  Character is built over time. It comes from living, learning and making mistakes.  It shows up in the decisions we make and the risks we take.  Character measures and tests the strength of our will, our beliefs and our sense of justice.  And it is often a hard taskmaster.

It was W. Somerset Maugham who once said, “ When you choose your friends, don’t be short-changed by choosing personality over character”

I think the same could be said of leaders.  Sometimes, of course we don’t get to choose our leaders. And sometimes we don’t get the leaders we choose. However, we do get to choose the kind of leaders we are going to be. Will we ride on the coat tails of personality, going where the wind blows us?   Or, will we rely on the deep-seated beliefs that form our character to guide us, even if that road is harder… and even if it makes us unpopular?

To many people, the answer will seem obvious.  But, character can be difficult to discern.  It can go for a long time without being publically tested or uncovered and can often be eclipsed by the strength and easy attraction of a winning personality.

So how do we know?  How do we recognize when we are leading from the depths of our character and when we are not?  Under what circumstances would we be able to recognize strength of character in others?

Well, I can think of a few circumstances anyway that would provide some pretty good clues. Like:

In a crisis ~ the measure of any leader becomes most obvious when things go wrong.  It is then when wheat and chaff part company.

In Private ~ If, what leaders say in public differs from what they say in private, on the same subject, that is very telling. Those who change stories to fit the situation cast doubt on the veracity of any of them.

In the Face of Temptation ~ The power that leadership brings can be quite an aphrodisiac.  How leaders choose to use that power will say a lot about them.  The draw of self-interest is ever-present.   The test of character comes when we are faced with the temptation to indulge it.

There are, of course, many situations where character, or lack thereof, is revealed.  Suffice it to say that if we are looking for it, character, can generally be found in close proximity to courage and truthfulness.

So here’s the bottom line for me.  As a leader, while personality will get you in the door, character will ensure you stay there…or not.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?



Filed under Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Values

23 responses to “Personality vs Character in Leadership

  1. love the distinction you make between personality and character, gwyn! vicki 🙂

  2. Love the way you put this: “Character refers to how we choose to use our inheritance to make our way in the world.” As I have grown older, I have found that some of the adults that seemed so exciting and interesting (due to their personalities) when I was younger, are not the ones I really admire now…. others with deep character have emerged as the real heroes.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Karin ~ I can relate to that. It makes me think too, how much more useful it would be if we could learn those lessons much earlier. But, unless we’re born in reverse (sort of like Benjamin Button),it is something we have to grow into I suppose. Thanks for coming by! I’m always glad to see you here.

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  4. Personality will capture the ear, but character will capture the heart. Charisma and charm are not enough to get a job, lead a team, or reach a goal. There may be short term gains based on personality, but the long term growth, relationship and success is built on the character. That is what lasts. The flare of personality burns out quickly, but the flame of character lasts a lifetime.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Angie ~ Thanks for adding that. Your words drive home the notion that personality can only take us so far.It is in the substance of our character that we reveal just what kind of human being we are.

  5. Ginny

    Once again, brilliant words!
    I agree with your description of the two.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Ginny ~ I know you as a person of strong character who also happens to have a winning personality. And that’s a powerful combination. Thanks for your kind words 🙂

  6. I absolute love this post, Gwyn! Your distinction between personality and character helps to explain why hiring is so challenging and can lead us to the wrong candidate. Sometimes personality speaks so loudly that we miss seeing character. And at other times, it’s just a matter of time and circumstance until character emerges, for good or bad. Thanks for getting me thinking about this!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Jamie ~ Your words remind me of the process of behavioural interviewing wherein candidates are asked to share stories that illustrate their abilities and achievements. This process also reveals something of the candidates’ character and I think that explains in part, why this method of interviewing is becoming more widely used. Thank you for that and for your very kind words.

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  9. Gwen, yes, when things go wrong you can truly see character and integrity working in the world. That’s why it’s so helpful to look at failure as well as success. Only in failure can we see how leaders rise above problems. Suzanne

    • Gwyn Teatro

      I agree, Suzanne. Your words made me think too, that it’s harder to talk about failure. Those who are willing to do so in a direct and honest way (which means they don’t attempt to implicate others or to rationalize the failure away) also demonstrate something very positive about their own strength of character. Thanks for adding your thoughts here and for taking the time to comment!

  10. Ken

    When we had “personality conflicts” at the Research Centre I led, I found it was useful to have all the Senior Scientists, Section Heads and management go through the Meyers-Briggs type indicator assessment. Fortunately 90% of us came out as either the “Scientist” type or the “Inventor” type. Those where most of the personaility conflict occurred where diametrially opposed types, which hel;ped us understand each other better and work better together even those we saw the world through inherently different lenses. Also, interestingly, the HR Manager was a “feeling” rather than a “thinking” type which provided a helpful balance to the rest of us.

    I agree, Character is quite another matter from personality. In my experience the old saying “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” pretty much sums it up. Those with strength of character perform best under fire, are self-less and when faced with a difficult decision, inately choose “to do the right thing.”

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Ken ~ I’m a big fan of the Myers-Briggs type indicator. Thanks for sharing your experience with it here. I guess you could say that testing for personality traits is a lot easier than testing for character. And, sometimes the old sayings are the most reliable because they have stood the test of time. Thank you for coming by and for taking the time to comment.

  11. Alex Jones

    It is in a crisis that you get the measure of the character of an individual.

  12. Rajnish Khanna

    Yes, i am agreed the point put by you in differentiating the personality from character. And, a say that if “character is lost everything lost”. Only time can test the character, we actually have. In some sense, what we portray is true or not only we knew but what happen sometime just to keep the role we are playing, we tend to stick to our public image. That’s why whenever some Top-shot exposed, we all shocked.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Rajinish ~ I agree that time helps us develop character and once we reveal a lack of it, it is certainly difficult to regain what is lost. Crisis of some kind usually demands that we behave with authenticity and some of the most surprising people show sides of themselves that do them no credit. Alternately, other people can surprise us with exactly the opposite of expected behaviour revealing admirable depth of character where less was expected. Thanks for adding further thought to this post through your comment. 🙂

      • Ken

        In an emergency, selfless acts of helping, giving and acts of minor heroism often spring from those that never had their character tested and when it came out it was a hidden pleasure to them and a surprise to those who didn’t think they had it in them.

      • Gwyn Teatro

        Hi Ken ~ Precisely…”a hidden pleasure to them and a surprise to those who didn’t think they had it in them”. That’s a great way of putting it. Thank you.

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