What Does It Take To Be A Successful Leader?

Lucas Monzani discusses new research exploring why some leaders are more effective than others.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | October 15, 2021

A new paper appearing in the academic journal PLOS-ONE addresses a perennial question in management research: what makes for a successful leader? The authors of the research, led by Lucas Monzani of the Ivey Business School at Western University in Canada, propose that the character trait of judgment is central to good leadership.

I recently spoke with Lucas Monzani to discuss this research in more detail. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of leadership character and what did you find?

I have always been interested in findings new ways to promote wellbeing in organizations. When I discovered how strongly managers and executives influence the culture of their organizations, I expanded my research to include the study of positive leadership. It was this area of investigation that eventually led me to the Ivey Business School in Canada where I helped formulate a framework of character-based leadership. The leader character framework is deeply rooted in research and was informed by the insights of more than 2000 leaders worldwide.

My current work explores the link between character-based leadership and the subjective wellbeing of followers (amongst other things). For example, my colleagues and I found that character-based leadership directly shapes employees' organizational commitment. Further, through their commitment, leaders indirectly increase their employees' resilience, work engagement, and the frequency with which employees experience subjective wellbeing.

Can you talk a little bit about why "judgment" is such an important character trait for leaders to have?

In our framework, judgment acts as an interface between a person's internal (character dimensions) and external (contextual demands) worlds. As such, good judgment informs leaders how to self-regulate the expression of their character dimensions so that it manifests as positive or virtuous behaviour, especially when facing challenges. To use an analogy, judgment serves as an air traffic controller. Depending on the situation, you may have to adjust — by dialing up or dialing down — the activation of certain dimensions of character to lead effectively.

For example, transcendence helps leaders to shift between short-term, tactical thinking and a more long-term, strategic view when making decisions; thus, it allows leaders to create value that extends beyond their firms' next quarterly report.

Temperance helps leaders remain calm when things don't go their way; that is, preventing leaders from making decisions under altered emotional states. Courage empowers leaders to do the right thing even though it may be unpopular, actively discouraged, or may result in a negative outcome for themselves. Further, a leader with good judgment understands when it is appropriate to demonstrate humility and when to be assertive; when to encourage collaboration and foster engagement and when to be more directive; and so on.

However, a clarification is necessary. In Peterson and Seligman's VIA classification of 24 character strenghts, the virtue of Practical Wisdom consists of five character strengths (Love of learning, perspective, creativity, curiosity, and judgment). In the VIA classification, Judgment refers to the strength that comes from "being a critical thinker and being able to weigh facts in a balanced matter." Whereas our framework honors the VIA classification, in our framework, the dimension of Judgment captures what notion of what the ancient Greeks called Phronesis.

Thus, consistent with Aristotle, judgment is the central dimension of character and instrumental in activating the other character dimensions when the leader truly needs them. In our latest publication, we confirm that the placement of judgement in this central position is a critical success factor.

What does this mean in practice? It means that character-based leadership is not only about possessing high levels of temperance, transcendence, courage, justice, or other dimensions of character but also knowing when and to what extent to use them when leading people and organizations. This distinction is important because we have observed that many organizations and their leaders tend to overweigh some character dimensions (e.g., drive, courage, and integrity) and underweight others (e.g., humanity, or temperance). Such an imbalance can be highly problematic because virtues can easily become vices by excess or deficiency. To use a simple example, drive and courage in the absence of temperance can easily lead to recklessness.

Thus, the bottom line is that none of the character dimensions should be considered in isolation because a virtue can easily turn into a vice.

Did you find any gender differences?

We did find some gender differences in our measure of leader character, but the differences were small. However, one finding of note that we feel might be reflective of traditional/socialized gender biases harkens to the over and underweighting outlined in my previous answer. We discovered that people tended to consistently view some dimensions of character in their virtuous state or as a strength, such as drive, integrity and accountability (i.e., dimensions that have been traditionally regarded as masculine in nature); whereas other dimensions seemed to be consistently viewed in their vice state or as a weakness, such as humility and humanity (i.e., traditionally regarded as feminine in nature). We are following up on our results in an ongoing research project since the issue of gender and character has generated an array of interest.

Is there more than one way to be a successful leader? Are certain leadership styles better suited for some roles than others?

For some scholars, certain traits and behavioral styles are endorsed as the primary signs of effective leadership and context plays a secondary role. Other scholars argue that context should be at the forefront of leadership and leaders must adapt their behavior to the context in which they are leading; the latter also includes the needs and wants of people or followers. We believe that our work bridges these two perspectives.

We agree that certain leadership principles are universally endorsed across cultures as indicators of good leadership; at the same time, we also acknowledge the important contribution that contingency theories of leadership (situational leadership) have in our thinking.

We argue that as leaders develop their character, they gain a higher situational awareness (as an element of judgment) that allow them to know when and to what extent to display one or more character dimension. For example, as managers and executives move up in a firm's hierarchy, they need to know how to "switch cognitive gears." This is because the situational demands of a senior executive will be very different than those of a front-line manager. Or consider dealing with challenging employees — addressing a bully requires a different approach in leadership than coaching an employee who lacks confidence. Thus, different behaviors, rooted in dimensions of character, may need to be activated in different contexts to be effective.

What advice does your research hold for people who want to improve their leadership skills?

I once heard that "Leaders often get hired because of their competencies (skills) but fired because of their character (or the lack thereof)." Unfortunately, because of the popular belief that character is a stable or static disposition, many leaders never engage in a habitual effort to develop their character. This is unfortunate because all people have the potential to constantly learn, modify, adapt, and experiment as they make their way through life. Aristotle, for example, claimed that we become virtuous by doing, or, in other words, through our actions. We become temperate by practicing temperance, courageous by practicing courage, and so on.

To build character, leaders must first gain an awareness of which character dimensions are underdeveloped or deficient. Reflection is a key part of learning, as is being open to feedback in order to improve oneself. The second step is to engage in deliberate practice to improve a dimension. This involves processes such as behavioural goal setting, planning, considering reinforcers, feedback, coaching and mentoring, and reflection. The development of character is an extensive and, indeed, life-long process — with no shortcuts.