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Six Character Traits for Leaders, and How to Develop Them

Feb. 1, 2019
The most important — and most under-appreciated — leadership trait is character. You can recognize it if you know what to look for.

One of the hardest days my military career happened in 2003, when the Special Operations Planning Team I was leading had been in Baghdad for about 30 days following the ground invasion into Iraq, during the opening phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom. My team of 12 people and I were desperately trying to figure out how to counter the deteriorating stability of civilian life, the rise of car bombings, and Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence. This period also coincided with use of a devastating new weapon, the Improvised Explosive Device (IED), which was already starting to kill and wound U.S. troops.

I have a background in statistical forecasting, so with some soldiers in my planning team we developed an event-tracking system that we were using to predict where, when, and what types of violent acts would occur, so we could use soldiers in our unit to pre-disrupt the predicted attacks. We predicted the levels of attack violence we expected to face in 14-, 30-, and 60-day forecasts. We expected a huge rise in attacks, with little end in sight to the escalation of violence.

The methods we were using and the results we were finding were new, so we were asked to present our findings and predictions to the commanding officer of all U.S. and coalition military forces in Iraq. The general listened for about 10 minutes and then launched into a tirade on how our results were incorrect, our conclusions ignorant, and the predicted number of future attacks impossible. We addressed the general’s concerns but maintained that our analysis was correct and that the number of attacks would continue to escalate. The general ended the meeting early and dismissed us with a wave.

As we left, a military ambulance zoomed past us and we entered another blazing, 125oF day. Our Special Forces Commander, who proudly supported our efforts, shook our hands and told each one that we had “incredible character” that made him proud to lead us. That awful day in Baghdad 15 years ago stands out for me not because subsequent events proved us correct, more correct than we wanted to be; it remains in my memory because it revealed how “character” is the most important trait among those qualities we identify with leadership.

Character is the attribute that allows individuals to face adversity, accept responsibility, demonstrate humility, exhibit generosity, and express confidence. By showing the qualities of good character, they prove their fitness for leading.

Owning the Hardest Problems. True character seeks to find understand, and resolve the hardest problems. In the military, politics, civic organizations, and business, leaders are those focused on improving the hardest problems, and not the easy ones.

A critical detail of solving the hardest problems is that leaders must fully “own” the resolution of these problems. Most leaders with character have “inherited” their hardest challenges but, instead of blaming, take the path to resolve the problem rather than blame others. When he as named Prime Minister of the U.K., Winston Churchill inherited World War II. He made the decision to lead the world to victory against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, rather than to blame his predecessors.

Determining What an Organization Needs. Character requires moral courage, plus the strong possibility of physical courage. But, most importantly, character always looks for what can be improved, changed, revised, and innovated to make an organization better for employees, customers, and the organization’s leaders. Organizational success is driven by character because true character is the quality that makes someone eager to change what must be changed in order for that success to happen. Character seeks solutions, discoveries, and/or innovations in the face of problems and challenges confronting organizations and those served by the organizations.

Remaining Open, Honest and Fact-Based. Discussing enemy-attack numbers in that hot Baghdad conference room did not require any physical courage. It did require significant moral courage as well as a reliance on honesty, facts drawn on multiple and reliable sources, and a commitment to sharing results, methods, and assumptions, so that everyone possessed the same information and understanding. Nothing good ever occurs in the dark, undiscussed and unrecognized. Improvement or change only comes once people face understood problems with the same set of facts, and commit to resolve the problem and advance a solution.

Valuing People as the Most Important Asset. It comes as a shock to many people and leaders that it was the U.S. military — and not corporate America or civilian associations — that taught me that people are the most valuable asset an organization has (or ever will have.) In Iraq, I concluded every mission proposal by presenting the Special Operation Forces (SOF) Truths. One SOF Truth is: “Humans are more important than hardware.”

It was my job to ensure that missions conducted by Special Forces were carried out as safely as possible, for both soldiers and civilians. Character recognizes that all ideas, innovations, results, and successes are derived from people that are challenged, led, educated, respected, and appreciated. When you lose or drive away great people, success is rarely possible.

Remaining Quiet So Others Can Speak, and Leaders Can Learn. Corporate or civil leaders assume that Patton or Rommel are the main role models for great military leaders. Leaders like Patton and Rommel are exceedingly rare, which is why they are studied; it is unlikely that such a leader will emerge again. Instead, leaders that deal with the daily challenges of innovation, customers, competition, employee development, education, revenue growth, profitability, and engagement use their character to hold their voice.

A leader with character is quiet so that others can speak, share, and describe the problems that they see and experience. A quiet leader employs learning to develop character strength, in order to create a positive atmosphere for change and improvement.

Never Finishing, Always Improving. A leader with character never has enough character. Character is a leadership attribute that always needs more because the process of building character is an ongoing exercise not a “one-and-done” leadership checklist. Leaders with character constantly seek new problems and new challenges, and to develop new leaders, to continue to find, improve, and ultimately resolve problems.

Character remains the fundamental attribute for leaders to exhibit, to employ, and to improve so that they can resolve problems, in business, government, the military, and international relations. Leaders with a keen understanding of their own strengths, and an appreciation of the constant necessity for character development, will be able to lead teams to understand and resolve challenges they have yet to meet.
Chad Storlie is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel with 20+ years of active duty and reserve service in infantry, Special Forces, and joint headquarters units. He is an adjunct lecturer of marketing at the University of Minnesota, a mid-level marketing executive, and the author of author of “Combat Leader to Corporate Leader” and “Battlefield to Business Success.” Contact him at [email protected], or visit

About the Author

Chad Storlie

Chad Storlie is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel with 20+ years of active duty and reserve service in infantry, Special Forces, and joint headquarters units. He is an adjunct Professor of Marketing at Flagler College, a mid-level B2B marketing executive, and a widely published author on leadership, business, military and technology topics.