Character of a Collaborative Leader
In more than thirty-five years of leading, coaching, and reflecting on leadership, I have observed that the quality of strategic thinking, systems thinking, and change management are most desired in our leaders of today—and I think we know why. These are qualities you possess in your leadership practice and most-competently display. However, leaders also embody a fourth essential quality that we call “Character.”
Character is seldom known to the person displaying the trait. Instead, it’s what others see in us. They are attracted and inspired by our values, our ability to connect with others, our speaking our truth, and our overcoming of fear in a situation filled with uncertainty and ambiguity. Character has no gender distinctions, regional differences, hiding places, or historical conceptions.
In this quarterly column I will look at the collaborative leader through the lens of “Character,” naming the essential qualities with examples from different generations and contexts. I will show how character has always guided human beings who arrive with no roadmaps to navigate to better directions and actions. I will further assert that you are capable of developing the essential qualities of your own unique character. I am confident that this will help you be the leader who inspires, models, and calls others to their highest selves.
Character of the Collaborative Leader Revealed in Crisis
Character is often strongly illuminated in a crisis. In any high stakes situation, when “the game” is on the line, the character of a leader is tested and scrutinized the most.
The three moves I’ve identified that reveal the character of a strong collaborative leader in a crisis are:
Telling the truth
Asking for a sacrifice
Offering some hope
Telling the truth is to invite others to a second move—to sacrifice their normal and do what is needed at a time of crisis. Both individual and group sacrifices are called for in the moment and on an ongoing basis moving into the future.
As sacrifice is embraced in the crisis, the leader moves on to model holding the tension that the truth raises, as they point to and invite people to hope in a better future. This managing of the tension and pointing forward with hope is the third essential move of a leader in a time of crisis. As truth resonates and tension builds, people must begin to trust the leader, manage the tension, and help each other move ahead.
I traveled to Poland early in March of 2020 when COVID-19 was spreading in Europe and cases were just showing up here in the United States. I stopped over in Ireland, my country of birth, to see my brother Colm on my way to Poland.
Colm is a Catholic priest in a missionary congregation. His job involves leading a retirement home built in Dublin for those who come home to Ireland when they retire from their ministry work around the world. Talking with Colm was the first time I personally came up against the proximate threat of COVID-19 and learned how personally dangerous that threat could be.
My brother shared that the Executive Director of the facility, Mary Sheehan, and he were making plans to lock down the facility in an effort to manage the pandemic. Mary had begun her career as a nurse before moving into professional management and was on top of all information coming in on the virus and how to respond.
I returned home to the United States hours before our U.S. State Department restricted travel between the U.S. and Europe. After I returned home, I called my brother to check in on him. He informed me that ten of the residents had tested positive for the virus. He also shared that Mary Sheehan had decided to live onsite to oversee and manage the evolving situation. This meant living apart from her family until they could get through this phase. It still leaves me in awe of her character as I write this, almost a year later.
Mary Sheehan displays her character in her truth-telling, sacrifice, and embodying hope. When asked, why she does this, Mary says, “There is nothing else I can do. I am just doing my job as I see it.” Here we’re reminded that character is not always known to the person displaying it. Mary was simply living her values and taking the lead in a situation filled with uncertainty.
Fascinatingly, Mary Sheehan went one step further. Not only did she analyze the situation, name the reality truthfully, and ask for a sacrifice, she embodied the sacrifice when she chose to stay on campus. In a real way she was also making present the hope she had that we can make it through this crisis engendered by the global pandemic. Such clarity in action on the part of a collaborative leader in a crisis is seldom arrived at without soul searching. When Mary decided to stay on campus, she was afraid of leaving her family and afraid for what might happen to her, and she was afraid for the group of older and aging men who have spent their lives in challenging conditions.
What is truly revelatory of character of course is that the leader recognizes their own fear, looks fear in the eye, and still decides to take the action required. In so doing, they reveal their humanity or display their vulnerability and engender even more trust because they have overcome their own fear. They make a bold move that inspires others to make similar moves.
The leader recognizes their own fear, looks fear in the eye, and still decides to take the action required.
Throughout the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in Ireland, Mary Sheehan has continued to show up as a collaborative leader in the crisis. After the initial crisis had been successfully managed Mary returned to her family. Presently a level 5 lock down is in place throughout Ireland, and on February 9, 2021 she oversaw the Pfizer vaccine administered to 114 members of the community she leads. Mary continues to tell the truth, name the sacrifice required, and to offer hope that “this too will pass” and we will triumph.
Just as leading in a crisis distills down and reveals character, the gift of the poet is to distill down language and lay bare our human longing. Mary Oliver, the great American poet, frames and distills character in her poem The Summer Day, in the final beautiful two lines:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?”
So, how do we distill down and develop our character?
Here’s a tip: Be the bird on your own shoulder. No matter where you are, at home, work, or in the virtual world that has become our norm. Watch yourself in the challenges and strategic moments where leadership and service are asked of you. Be the bird on your own shoulder, watching yourself and take note of your actions.
To assist you in this practice, I offer the following three questions to reflect on your own character:
When have you displayed character in action by naming the reality or speaking the truth? What was the impact?
When have you outlined or asked for a sacrifice in a collaborative way of a group or team and what transpired?
When have you been inspired to hope in a crisis by someone who you call a collaborative leader? What was generated?
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About Michael J. Reidy
Michael has more than 25 years of experience in consulting and responding to the learning needs of adults in the technology, biotech, power, health care and financial services industries. Michael's interest is in adult education, and his belief is that the workplace has become the 'third place' of learning and development for the 21st century. Michael holds a master's degree in Public Administration from the HKS, Harvard University, and is a Board member and owner of Interaction Associates. Among his publications are "Principle and Profit-Corporate Responsibility in Ireland" and "Active Listening in a Virtual World."