Today if you Google “leadership crisis” you’ll find more than 400 million results. Newspaper headlines and TV broadcasts detail the aftershocks of leadership crises impacting almost every aspect of society: entertainment, business, education, government, religion, etc.
Almost 20 years ago, business headlines focused on financial scandals at Enron and WorldCom. These companies collapsed from the top down, betrayed by leaders who failed in their fiduciary, ethical, and moral responsibilities to employees, customers, suppliers, and shareholders.
Looking for Answers
The crucible of these and other corporate failures in the early 2000s inspired research into a new model of executive assessment. Many of these failed leaders possessed superb skills and expertise, coupled with strong determination and work habits. So what went wrong?
The search for answers led to development of the Worthy Leadership Model (WLM), first detailed in a 2008 academic paper in the Consulting Psychology Journal. The authors were A. Dale Thompson, Myranda Grahek, Ryan E. Phillips, and Cara Fay Wade from Leadership Worth Following (LWF), a Dallas-based leadership consulting firm.
Development of the WLM was also aided by external research from the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA).
This 2008 paper defines “worthy leadership” as “the ability to guide, direct, or influence people in a way that has great merit, character, and value.” The WLM is rooted in the belief that an accurate leader or executive assessment must encompass three constructs:
The Capacity to Lead:
General intelligence, technical knowledge and skills, and core personality traits. What leaders can do.
The Commitment to Lead:
Multifaceted passions and energies that propel leaders to extraordinary performance. What leaders want to do.
The Character to Lead:
What leaders will do, across a variety of leadership situations.
Compared to the first two constructs (Capacity and Commitment) Character has historically received the lowest level of scholarly attention. However, this LWF research team considered Character essential to explaining the most inglorious leadership failures.
In the WLM, The Character to Lead goes well beyond the tried and true dimension of personal integrity. Importantly, it requires leaders to be willing to hold the organization accountable for what it says it is going to do, and does. And at a personal level, it requires leaders to actively manage their need for personal power, acknowledge the work and people around them, and recognize that while they may “be good,” they are not better than others!
Results to Date
The research shows that almost all leaders demonstrate qualities of “dominance” and “wanting to lead”, which in themselves are not problematic. However, those characteristics do not ensure leadership is ultimately effective or “worthy” of following. Since 2008, the study’s authors have done research that has further defined character in ways that have changed how leaders are assessed and developed. It also has important implications for executive assessment.
While Capacity and Commitment are consistently seen as the biggest contributors to past success, leaders who rate highly in Character are seen as most trustworthy and most worth following. And research would suggest they are LEAST likely to make catastrophic mistakes that could threaten the very existence of the company.
In 2010, a LWF team published subsequent research on Character in Leadership, including surveys of managers, peers, and direct reports. It also included self-ratings about employees’ perceptions of job-related outcomes. Not surprisingly, it showed what we all know – that character in leadership clearly matters.
Looking ahead, the world of business will likely see continued periodic crises of leadership. While economies, industries, and technologies ebb and flow, human nature – with all its strengths and weaknesses – is stubbornly consistent.
In just 10 years, the Worthy Leadership Model has already demonstrated its timeless relevance and value. Further refinement and study, aided by hands-on experience and sophisticated personality assessment tools like the DRiV™, will only enhance its impact.