Why character matters for leadership

12th September 2022

We often hear that 'character matters' for leadership, or hear talk of wanting our leaders in politics and in organisations to have 'good character'. By this we seem to mean that they have good moral character, character that will ensure they act above and beyond what any legislated rules or self-interest might require.

In recent times we have particularly seen criticisms of leaders based on a supposed lack of character. Donald Trump was criticised by many for mocking the physical disability of a reporter during a campaign rally. Boris Johnson resigned not long after it became public that he and his colleagues were hosting parties at Downing Street in violation of the restrictions at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But why should that be? Why do we care so much about the character of our leaders? Is it just naïve thinking or asking too much of them? Perhaps not.

For one thing, given the complexity of decisions faced by leaders, there are no simplistic answers and not all answers are compatible. For example, should leaders focus on maximising good outcomes or on respecting the rights of individuals when these things conflict? How should they decide which are the most important rights or outcomes to focus on?

Most of our contemporary ethical thinking argues for either a focus on minimising good outcomes or on respecting the rights of individuals as inviolable. Simon Blackburn describes how this can be a choice between ‘the right’ and ‘the good’1 and any introductory leadership ethics or business ethics unit introduces students to these two approaches to ethics. But perhaps neither is sufficient to address the challenges we now face.

Certainly the Sustainable Development Goals foster a focus on many goods and rights. It’s also the case that the serious challenges facing our planet and our society will sometimes require choices between conflicting rights or goods: for example they might require our leaders to prioritise long term goods and outcomes over short term comforts and happiness. 

So what should leaders do where there is the need to choose between maximising good outcomes and respecting the rights of individuals? Or where they need to choose which rights to respect? Or which good outcomes to pursue?

An alternative approach to ethics focuses on character and it can help us in cases of these difficult decisions. It is a much older approach to ethics than either the focus on right or on good outcomes. 'Virtue ethics' focuses on the kind of character we should each foster in order to foster human flourishing. This 'flourishing' is deeper and richer than just happiness. We can think of it as thriving. This kind of thinking about ethics was familiar to the ancients such as Aristotle and Confucius.

When it comes to the challenges we face as a society in areas of sustainability, social justice, and longer term prosperity of people and planet, embodied in the Sustainable Development Goals, character and judgment matter for several reasons.

 Virtue ethics tells us that rather than applying a set of rules to decide what is the right thing to do in any given situation, we need to apply a deep wisdom to such questions. Wisdom, for virtue ethics, is the practical reason that both guides us in developing our traits of character (judging that it is important to be kind for example), and also helps us to know the right thing to do in difficult cases.

Central to this view of ethics is having the disposition to act rightly (for example honestly or courageously or with integrity). Acting for the right reasons is central to virtue ethics2, as is the wisdom to know what the right course of action is. Together, these traits represent our moral character. Wisdom comes from a lifetime of developing the skill to navigate the conflicting demands of ethics and of life, and often involves judging what is most important and how we can achieve it.

Why could this matter for leaders? There are strong reasons to believe that we should want leaders to have exactly this kind of wisdom to help them make difficult and important decisions. According to virtue ethics, character is necessary for this kind of wisdom.

Keith Grint and others note leaders wield a lot of power. Leadership, Grint says, is the art of navigating solutions to difficult or ‘wicked’ problems3. Leaders, more than most of us, decide what is to be done and often this power is not subject to the kind of scrutiny and transparency by others that many forms of power are. At the same time there are often no ‘peers’ who can provide these constraints on leaders. And as recent behaviour by leaders shows, it’s not always possible to make rules or legislate for every likely instance that leaders face. Character and the wisdom that comes with it can help greatly in these situations. They give leaders the judgment to know whether this is a case where they should prioritise long term goals over short term gains, or whether to consider the outcomes for the many or the rights of the few.

Moreover, as Gardner notes we hope that: 'our leaders will help us keep alive values that are not so easy to embed in laws – our feeling about individual moral responsibility, about caring for others, about honour and integrity, about tolerance and mutual respect, and about human fulfilment within a framework of values'.4 Character seems the best answer to this – it fosters leaders who will not just abide by laws but also embody and demonstrate the value of character virtue such as courage, honesty, integrity, compassion, and generosity.

To see how character brings the ethical elements of leadership together, note how it addresses all three kinds of ethical questions that Joanne Ciulla says we can ask about leadership:

  1. 'The ethics of the means: How do leaders motivate followers to obtain their goals? What is the moral relationship between leaders and followers?
  2. The ethics of the person: Do leaders have to be saints?
  3. The ethics of the ends: What is the ethical value of a leader’s accomplishments? Did his/her actions serve the greatest good? What is the greatest good? Who is and isn’t part of the greatest good?'5

Character ensures that leaders will respond well in all three of these ethical domains that Ciulla describes – rather than there being a split between actions each domain, virtue ethics tell us that how we behave in one domain will predict and reflect how we behave in others. Both of these shape and reflect our character. A leader of good character will conduct themselves well in their private lives, they will treat their immediate circle well, and they will have the wisdom to focus on the right kinds of goals. It is unlikely that I can demonstrate the virtues of character such as being generous and honest in one context but not others. Thus, a leader who is dishonest or cruel in their private life (or mocks a reporter at a rally) is not likely to display wisdom in choosing the right kinds of long term goals.

Character is what allows leaders to decide how to proceed when they need to choose between conflicting, desirable goals such as between maximising good outcomes and respecting individual rights. Wisdom provides the judgment to know when we should focus on long term purpose over short term gain, or at least to see how these are compatible. Wisdom and judgment is also needed to recognise, pursue, and deliver solutions to these.

Character is also what allows us to trust that leaders will make the ‘right’ decisions – even when no-one is watching or in the absence of oversight. In short, this is why character matters and matters especially in leaders.


1 Blackburn Simon. 2014. Being Good : A Short Introduction to Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, UK.

2 Julia Annas, 2009. Virtue Ethics, in The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory, David Copp ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, UK.

Grint Keith, 2010. Leadership : A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, UK

Gardner John W, 1993. On Leadership : With a Preface to the Paperback Edition, p.77, New York: Free Press, USA.

5 Ciulla, Joanne ., 2014. Ethics, the heart of leadership, Third edition, Praeger, Pp xvi - xvi