In Leadership Character Trumps Competence

In his book Derailed, Tim Irwin admonishes that lesson #1 for leaders is “character trumps competence.” Should you be the best you can be, as smart as you can be, set high goals, invest in your skills, learn, set a vision for your organization, develop strategy, hold people accountable, and build process and systems? Of course you should. All of this and more is important to reaching your potential as a leader. But competence in these areas will only take you so far. According to Irwin, “. . . the glaring truth is that a leader is only as good as the character of the leader. While competence is absolutely essential, our character ultimately makes a greater impact on what we accomplish in our work and in our lives.”

Poor leaders are quite often extremely competent and accomplished people—educated, talented, disciplined, and yet arrogantly self-centered, falsely believing that because they are so talented people and organizations simply cannot function without them. In their arrogance they soon develop a sense of entitlement that generally results in treating those around them like expendable commodities.

Irwin points out that humility is at the “epicenter” of leadership effectiveness. Humility is the mother of openness, listening, authenticity, likeability, kindness, and wisdom. Humility is a direct reflection of your character and discipline as a leader because, unlike the talents you were born with, humility is a trait you must internalize and work at daily. Why? You are not normal—you are a high-achiever. You were promoted into a leadership position because you are talented, smart, goal-oriented, ambitious, and driven to achieve. You hold yourself to a higher standard than normal people. You are willing to work harder and longer hours and willing to do anything it takes to climb to the top of the ladder. From where you sit it is easy to look down at all of the normal people who do not have your talent and are unwilling to make the same sacrifices as you, and see them as inferior. It is easy to say to yourself, “I’ve worked harder than all of these other people so I deserve special privileges and perks. Why shouldn’t I go first!”

Although it may be natural to feel this way, leaders with character have the discipline to fight this insidious arrogance and put aside their self-centered need to feel important in order to better serve their people. They operate with a first-will-be-last belief system. For leaders, character begins and ends with humility. Character is an essential ingredient of servant leadership. Leaders who put their people first consistently demonstrate character traits that include:

§ Being likeable

§ Flexing their style to improve communication and connect with their people

§ Being polite and respectful

§ Acting with kindness—living by the Golden Rule

§ Investing in themselves

§ Being passionate and enthusiastic about helping their people win


Jeb Blount advises many of the world's leading organizations and their executives on the impact of emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills on customer experience, strategic account management, sales, and developing high-performing sales teams. He was recently named one of the world's 50 Most Influential Sales and Marketing Leaders and is the author of six books, including People Love You: The Real Secret to D...

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