Traits of successful leaders – Character

Ryan Pitts receives Medal of Honor

By: Chad Plenge


“It is not our abilities that show us who we truly are, it is our choices.”


Who was the wise old man that said that?  It is none other than Lord Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series.  While this may be from a fictional character, the words are incredibly powerful for leaders.  We have seen countless scandals in the military, the government, and in the private sector where senior leaders have made very unethical and immoral decisions.  Those leaders were all highly intelligent and generally well educated.  They were also very successful in their fields.  Yet, it was their poor choices that, in the end, mattered more than their abilities.

President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “A sound body is good, a sound mind is better but a strong and clean character is better than either.”  Yes, many industries need leaders who have a sound body and mind.  This is particularly true in the military.  However, a leader’s poor character makes those other points moot.  Leaders are often asked to operate without the direct supervision of a boss.  The boss may be located on a different floor, in a different building, in another part of the country, or even half way across the world.  This has been true for me in numerous job.  I have had subordinates in different countries and on different continents.  If I did not trust them to make the right decision, I would not have let them be in a situation where they might have to make decisions on their own. 

Starting our series with character is intentional because it is the cornerstone of leadership.  A leader without character is not a leader we need nor want.  Character is more important, in my mind, than accomplishing the mission.  The reason I make this assertion is because when accomplishing the mission is more important than character, people will accomplish the mission at any cost, even if that means committing immoral or illegal acts.  When character is a higher priority, people can still work hard to accomplish the mission, but they will not compromise the organization’s core values to do so. 

Dwight David Eisenhower, military general and President of the United States, said this about leadership: “The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.”  Leadership requires a strong moral/ethical character.  Without it the leader and the organization will ultimately fail in the end. 


In this series we will explore characteristics of successful leaders.  This article is our first installment.  Which characteristics do you think are the most important?  Do you agree with our list so far?  Comment below and tell us what we have right, what we have wrong, and what we should add. 


Chad Plenge teaches leadership psychology at the United States Military Academy and develops high potential leaders with the US Army’s Center for Junior Officers.  He holds a Master of Arts in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University, a Master of Business Administration, and a Bachelor of Science from the United States Military Academy.  Chad is a certified Project Management Professional and an active duty officer in the US Army.  In his free time, he serves as the President of the board of directors as well as an Assistant Director for a non-profit organization.