A young woman in an office

Are you comfortable being yourself, even around people you lead? Do you stand up for others even when it costs you?

According to Stephen M. R. Covey, an inspirational leader makes a commitment to be an upstanding person that others look up to. This requires you to be strong, be true to yourself, and understand others well.

Continue reading to dig deep into each of these character qualities of a leader who inspires others.

3 Character Qualities of a Leader

Covey says that upholding the commitment to character is important for two reasons. First, becoming an upstanding person naturally makes you an inspirational role model for others because your characteristics make you credible and a source of moral guidance. Second, being an upstanding person means you model the characteristics necessary to reach your full potential—by being this person, you encourage your followers to do the same.

Covey identifies three character qualities of a leader who inspires others: strength, authenticity, and understanding.

(Shortform note: Becoming an upstanding role model is also a core component of knowledge-era leadership in CLT. Marion and Uhl-Bien argue that modern leaders must embody and express the ideas and attitudes of their organization that they want their employees to uphold. They explain that leaders can be catalysts for change when they serve as symbols people can rally around. They build organizational myths—unspoken beliefs—that guide people’s behaviors and decisions in an organization.)

Characteristics of an Effective Leader

In First Things First, Covey’s father Stephen R. Covey makes a similar argument, explaining that becoming a principled person is necessary to be a principled and effective leader. While their perspectives closely align, the specific characteristics of a principled and upstanding person differ slightly. Covey Sr. lists  these characteristics of a principled person:

• They adapt and learn from people and experiences, acknowledge the limits of their knowledge, and admit when they’re wrong. This encompasses Covey Jr.’s concept of strength.
• They keep promises they make to themselves and others. This encompasses Covey Jr.’s concept of being true.
• They follow their plan but can adapt to change, and they welcome detours as opportunities.
• They have paradigms and systems to overcome and persist in the face of hardships.
• They balance their physical, social, mental, and spiritual needs healthily.
• They focus on what they can control and release what they can’t.

While Covey Sr. doesn’t mention understanding others as a crucial characteristic in the way that Covey Jr. does, incorporating the rest of the characteristics he mentions into your behavior may make you even more of an upstanding moral authority and stronger role model for others.

Character Quality #1: Strength

Strength is one of the character qualities of a leader. Being strong means doing, and advocating, what’s right—putting your ego aside, recognizing when you’re wrong, and valuing others’ opinions. For example, this may mean admitting to others when a decision you made backfires, or standing up for someone who’s being bullied. Covey explains that being strong also requires you to be brave—putting yourself out there can be intimidating.

(Shortform note: Being strong can be scary, and trying to put on a brave face, as Covey recommends, may not be enough to help you conquer this fear. Experts provide a few strategies to help you get comfortable speaking up at work that may help you be strong in general. For instance, get confident before you act by drawing up a pros and cons list—for example, what are the pros and cons of admitting you’re wrong or standing up for someone else? You can also practice what you’ll say or do beforehand to soothe your nerves.)

Character Quality #2: Authenticity

Authenticity is another character quality of a leader. Being authentic means aligning your actions with your values and words and expressing your genuine thoughts and feelings. Essentially, be your true self without putting on a mask for anyone. Covey explains that many people struggle to do so out of fear that they’ll be judged. To overcome this, embrace your vulnerability—accept that you’re not perfect and be OK with sharing your imperfections, despite what others might think.

(Shortform note: Researcher and author Brené Brown emphasizes the importance of authenticity and vulnerability, explaining that they’re crucial not only for being an effective leader, but also for adopting wholeheartedness—the key to living a happy and fulfilling life. Brown notes that authenticity and vulnerability are particularly important because they’re how we foster trust and connection—ingredients Covey notes are crucial for inspiring people.)

Character Quality #3: Understanding

Another character quality of a leader is the ability to understand others. Understanding others means realizing people’s feelings and experiences from their perspective and doing so without judgment. Understanding others increases your ability to work effectively—people will be more open and collaborative toward you, which will enable you to develop effective and creative solutions. 

Skills for Empathy

In Dare to Lead, Brown reiterates the importance of empathy for effective leaders, listing five skills leaders must master to practice empathy effectively. Like Covey, Brown notes that you must: 1) understand people’s experiences from their perspective, 2) understand people’s feelings from their perspective, and 3) do so without judgment.

However, she adds that you must also 4) be able to articulate your understanding to make sure you’re on the same page. This requires you to pick up on the subtle differences between emotions like anger and disappointment, for example. Finally, you must 5) be mindful of your own emotions so they don’t negatively impact your communication and connection with others.

Exercise: Become a Leader of Character

Covey explains that one of the foundations of being an inspirational leader is becoming an upstanding person—before you can inspire people, you need to become someone that others look up to. In this exercise, we’ll identify which characteristics you need to improve on and how you can do so.

  1. Of the three characteristics Covey says are crucial to being an upstanding person—being strong, authentic, and understanding—which do you struggle with most?
  2. Describe a recent situation where you struggled with the characteristic you listed above. For example, maybe you recently failed to be strong when you gave someone incorrect information and made up an excuse as to why it wasn’t your fault.
  3. Next time you experience a situation similar to the one you described above, what can you do differently to embody characteristics of an upstanding person? For example, rather than making excuses or trying to shift blame, you could accept your mistake and sincerely apologize for giving the wrong information.
3 Character Qualities of a Leader (Stephen M. R. Covey)

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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