Winning with character: Leadership success that doesn't come with a price

Our recent report, ‘Good Leadership in UK Business,’ explored the understandings of "good leadership" across three sectors – finance, law, and technology – to give an overall picture of good leadership in the context of UK firms. The report is filled with insights, so we will unpack a few key insights with brief posts. Written by Dr Corey Crossan and Anjali Sarker.

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Insight #3: Kindness, compassion, and humility are among the least central qualities of good leaders.

Kindness, compassion, humility, and other relational features like care, friendliness, and empathy are important for good leadership, but when we asked over 1,110 professionals about the qualities of good leaders, these were rated by participants among the least central qualities.

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“Winning has a price, and leadership has a price” – Michael Jordan, The Last Dance.

Michael Jordan’s success and leadership seemed to come at the cost of being the mean guy to get results. He broke down in tears as he spoke the words above in the Netflix documentary The Last Dance. But did he need to pay this price to get the success he achieved? Most people would say yes because a prototype for success resembles someone whose leadership comes at a cost. We characterize this prototype as someone with high drive, courage, and a sense of possibility but often lacks kindness, compassion, and humility. In fact, in the documentary, when Jordan’s teammates were asked if he was a nice guy, their response was no, he couldn’t have been a nice guy.

We challenge this leadership success prototype by eliminating the either-or dilemma and instead proposing an "and" that enables leadership success without cost. This prototype looks like someone who has the typical formula for success, like drive and courage, but is also supported by kindness, compassion, and humility, which enable sustainable success without the personal or relational costs. While we have certainly seen examples of success that seem to put character qualities like drive and courage at odds with other character qualities like kindness and humility, this is a false dilemma. The science of character helps us understand that kindness would have only enhanced Jordan’s results and diminished the cost he speaks about (Kiel, 2015; Monzani et al., 2021). Elevating character qualities like kindness and humility alongside drive and courage does not diminish them but instead better supports them so that they do not become excess vices – like recklessness and tunnel-vision that can often lead to burnout or have a negative impact on others.

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Jordan isn’t the only example, of course, Steve Jobs, Elizabeth Holmes, and Elon Musk are among others who are also characterized by their success attributed to their courage and drive and lower levels of kindness and humility. We encourage you to consider whether their successes could be even greater with more kindness and humility alongside courage and drive. For example, perhaps more kindness and humility would have helped Steve Jobs remain in his own company and build it even better, rather than being kicked out. We do see prototypes of leadership success that include both drive and courage accompanied by kindness, compassion, and humility, like Gareth Southgate and Jurgen Klopp, both football managers, or Jacinda Ardern, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, who advocates for being kind and strong:

“One of the criticisms I've faced over the years is that I'm not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I'm empathetic, it means I'm weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate & strong.”

Some are already reimagining how kindness plays a key role in leadership, such as the creation of the Kindness & Leadership award, which aims to create a new status quo that encourages leaders to lead with kindness.

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Character qualities are like behavioural muscles that can be strengthened with practice and the strengthening of one group of muscles, like kindness and humility, does not harm other muscles but instead better supports them. For example, being humble helps to identify shortcomings or areas for improvement which can further fuel drive and being kind cultivates stronger relationships that sustain the determination and resilience of courage.

We highlight three ways in which you may reconsider what success and good leadership look like for you, without sacrificing qualities like kindness and humility:

  1. Great is the enemy of even greater. The “successful leader” prototype illustrated above can limit us from seeing what else might be possible and even better. Consider a great leader who you look up to and imagine what it might look like to add kindness and humility to the person’s character traits. Does it make the leader more admirable? If yes, think of ways to integrate these qualities into your character.
  2. Drop the paradox and see the opportunity for more “ands”. Cultivating kindness and humility doesn’t need to come at the cost of drive and courage, but rather they can support and reinforce each other. To get rid of the existing leadership stereotypes, explore the 84 features of good leadership. Is there any feature that you would not generally associate with good leadership? Try to identify a leader who embodies that feature and then reconsider your ideas about what makes a good leader.
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3. Understand character qualities in their virtuous form rather than as excess vices. Some character qualities like kindness and humility are often perceived in their excess vice form, like being a pushover. This can cause one to steer away from cultivating these character qualities because these excess vice forms do not support leadership. Take some time to understand under-valued character qualities and you might begin to understand them better in their virtuous state and how they support success and good leadership.

Focusing on a robust set of character qualities helps diminish the cost that can come with over-weighting some character qualities, like courage and drive, and neglecting others, like kindness and humility. Leadership can be reimagined in a way that doesn’t come at a price.

To explore other featured insights from the report, read our previous blog posts -

Mind the gap: Elevating character alongside competence

Is higher education developing robotic leaders?

Download the full report

Dr Corey Crossan is a Research and Teaching Fellow at the Oxford Character Project, where she develops and facilitates character development programmes for students, industry, and university partners. Her research examines how character can be developed and its impact on performance and well-being. Learn more here.

Anjali Sarker is a Programme Manager at the Oxford Character Project, where she is leading a wide range of programmes that promote value-based leadership among students and professionals. She has a background in international development and social innovation with a focus on leadership and human development. Learn more here.