Qualities of Character and Leadership
February 2017 Blog
In this blog, I want to look at the qualities of presidential character and leadership as noted by scholars in the field and relate them to my experiences with character educators.
There are four presidential birthdays this month – George Washington, William Henry Harrison, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan. We celebrate Presidents’ Day on Monday the 20th (another three-day weekend of sales and bargains!).
Several years ago, I wrote an article, published in the San Diego Union–Tribune (February 20, 2006), celebrating Presidents’ Day. The article focused on the character strengths and leadership styles of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom exemplified most or all of the qualities that follow.
Historian Robert Dallek (Frontline, PBS.org) suggests five qualities of successful presidents:
vision –a clear idea of where he will lead the nation;
realist or pragmatist with a sense of optimism;
a national consensus;
a personal connection with the people;
credibility – earned trust.
Implied in Dalleks’s five qualities is what Zenger and Folkman (The Extraordinary Leader) call “character”…”the core of leadership effectiveness.”
Princeton University professor Fred Greenstein (The Presidential Difference) offers six qualities related to the leadership styles and performances of presidents. Note the additional qualities of “cognitive style” and “emotional intelligence.”
Daniel Goleman, (Leadership: The Power of Emotional Intelligence), calls for leaders to identify and monitor their emotions — “your own and others. ’’ He highlights self-awareness, self-management, empathy (cognitive and emotional), and relationship skills as the keys factors to emotional intelligence.
If historians studied the work of character educators, what qualities might they discover about these leaders?
The first, I think, is that they would use the word missionaries in the most positive sense of the word. Go back five or six decades – track the character education thrust in this nation and those leading it. You will see why I suggest the word missionary. I fought the temptation to name names and efforts. I may save that for a future blog.
Another quality that I have witness is that past and current character educators are a knowledge source and provider.
They know and understand the history, the stories, the successes and failures of efforts to implement character education in schools and address the moral and ethical development of the young. They know about best practices. They are tuned-in to the commercialism that has developed around character education. They have access to and willingly share information about programs, curricular, and instructional materials. They clearly understand and provide the major resources needed for the character education program development, including teacher training, curriculum, special projects, student needs, parent initiatives, and evaluation efforts.
A third quality, as I see it, is that character educators are communicators, collaborators, and consensus- builders.
Character educators are the voices for their programs. They keep parents, the public, the press, and their colleagues informed of the efforts to achieve the goals of the program. They understand that effective internal and external communication helps build confidence, engender support, and encourage participation.
My experience with character educators is that they value collaboration – helping stakeholders clarify roles and responsibilities, encouraging them to build trusting relationships, enabling them to celebrate achievements and willingly correct mistakes.
As consensus-builders, character educators bring state mandates, education codes, virtues that emanate from our founding documents, and values identified by other schools and school districts to inform the discussion.
Historians would discover that character educators are stand-bearers. They bear witness to the proposition that there is more to educating children and youth than learning subject matter and increasing test scores. They value standard-driven character education programs that are comprehensive and well organized, that promote standards for the character education curriculum, and they favor partnership standards that will offer parents and others with full-service opportunities to help meet students’ physical, social, and emotional needs.
Another quality – character educators are researchers and evaluators. I have yet to meet a character educator who is not interested in the effectiveness of their efforts. They want to know what’s working and not working and why? They value, understand, and use research. Their questions: How does this research inform our practices? What is the best way to share the research with others?
What strikes me about their interest in evaluating character education programs and personnel is their thrust to create a culture of data-driven improvement. One recent example – several inquiries about using student survey data to better understand students’ in and out of the classroom experiences and behaviors.
Like most effective leaders, character educators have a vision about the future, about possibilities, about what might be for educating children and youth, about the balance between testing and teaching, about being smart and good. They ask themselves: who are we (character and values), how do we perform (skills and talents), and how shall we lead (sharing, partnerships, team-building).
As one writer put it: “One of the secrets of leadership is to see where the parade is headed and rush in front of it before it gets there. “
Effective presidents and character educators do this.