Character is an essential leadership trait. What is the cost to leadership when character is absent?
The Ides of March, a 2011 George Clooney movie, didn’t get much press, but it answers the question powerfully (Visit IMDB.com for more info.). It’s a movie about choices—moral choices. At crucial points, each of the six key characters is confronted with a choice, and in each case, they make wrong choices … at least from a moral perspective.
In fact there isn’t a single character who has, well, character … no one has a moral framework that guides their choices. Character in leadership is under siege.
They all paid a price—in one case, with the person’s life. And for all, they lost their soul. None so starkly as Stephen Meyers, the junior campaign manager. He very rapidly and very decisively crosses the line that puts him in the same cynical terrain as the two senior campaign managers—and as his candidate as well.
Stephen Meyers’s only satisfaction is that he played the game better than the two senior campaign managers, who had no compunction about destroying him and his career.
The movie ends abruptly—and at a point where one of two things would happen (we don’t know which). Will he crack under the weight of his lost innocence and the price he paid to get what he wanted? Or will he consciously kill his conscience, and so become—so early in his career—morally dead, completely divorced from the idealism that inspired him when we first meet him in the movie. Will his leadership lack character?
Certainly not the triumph of good over evil. More like the triumph of smart evil over complacent evil … but a sobering reminder nonetheless of how ruthless and relentless is the siege on character in leadership … and how easily its walls crumble. There is a cost to doing what is right as a leader, and there is not one among us who hasn’t at some point decided not to pay that price.
But in the end, the cost of ignoring character may be higher still. The long-term benefits of leading with character outweigh its short term costs … something great leaders remember when the temptation is strong.