Character and Leadership

  • Published
  • By Brig. Gen. Donald J. Bacon
  • 55th Wing commander
If you've worked for someone who lacked character, I know you dreaded it, and it doesn't take long to know if a boss has character or not. When leaders lack character, our units suffer, the mission is compromised, teamwork is degraded and morale plummets--and you can't hide it from subordinates. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, one of my heroes said, "Character is everything in leadership."

On my first day in the Air Force, I heard that character is the most important requirement for leaders. I remember thinking as a second lieutenant that the word "character" sounded a little ambiguous, and over the years I've spent time refining what I feel character means when it comes to serving in the Air Force. I've come to see these four attributes of character as it pertains to leadership:
  • Integrity. We expect our leaders to be honest. Character, integrity and honesty are synonymous to most. We must be able to trust each other without having to sign oaths and contracts in our daily operations--our word must be pure gold. We can never forget that Airmen are held to a higher standard than the outside world, and we should never want this expectation to be different. I've seen some who viewed integrity at work one way and then something lesser in their private life, which is a contradiction and surely poor character. I heard one boss tell his unit that "if your spouse can't trust you, then neither can I." To that I say, "hear, hear!" None of us are perfect, so character also entails owning up to our mistakes.
  • ¬†Selflessness. Another aspect of character is selflessness. We want leaders who put the mission and the team first, and ahead of career aspirations and personal desires. General Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff during WWII, was notorious for choosing leaders who were selfless, and was known by many as the most selfless person they ever met. We all can spot the boss who is selfish, but some are easier than others. I'll never forget my first day at work in one squadron when the commander said, "Your all's job is to make me look good." He had zero credibility.
  • Humility. Closely related to selflessness is humility. Our best leaders never lose their sense of humility, which gives them a stronger motivation to listen and to learn. Pride and sense of entitlement have ruined many who got too full of themselves. Never forget that the most junior Airman is equally a citizen in this great nation, has volunteered to serve in time of war, is part of the most educated force known in the history of warfare, and when empowered to contribute, will infuse any unit with innovativeness and a drive for perfection. Motivated and unleashed Airmen deliver mission excellence. Humble leaders set the environment for this to happen.
  • Courage. The final aspect of character is courage--moral and physical. Our leaders need the courage to make tough decisions, hold people accountable, take wise risks, and above all, when it comes to difficult or dangerous circumstances, to lead from the front. When courage is integrated with humility, selflessness and integrity, then it's the kind of courage that everyone wants to follow and emulate.
Character is the most important attribute we need in all of our Airmen, for we're all leaders. It's what will keep our Air Force strong, regardless of budget cuts. And, let's face it, character is what makes being an Airman special... we all want to be a part of profession where our word is our bond, where the team's mission and goals are elevated over self and where we fully respect the Airman standing next to us.