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Leadership is Character in Motion

By Orrin Woodward

It was another late-night reading session and as my eyes scanned the pages searching for another nugget to improve as a person and leader I read, “Leadership is character in motion.”

I stopped reading grabbed my red marker and underlined this quote. I began to ponder the truth of this simple statement overflowing with meaning.

I looked at my own life of leadership and the lives of other leaders I have studied for the truths in the quote.

There are many ways to describe leadership and many authors have spent their whole lives studying the method of leading others, but this statement succinctly captures the essence of leadership. Leadership involves two parts that Chris Brady and I describe as the art and science of leadership.

The art is who you are and the science is what you do. Character is who you are (art) and motion is the action (science).

It has been said that much of learning is reminding us of what we already know rather than learning something new. This quote reminded me of something already learned but deepened the meaning of the art and science to me.

Let’s take a few minutes to look at the character and motion side of leadership.

What is Character?

Character is a look past the outside of the person into the core of what they represent. Character is what you do when no one is looking or will ever find out. Here are a few questions to contemplate as we discuss character.

  • Are you the type of person who will cut corners on the truth for your own personal gain or reputation?
  • Are you the type of person that can negotiate win-lose deals and have no pangs of conscience?
  • Are you the type that will sell out your friends if it benefits you at the moment?
  • Are you the same person with each group of people you are with or do you have a chameleon effect based on who you are with?
  • Would you sell your character out for money, recognition, or power?

The toughest thing when looking at your own character is the unbelievable ability for the human heart towards hypocrisy when it looks at itself. We have no problem reading this list and identifying people we know who violate it, but we tend to make excuses or reasons why the same rules do not apply to us.

The philosopher Socrates said,

“A line that is crooked will not know this until it compares itself to a straight line.”

How many would-be leaders were destroyed because they never ensured their lines were straight.

Character is the only non-negotiable in leadership. There are many characteristics that you can find in leaders, but the only non-negotiable for long term leadership is an unquestioned character ethic.

Think about this in your own life. How many people know someone they absolutely cannot trust? Now imagine giving this person leadership in your life. It isn’t going to happen is it?

This would violate one of God’s laws of life. You give no one influence in your life unless you trust them unequivocally and trust is earned through consistent application of a person’s character to the situations of life. That is why it is foolish to aspire to be a leader and yet not build a foundation of character.

Who will truly follow you long term unless you have dug deep into your own heart to answer the question, “Am I who I say I am?”

If this is not answered before a leader goes into motion there will be a construction accident on your building journey. You will destroy what you wish to build because you have not properly prepared the foundation to handle the growing edifice of influence.

Growing in Leadership

If I were to give one piece of non-negotiable advice to anyone desiring to grow in leadership it would be, “Do not take shortcuts on character because the only person you short is yourself.”

Leadership, just like a high rise building, requires a solid foundation and the foundation of leadership is character.

This does not mean I recommend hiding away for a couple of years waiting to get your character right before going into motion. The beautiful thing about leadership is that while you are learning how to lead there are few fatal mistakes.

In other words, working on the ground level, you can fall without being seriously hurt, but the same accident on the 50th floor is game over.

Motion means to get doing the things you know leaders have to do. You can study other people riding bikes, you can watch videos, interview great bike riders, but to ride a bike you must get in motion.

Albert Einstein once said,

“We are born geniuses and taught to be idiots.”

A baby attempts to walk 999 times before it takes its first successful step. Babies inherently know that failure is a necessary step (pun intended) to success.

When we get older we are less willing to take necessary steps to succeed. Our fear of failure has overcome our natural genius and we accomplish only a sliver of what our potential is.

Why do we let the opinion of others hold us back from our personal best? Imagine if a baby internalized failure like adults do. We would have a generation of adults who crawl from place to place explaining that walking just isn’t for them. They tried it 10 times and they’re just not the type of person who can walk.

Ridiculous you say? I agree, but how many times have you told yourself that you are just not a leader, or that just isn’t they way you are. Of course that isn’t the way you are and that is why you need to start learning the skills.

None of us are born leaders any more than we are born knowing how to walk. Both are learned skills and we must develop the hunger and drive to learn the skill if we wish to walk or lead.

When I started my leadership journey I was a no people skills engineer. I went to the same school for 11 years from elementary to high school.

The best thing that my classmates could think to say about me in my senior yearbook was, “Arguing, arguing early and late, if a line were crooked, he would argue it straight.”

You couldn’t describe someone with less leadership influence than that! I wanted to be a leader bad enough to change and that is the question for you.

Do you want to be a leader bad enough to improve your character and begin the leadership journey?

When a person wants something bad enough they will do the work to get it. Remember, “Leadership is character in motion.” Character is an inside job and motion is the action behind the inside thinking.

The art and science of leadership are available and you have the ability inside to lead already. Do you have the courage to pursue your God-given destiny?

You can answer today by placing your personal character in motion.


Orrin Woodward is the co-founder of Team, a leadership development and training company, and the New York Times best-selling co-author of Launching a Leadership Revolution.

Named by the International Association of Business as a Top 10 Leadership Guru, he is dedicated to building leaders and entrepreneurs and promoting freedom and prosperity.

Orrin blogs regularly at Orrin Woodward. He lives in Port St. Lucie, Florida with his wife and four children.

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