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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jim Loehr

The One Muscle Great Leaders Must Train Daily (Top Pick Article at

Here's the training plan from Dr. Jim Loehr

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What makes a great leader?

Skills like focus, persistence, decisiveness, and tough-minded­ness? Or ones like integrity, honesty, humility, and loyalty? Analyzing what makes a leader great is a journey that many have been on for not decades, but hundreds - even thousands - of years. During his reign as Emperor in the years 161 - 180 CE, Marcus Aurelius (also a Stoic philosopher) journaled daily about his challenges and aspirations as a leader and human being. He wrote that the one thing that carries us through life and defines us isn't accomplishments or accolades, but ethical and moral Character.

From my over 40 years of training CEO's, #1 athletes, Navy SEALs and leaders from all over the world, I've seen the incredibly powerful role Character plays in leadership. Strong moral and ethical Character leads to improved performance for the long-haul, improved wellbeing and happiness, and a legacy you can be proud of.

It's the difference between a CEO doing a great job for a year, and a CEO holding his position as the most senior leader for ten years. It's the difference between winning one game, and winning the title championship. Ultimately, it's the difference between success, and long-term success because Character always catches up to you.

Let's go back to the skills mentioned above:

  • focus

  • persistence

  • decisiveness

  • tough-mindedness

  • integrity

  • honesty

  • humility

  • loyalty

They are all traits of Character.

The first are performance character traits that support high achievement (or, the what). The second set are moral character traits that support ethical behavior and moral reasoning (or, the how).

The greatest leaders in the world must exhibit qualities from both sets to see sustainable success in their lives and in their careers. One type without the other creates great imbalance - can you think of a financially successful business person ... who was later arrested for improper conduct? Or on the opposite end, of someone who is incredibly caring and loyal, but who hasn't seen professional or academic success?

Many decisions we make call on our ethical and moral Character, some clearly more difficult than others. Fudging a little bit here and there eventually numbs us into thinking that's OK. And little by little, these errors in judgment add up until suddenly we've fudged something not quite so little, and the impact (kicked out of school, loss of job, divorce) is irreparable. One of the most important things to know about Character; however, is that it isn't static: it isn't a one and done. Think of Character as a muscle: just like a physical muscle, the Character muscle can and should be trained. Just like a physical muscle, with training, the Character muscle grows stronger. Just like a physical muscle, the Character muscle when strengthened, requires less effort and energy when it is called upon. And the truth is, you don't know how weak your muscle is until you need to use it.

Thinking of character as a muscle isn't very different from thinking of, for example, Willpower as a muscle. In their 2011 book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, drawing on their own research and nearly 1 00 studies, argued that Willpower works like a muscle, and that regular "exercise" boosts its strength. We call on Willpower when we come to a crossroads and it's time to make a difficult decision. The Willpower muscle - just like a physical muscle - then draws down from our limited supply of energy (mental energy, in this case) to help us make the decision in question. These choices can range from seemingly little (but difficult) decisions ("burger or salad?'') to incredibly complex (and still difficult) ones ("do I put my job on the line and tell a leader that what they're doing is wrong?'').

Willpower, Baumeister and Tierney contend, can be used to build character. Just as you do with a physical muscle, if you wish to strengthen a Character muscle, feed it your energy until it grows to the capacity you desire. As our Willpower muscle gets stronger through repeated use, it becomes a bit easier to make those difficult decisions. It requires less energy to make the difficult decisions, leaving plenty of energy left for the rest of the decisions that a typical day brings. Those decisions - years and years of them - define our Character.

So then, what's the training plan?

How do we strengthen our Character muscles? Here's how I recommend tackling this exercise regimen:

  • First, do some deeply honest reflection on your treatment of others - your patience, kindness, gratitude, humility, caring, honesty, trustworthiness, etc. Override any inclination to become defensive or to gloss over the truth. Fully acknowledge where your muscles of moral Character need strengthening.

  • Next, look for imbalances and strengthen the specific muscles that need work. If your authenticity muscle is strong, but your compassion muscle is weak, you may be predisposed to speaking your truth but hurt someone's feelings as you do it. You would need to strengthen your compassion muscle to even things out. If your confidence muscle is strong but your humility muscle is weak, it may appear to others that you are arrogant. You would need to strengthen your humility muscle, and so on. (This is very similar to how we strengthen physical muscles - you never target just one muscle, you must also strengthen its supporting muscles.)

  • Finally, develop a personal Credo. That becomes your true North for leading with character in every dimension of your life. It will be a written commitment to yourself, and to your organization, for how you will vet any ethical decision that will come your way, thus protecting both personal and professional legacies. Writing and committing to a Credo are no small tasks. It sounds easy enough to write down what you believe are the right things to do, but it requires strong Character muscles to live up to it. To make the hard call.

The strength of our Character muscles is best revealed when they are put under pressure. In such high-stress moments, you can't pretend or lie that you are stronger than you are; in those moments, you are who you are. Weak character muscles are those too weak to deal with the moral stress of the moment. Strong character muscles are muscles that enable you to fully live the principles set forth in your Personal Credo.

It takes three to six weeks of dedicated training to increase the strength of the physical muscles of the body. Strengthening character muscles and building the neurological architecture (neuropathways) supportive of those muscles take time, as well.

Intentional, dedicated practice builds moral competence: You are an "athlete" of character. If you haven't yet, pick up Leading with Character and get ready to work on strengthening your Character by writing your own Personal Credo with the help of the book's companion guided-journal. Remember that just like with physical muscles, you'll see the best results with consistent effort and intentional energy. Show up. Do the work. And, have a great workout!

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Aug 09, 2022

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