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The most powerful leadership tool — and 4 ways to help managers hone it



The most powerful leadership tool HR pros and any manager can use may be this: character.

Even better, it’s already in your possession. The key is to know which character traits to exhibit and hone.

Managers with strong character have a leadership advantage, a KRW International study found. Specifically, leaders with strong character are five times more successful at achieving returns on investment than leaders who show little depth of character.

Leadership tool on consistent display

“People demonstrate character through habitual behaviors,” says Fred Kiel, the lead researcher, KRW Co-founder and author of Return on Character: The Real Reason Leaders and Their Companies Win. “Leaders with strong morals and principles do, in fact, deliver a ‘Return on Character.’”

Not only do character-driven managers perform better, their employees respect and follow them.

Why? Because they consistently display integrity, responsibility, compassion and forgiveness.

Of course, some leaders who operate with less character — for instance, white collar criminals Bernie Madoff and Elizabeth Holmes — are successful. Until their flawed characters undo them, Kiel notes.

Here’s why those traits are important and how the best leaders put them into practice:


The most well-regarded managers are known to stand up for what’s right, showing their biggest concern is for the common good, not just the bottom line. Their stance isn’t always the most popular one.

They consider the impact their decisions will have on all stakeholders – their employees, colleagues, bosses, clients and communities. Then they rely on a set of personal and professional principles and values to make tough decisions.

What’s more, employees stand behind managers with integrity because those who lack it stand out for the wrong reasons: They tell the truth half the time, pass blame or don’t keep promises, according to the research.


Responsible managers own the choices they make while practicing integrity. That could be especially hard when they make the unpopular decision (even though they based it on an overall good, they will still be criticized by some).

Most importantly, they stand by their decisions and the people who are involved in executing them.

On the occasions when careful consideration and a focus on the greater good leads them to mistakes or failures, they admit their faults. Then they set a positive example for employees by showing where they went wrong and how they’ll rebound from it. Even better, they share stories of personal failure, how it affected them and how they rebounded or rebuilt.


Forgiveness starts internally for the most successful managers. They let go of their mistakes. Freeing themselves of self guilt also helps them let go of other people’s missteps.

Don’t be mistaken, though: Their mistakes and guilt that might come with it aren’t at the criminal or unethical level. Leaders who operate in that area aren’t as likely to ever feel guilt for behaviors that others might consider unethical or immoral.

But character-driven managers focus on what’s right – about their decisions, employees’ actions, a challenging situation, etc. – instead of what’s wrong, researchers found.

That sets them up to manage people and situations to their fullest potential.


Compassionate managers regularly use empathy and empowerment to manage their people.

They listen and work to understand employees’ situations, plus help identify challenges and ways to overcome them.

Their true concern is shown through empathy (understanding their people, concerns, hopes and expectations). They’re less inclined to have sympathy (feeling sorry for, but not identifying with, employees — essentially putting themselves in a different space).

Once they understand employees, they become committed to their development. They help them get the training and mentoring they need to succeed – then build their confidence so they’re empowered to use those skills.

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