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Commentary: Character-based leadership: The game changer
Published on March 18, 2017Email To Friend    Print Version

By Oliver Mills

The idea of leadership has come in for much analysis and discussion recently. It has replaced management as a strategy for organizational and employee development, and has deeper dimensions, including areas such as winning the confidence and commitment of others, and stirring individuals to actions they themselves thought impossible to undertake and succeed in.

Oliver Mills is a former lecturer in education at the University of the West Indies Mona Campus. He holds an M.Ed degree. from Dalhousie University in Canada, an MA from the University of London and a post-graduate diploma in HRM and Training, University of Leicester. He is a past Permanent Secretary in Education with the government of the Turks and Caicos Islands
When character is encased in leadership, a new ethical and moral dimension comes into being with the term character-based leadership. Here, the actions of the leader are filtered and tempered, so that extremes are avoided, and decisions are even-handed, serving a moral purpose, and doing no harm, while producing the greatest good for the greatest number.

Michael Matthews has written a piece in Psychology Today, titled “Developing Leaders at West Point”, in which he discusses how leaders are developed at this august institution, including the character-based aspect of leadership. He states the mission of the institution is to educate, train, and inspire, so that each graduate is a commissioned leader of character, committed to values such as duty, honour, and country, and is prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the nation.

Here, according to the writer, the emphasis on character is a fundamental component of leadership, they are intertwined, and there is an honour code. And that cadets are tested each day, with the end being to producing an officer possessing the knowledge and attributes required to lead soldiers in the most trying of circumstances.

I find the mission of the institution intriguing. To educate, to me, implies providing and imparting in a critical manner the knowledge and dispositions that foster good judgment, and wise action, along with choices that are proportionate to the steps being taken. To train is to facilitate the acquisition of skills and techniques that could be transferred to particular circumstances and conditions.

And to inspire involves enabling the contexts and settings where the leader being developed can make prudent assessments of what winning strategies will most adequately achieve the objectives to be realized, so that the art of the possible becomes the trigger for achievement.

For me, the values mentioned by Matthews create and enhance a sense of zeal in the accomplishment of the academy’s mission. It is interesting and quite novel that country is given as a value. This means the cultivation of patriotism and nationalism, which gives meaning and purpose to character-based leadership, in that leadership and character are not confined only to certain activities, but become an obligation to serve the country as well, by contributing to its development, progress, and security.

And the end game is abundantly clear and noble, which is producing an officer to lead in difficult circumstances. There is a process, leading to a desired result.

Matthews then says that an important piece of the West Point’s leader development programme is a required course in Military Leadership, which involves theories and knowledge from individual and social psychology, organizational psychology, management, and sociology that refer to leading and influencing others, and taught in a seminar format, and explores what makes an effective leader.

It requires cadets to reflect on, and develop their unique leadership style, assisted by a mentor, and comprises three exercises, where cadets meet with their mentor to discuss and reflect on their life experiences to answer the question “who am I?” There is then an individual development plan addressing “where am I now as a leader,” and “how do I apply my new knowledge to develop as a leader?” Followed by a leadership philosophy paper that refines their personal leadership philosophy, referring to models of leadership in the context of their individually developed leadership philosophy.

At the culmination of the course, cadets practice the leadership skills and insights they have acquired. In their senior year they complete a course in officership, which expands the concepts learned in the Military Leadership course.

My thinking is that the Military Leadership course with its base in the social sciences, and which relates to leading and influencing others, and encourages reflection on and developing the cadet’s unique leadership style, questioning who they are, and applying new knowledge to develop as a leader, is at the core of character-based leadership. It appears to be thorough, to deliver what it says it would, and the cadet is required to practice the skills learnt, and refine their leadership philosophy, through formulating their own.

The idea of leadership gained is not a regurgitation of what others have said about it, but is specifically that of the cadet. It means showing initiative, creativity and innovativeness, and original thinking. The end result is therefore a new type of leader who can hold his own irrespective of the context he operates in. This breeds confidence, self-assurance, and the respect of others. And the fact that the skills are practiced means they could be further refined to become even more effective.

I agree with Matthews that the idea of developing leaders with character concerns other types of institutions as well, and the West Point model is exemplary, particularly with the use of mentors, and fostering a culture that values character and competence.

I think that the Caribbean education system could gain much from it particularly where mentoring, philosophical reasoning, and the formulation of a unique character based leadership are concerned. It means ethics becomes central, along with solid subject based training, and the use of discussion triggered by intelligent questioning to think more deeply and broadly, so as to bring out what is best in all of us.

This means a game changer in Caribbean education, and a more aware and critical society.
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