9 Virtues Blog

The Behavior Paradox in Leadership Development

by Rob Jenkins


One of our basic premises in The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders is that the way to acquire any virtue—and therefore become both a better person and a better leader—is to change your behavior: to eschew some of your old behaviors while adopting new behaviors more compatible with the virtue you wish to acquire. That’s why, in the book, we focus so much on people’s actions, as evidenced by our lists of “homework assignments” at the end of each chapter, designed to encourage behavioral changes.

Yet hence arises a paradox, for we also believe that becoming a better leader requires far more than simply changing a few surface behaviors, although that is a common misconception. Indeed, as we point out in the book, much of what passes for self-improvement and leadership development these days is based on what Stephen R. Covey, in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, calls the “Personality Ethic”: the belief that “success becomes a function of personality, of public image…[of] skills and techniques that lubricate the processes of human interaction.” This is the Dale Carnegie school of leadership development, perpetuating the idea that if you just learn to carry yourself a little more confidently, smile more often, or shake hands more firmly, then you will be a better leader.

Those things are important, and they may well have some positive effects. But by themselves, such superficial behaviors, however desirable, do not go nearly far enough. They do not change our basic nature, or character, which is what must happen if we are to be truly transformed as individuals and as leaders. Thus Covey posits the opposite of the “Personality Ethic”--the “Character Ethic," or the idea that “there are basic principles of effective living, and people can only experience true success and enduring happiness as they learn and integrate these principles into their basic character.”

Perhaps the key word in that passage is “principles,” which are beliefs that govern behavior—and which are manifested in behaviors. One way or another, it all comes back to behavior! Perhaps the relationship can best be stated in this way: How you behave in any given circumstance may not actually reflect your true character, because behaviors can be faked or cynically appropriated; but over time, your true character will become clear through your behaviors, or what you do. Moreover, to make substantive changes to your character—that is, to become a better person—you must change your behavior. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, as your basic nature changes, so do your behaviors.

The real question is, if changes in your nature lead to changes in behavior, is the reverse true, as well? Can you change your character by changing the way you act? We believe you can—IF those behavioral changes are a) motivated by a sincere desire to improve and b) consistent over time, which is to say permanent rather than adopted temporarily as a response to a specific situation.

In other words, what we’re really talking about here is HABITS, not just isolated behaviors. The connection between character (or essential nature) and habits has long been recognized. As Aristotle so succinctly put it, “We are what we repeatedly do.” To become better people, and therefore better leaders, it is necessary for us to change our habits—again, to break old, unproductive habits and develop new, productive ones.

Breaking bad habits is another blog post entirely. But how do we develop good habits? By consistently and repeatedly performing certain good actions—in other words, through our positive behaviors. That’s what the homework assignments in the book are intended to do: encourage readers not only to practice specific behaviors but ultimately to adopt them and incorporate them into their lives so that they become habits.

This can take a while, especially if you’re having to replace old habits with new ones. There’s the time and effort required to break the old habit, combined with the time and effort required to develop the new one. But the good news is that, in the meantime, until that good behavior becomes habitual, as you consciously and intentionally practice it, you are nevertheless exhibiting it, with all of the benefits that naturally accrue. As the late 19th-century psychologist and philosopher William James put it, “If you want a quality, act as if you already had it.”

For example, let’s say you desire to become a more humble leader. One way you can do that, as we discuss at some length in our chapter on Humility, is by being more willing to listen to the people you lead. So you resolve to listen to seek out people’s suggestions, pay attention when they’re talking, and take their viewpoints into account when making decisions. And you do. Over time, this will become habitual, a part of your make-up or character. But in the meantime, at least two clear benefits accrue: You are actually gaining important information from people—information you wouldn’t have had if you hadn’t been willing to listen—AND you are acquiring a reputation as someone who listens to his or her employees. Both of those are extremely valuable, in and of themselves. But more important, you will actually be in the process of becoming a better, more willing listener and therefore a more humble leader.  

Simply changing a few surface behaviors will not, in the long run, have much of an effect on your leadership, as Covey reminds us. But making substantive changes to your behavior such that you develop life-long positive habits WILL make a huge difference. That is the point of The 9 Virtues, and it should be the point of all leadership development.