As Boris steps down, Charles Handy warns against falling for “personalities”
Character or personality? Which do you think is more important? Some of you will say: aren’t they the same thing? But they’re not. And that’s the rub, as Shakespeare might say. Character reveals itself once the person is in the job, over time. It’s formed and shaped by the person’s reactions to events and situations.
Personality, on the other hand, is the mask you put on for the rest of the world. To an extent it’s something you can shape. And it can lead to success in business and in politics. Some political leaders actually started life as actors or entertainers – people with big personalities. Think of of Ronald Reagan and President Zelensky in Ukraine. (I think Sir Keir Starmer might usefully spend some time in a drama school, poor man.) But personality is no measure of character.
People sometimes used to tell me I didn’t have the character to be a leader. But they were mistaking my personality for my character. In terms of personality, I’m a modest guy, thoughtful and very unassuming, timid even, and reserved in public. Certainly not a lively, charismatic type.
But character-wise, in my professional life I’ve demonstrated myself to be determined and resilient.
So, because there’s this gap between personality and character, we often make wrong choices when it comes to appointing leaders. In businesses and in governments, we frequently choose someone whose personality we like, only to find that their character is weaker than we thought. And in some cases, even more corrupt than we thought. The man or woman we believed to be so thoughtful turns out to be egotistical, autocratic, unable to take advice, unable to listen, and temperamental.
Conversely, a candidate for leadership might have the character required for the job but not the personality needed to get chosen. Which can be very bad news when it comes to elections, as we miss out on getting the leader we deserve.
It’s a tricky game and it’s sad to think that it affects our democracy so deeply.
All I can do is wish you luck in decoding the personality to find the character.
This is Charles Handy, hoping you can spend the weekend shaping your personality to reflect on the best bits of your character.
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