A Character-Based Leader Leaves a Powerful Legacy

by  Jennifer V. Miller  |  Leadership Development

When you look back on your career, how will you gauge your leadership success? Being a leader can be a thankless job. Some days, it’s hard to feel like anything positive is being accomplished, isn’t it?  It can be tempting to think that nobody notices and that your actions don’t really amount to much.

Why is that? It’s because we’re conditioned to “go for the gold.” Think about it – what do we see in the media, hear from motivational speakers and perhaps even our own mentors? Huge, grand gestures are held up as shining examples of leaders who “broke the mold,” “thought outside the box,” and “wrote the next chapter on innovation.”

Here’s the challenge: The Go Big or Go Home meme messes with our heads. It says, “If it’s not a home run, then it’s not really noteworthy.” The truth is, those grand gestures are built on a foundation of smaller, daily choices. None of those quietly made decisions hit the front page of the Wall Street Journal, but they matter every bit as much as the heralded pinnacle of achievement.

I believe if you are a character-based leader, you are making a difference, even if the evidence is sparse on a daily basis. The seeds of your leadership legacy are being planted every day, through the small, seemingly inconsequential choices you make. Those seeds may take months, or even years, to bear fruit. But they are there, ever-growing, taking root and preparing to bloom.

Character-based leaders:

  1. Foster trust – they praise in public and coach in private.
  2. Are humble – they eschew false modesty for the real thing, knowing that they are but one of many who make their organizational world go ‘round.
  3. Operate with integrity – especially in the small, private moments of choice – knowing that the foundation of their character is built there.
  4. Use their hearts to lead and their heads to manage – and understand the difference between the two.
  5. Lead authentically – by having the courage to live their values.
  6. Respect others for who they are – not for whether they “measure up” to an unpublished list of expectations.
  7. Are comfortable in their skin – they don’t need to reinforce their own values by shooting down the values of others’.
  8. Practice “professional intimacy” – the ability to be open to meaningful, emotionally accessible workplace conversations.

I’d love to hear from you – how do you gauge your leadership success? What are the measuring sticks that you use to help know if your leadership career was “worth it”?


Want to know more about character-based leadership? The eight points listed above are drawn from the book The Character-Based Leader, which explores the concept of leading from who you are, not from your position of title or power. As a member of the Lead Change Group community, I contributed a chapter on trust-building to the book and invite you to learn more at characterbasedleader.com.


Photo credit: istockphoto.com


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About The Author

Articles By jennifer-miller
Jennifer V. Miller is a leadership development consultant whose writing and digital training materials help business professionals better lead themselves and others towards greater career success.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Karin Hurt  |  30 Oct 2012  |  Reply

I am always astounded at what people pick up and keep with them after years. I think character based leaders leave more of a legacy than they realize.

Jennifer V. Miller  |  30 Oct 2012  |  Reply


I agree. It’s so important for those of us who have been positively impacted by our leaders to let them know.

Timothy Bull  |  30 Oct 2012  |  Reply

I completely agree! People do watch the way you act but don’t always praise the good characters enough: I wonder if it is a bit like if you go to a restaurant and the service is good, you might tell a few people, but if the service is bad you tell everyone you know!

Jennifer V. Miller  |  30 Oct 2012  |  Reply


I think that’s exactly how it is. We tend to over-report bad news and under-report good news.

Deborah Costello  |  30 Oct 2012  |  Reply


One of the best parts of being a teacher is the fact that I am reminded so often of the incredible impact we make on each other. Admittedly, my students are probably more easily influenced than adults, but I have students that have returned to influence me as well. They keep me from being jaded and are a constant reminder of my perpetual responsibility to do good in the world and help others become the greatness they are destined to be.

I am 100% sure that it is the small things that matter, the items on our list that are so easily overlooked that have made all the difference. And it is these behaviors that I return to again and again as I navigate my own life and my community. Thank you for this important post.


Jennifer V. Miller  |  30 Oct 2012  |  Reply


I appreciate your commitment to our nation’s youth. It’s inspiring to hear of a teacher who hasn’t become jaded and who understands that the little things count as much as the Big Ideas.

Dan Black  |  12 Nov 2012  |  Reply

This article struck a chord with me … mostly because people often assume that the “go big or go home” mentality must be the norm at my firm because we ARE so big. The truth is, I’ve stayed with Ernst & Young for so long because they value integrity, respect, teaming, and doing the right thing above all else. It’s so important that our Chairman and CEO has established a global recognition program (The Chairman’s Values Award”) to recognize those that work and lead in a genuine and courageous way. My recommendation to college students entering the work force – I will hire 9,000 of them this year in my role as recruiting leader for EY – is to seek out companies that have similar values to your own and focus on the individual: through learning, coaching, and experiences. It’s a winning formula….

Jennifer V. Miller  |  13 Nov 2012  |  Reply


It sure does sound like a winning formula. But, wow! 9,000 new hires – good luck, that’s a lot of recruitment activity.

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