3 Character Traits That Make You a Better Leader

A guest post from Greg Marcus.

Being a better person is easy in theory – do less of the negative stuff, and more of the positive stuff. The same holds true for leadership. The problem comes in when we either don’t know what we should do, or we do know but can’t help ourselves and do the negative anyway. When I was in the corporate world, I was very good at my job, and very, very arrogant. It held me back in a very, very, very, big way. I so wish I had practiced Mussar back then.

Mussar is a 1000-year-old Jewish mindfulness practice that teaches us how to find those things inside that cause us to get stuck making the same mistakes again and again. And, Mussar offers a step-by-step way to bring those things towards balance and healing. On a personal level, Mussar is a daily practice that helps one become a Mensch, a person of outstanding character. On a professional level, Mussar can be the key to unlocking your full leadership potential.

Mussar offers a different perspective than many other wisdom practices, in that having too much of the trait is just as bad as having not enough. The way we change is to first identify where we are on the spectrum from too much to too little for a given trait, and then to take action to bring ourselves towards balance.

3 Character Traits That Make You a Better Leader

Here are three character traits that we should balance in order to be a great leader.

Humility  -Mussar humility is not the classic definition of humility that we have grown up with – it is much closer to Karin’s definition of Confident Humility. Humility is the proper balance between being arrogant and a doormat. Or put another way, it is learning to occupy the proper amount of space in the world. Leadership often requires that we occupy a lot of space. We have to make hard decisions and follow through on them. A leader must be willing to put it out there, and make the difficult call. At the same time, many leaders occupy too much space, and micromanage those around them. One simple way to change is to monitor how much you speak in meetings. If you are the type of person who speaks early and often, try remaining quiet and letting someone else ask the first question. If you are the kind of person who stays quiet, try asking a question earlier in the meeting. Or if you are really nervous about speaking out, ask your question 1:1 after the meeting.

Patience – too little patience makes us angry, frustrated, and hard to work for. I once worked for a failing company that had a re-org every six months. The re-orgs started before we were failing. They helped torpedo the ship because just as we were starting to get somewhere, the direction changed. This wasn’t just bad strategy or leadership – it was an outgrowth of a character flaw. The same leaders who could not stick with a strategic plan were impatient in everyday life. They had knee jerk overreactions to small situations.

By working to cultivate patience, they would have been better leaders. I have a student who was a cut-you off, curse at everyone driver. To balance her patience, she started letting every car merge in front of her. She was transformed into the calmest, happiest commuter in California. And that fortitude, the ability to bear the burden of the unpleasant traffic situation, helped her be a better marketing VP at work as well.

We should remember that too much patience can lead us to stay in a bad job, or to allow a failing project to continue for too long.

Order – it may surprise you to see order as a character trait. But if you think about it, there is a spectrum of people who may be totally disorganized on the one hand, with a chaotic desk and inability to complete projects on time, to the obsessively controlling micro-manager on the other. Both extremes are bad for business.

To balance order, pick one small change towards the middle. For example, if you are a procrastinator, try starting your day with just 20 minutes of focused work on an important deliverable due in the future. If you have too much order, you will find yourself excessively planning, trying to account for and control every contingency. You can practice letting go by setting a strict limit on the amount of time you prepare, and then trust yourself to be able to handle things as they come up. Or, you might want to try an unscripted check in with a colleague. Focus on listening, and see what you can learn when you don’t control the agenda.

In a Mussar practice, we focus on one of these traits for two weeks at a time. By repeatedly making small changes in how we show up on the world, we actually rewire our soul/nervous system, and begin to change long-standing habits that we may not have been aware of.

SpirOrder, humility and patience are three of thirteen soul traits covered in my latest book The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions: Finding Balance Through the Soul Traits of Mussar. If you’d like to see where you sit on the spectrum for humility, patience, order and the other ten traits, you are heartily invited to take this quick quiz on AmericanMussar.com.