Success vs Character

“Wow, you are not a manager yet? How come ?”

There was no way for me to miss the tone of indignation, and even a tinge of  mockery, in my colleague’s voice when he asked me this. I was lost for words for a few moments, primarily because it was unexpected. I had just stopped by his desk to say ‘hi’, since he and I have been working on different projects at different locations for more than two years and on that day he had come to my office building for a cross-project meeting. I made a mild-recovery of sorts and uttered something like ‘enjoying coding’ and ‘not a manager kind of person’ and then quickly changed the subject to the ongoing Olympics event since it is a sure way to not talk about personal stuff. It is remarkable how easy it is to divert people’s attention by mentioning useless trivia about sports, of any kind.

His question lingered in my mind long after I came  back to my desk and moved on to other work things. I hadn’t really thought about that subject too much – of course I have thought about getting a leadership position, but not from the perspective of “why haven’t I become a (some leadership title) yet ?” – and I realized that, in my mind, it was rapidly morphing from a ‘mildly annoying question’ into a ‘deeply troubling question’ category. I sensed crisis looming in the horizon and, as always, it was time to seek guidance from the all-knowing oracle of our modern time: Google.

I google searched “How to become a leader“, “How to become a successful leader“, “Top leadership habits” and a few more phrases that closely matched each other in meaning until I found a satisfactory answer at the top of the first search results page. I read that and then read about 15 more articles similar to that, all laying out, always in bulleted/numbered fashion, the sure ways to become a leader at work. Here are the top three points, ranked by their frequency of appearance, in numbered format.

1. Listen more than you speak
2. Praise good work in public/review bad work in private
3. Think independently and be selfless (time, resources, guidance, etc)

They all seem good and admirable traits for everyone to develop – after all these are not only great attributes for just business people but really all people. But when I recall the familiar annual ‘360 Performance Review’ questionnaire, it never asked people to rate their peers on these criteria. It always had things like :

Rate the employee’s performance in following work instructions well and executing them:

  • Does not meet expectations
  • Consistently does not meet expectations
  • Meets expectations
  • Consistently meets expectations
  • Exceeds expectations

As you can see questions similar to this do not point to good character traits, but more towards measuring how obedient an ‘employee‘ is or how well they can be controlled. Since the feedback from these performance reviews correlate directly towards people’s promotions, salary changes and, to a large extent, quality of future work, it does not seem like having great character traits are enough to get promoted to the next level. One might be well liked and respected by their colleagues but to become a leader and get ahead, it seems, one needs a different set of skills that are geared towards success.

This got me all confused. The answers from a diverse sources on the Internets do not match the reality on the ground, at least in one instance. Does this mean I can become a leader without great character ? Instead of enduring the long, often emotional process of character building which involves embracing failures and doubt, by following the business script for climbing the corporate ladder, it seems, one could attain success. Compared to ‘embracing failure and doubt‘, sticking to a script seems much more comfortable. If this is the case, is there really a need for a great character ?

This was going to need some independent analysis and thinking (By which I mean sitting in my chair, thinking/talking to myself and arriving at a conclusion which, almost always, was obvious to begin with). I grabbed a cup of coffee, sat down and started thinking. Here is what I concluded:

Success and Character are not apples and apples.

Let me clarify.
Success is relative to the activity/domain and in life it is measured differently: at school(grades, distinction), work (title, salary), family (age, security, resources), social circle (looks, culture, status, money, interests). To achieve success, depending on the kind, there seems to be a commonly agreed set of contracts that can be followed.

Things like respect and love are more elementary, because people, at their core, are elementary. People in all walks of life use the same basic character traits to measure others and use that measure to decide who to trust, respect and ultimately love. These are abstract character traits, which dictate our true behavior, and can be developed and honed over the course of our lifetimes. They would make us more charismatic, honest, kind and compassionate. This is character building and is usually a fuzzy process.

Success is not always the result of great character, but a great character will always lead to a happier, more meaningful life which, at a philosophical level, is a significant measure of success. Success alone might get you the main chair at an all important business meeting, but an impeccable character will result in people fighting to give you their kidney when you need a transplant.

A shorter, easy-to-remember way to put it would be:
Success is subjective. Character is universal.

Am I wildly wrong here ?


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2 thoughts on “Success vs Character

  1. you are absolutely right. yarru una andha kelvi ketathu, avan urrava bomaya yeringada. I dont think we are yet ready to lead people, we may be good at it but I think at this point we may hurt more than help. I dont understand the infatuation with senior, manager and team lead when they are under 7 years of experience. If you become one of those below that experience level there is something wrong with your company. That’s just my opinion.

  2. I totally agree. I don’t think we have enough experience to be an effective leader at this time. The problem comes when some people catch us off-guard by implying that somehow us not having reached leadership level yet is a sign of our incompetence.

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