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Character : The link Between Intentions and Execution

Character : The link Between Intentions and Execution 

By General Robert H. "Doc" Foglesong, Commander, U.S. Air Forces in Europe. Source: USAFE, July 7, 2005. Ramstein Air Base, Germany.

  • Most people have heard the phrase, “character is what you are when no one is looking.”

It is that set of qualities and traits, based on morals and ethics that guides our actions and distinguishes us from one another. We typically make assessments of others based on their words and actions -- this is how reputations are built. In general, character, whether good or bad, is what we observe in others’ conduct -- it puts our morals and values into action.

In our daily interactions at home, on duty and in the community, we are routinely faced with situations that present ethical dilemmas. Our character is fully displayed when the decisions we make under tough circumstances mirror our ethics. In our fast-paced world, we don’t always have the luxury of reflecting on what we would do or what others might think. It is in those heat-of-the-moment situations that our character becomes the link between what we intend to do and actually pulling the trigger.

Many of us can relate to times when we intended to do something but didn’t. We’ve received a phone call at an inopportune time and promised to call back but didn’t; or we’ve had a task at work to accomplish that others depended on and we failed to come through. No one benefits from good intentions -- good character demands that we follow through on our intentions.

I have actively served my country for the past thirty plus years for three principle reasons. First, I love America -- it’s the greatest country on the face of the planet. Second, I love flying -- there’s nothing like flying a jet at 480 knots -- that’s my technical skill. Third, I love leading the wonderful sons and daughters who serve with me -- it’s a privilege to work with them. That just happens to be my story -– but we have a nation full of leaders and dedicated followers -– who have served some cause beyond themselves. Their character has propelled them to success and satisfaction by guiding their execution of some task or mission.

While serving side by side with the sons and daughters who have helped shape our country and the world, I’ve met some interesting characters along the way. Just like the civilian world, the military has a lot of good folks and a few bad ones too. The beauty of life is that throughout your interactions with different types of people you get the chance to learn both from your own mistakes and from others. I’ve had the opportunity to observe bad ethical decision making. I’ve also met a lot of people with great intentions who let their co-workers down because they failed to be decisive. In the profession of arms, ours is a life and death business. Similar to policemen, firefighters and many others who serve, the danger we sometimes face doesn’t give us the luxury to pause at our good intentions when the difference between staying alive and returning home is having the courage, ethical foundation and character to do what is right without hesitation. I’ m convinced that whether you wear a uniform, a suit, or a blue collar like my dad did, we all see good and bad examples of leadership and character.

In fact, every leader has to be aware of the importance of character. They have to be strong enough to take a stand and not change their character to try to match the tide of public or corporate opinion. Simply put, there are principles of character that a leader must not allow to sway with time and pressure.

I summarize these principles in my “PRIDE + Two” formula -- Preparation, Respect, Integrity, Discipline, Enthusiasm + Morals and Courage.

  • Preparation:

One character aspect of good leadership is work ethic -- doing your homework. Sun Tzu, the great military expert of ancient China, stated over two thousand years ago, “Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.” Leaders must work to fully understand their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of their followers and competitors -- to have the character to admit weaknesses and capitalize on strengths. They must also hone the people skills required to capitalize on those strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, leaders must be technically proficient in the team’s business. That requires commitment – yours. They don’t necessarily have to be the expert -- but they need a certain skill level to be credible. The team captain of a basketball team has to be able to play basketball. Similarly, the head of a research lab should be a credible researcher. You have to get ready to execute – your character drives that preparation for execution.

  • Respect:

Good character earns – even demands – respect. A good leader respects himself, his team, and his competitors. While not arrogant or boastful, a leader with character must stand his ground and carry himself with authority. He demands as much of himself as he does the team. And while he is demanding, he is never demeaning. He understands what every member of the team brings to the fight. He values their inputs and creates an environment where all are welcome and comfortable.

  • Integrity:

There is no grey area when it comes to integrity -- it’s foundational. It’s simple – no integrity, no character – no respect and moral authority to execute! A leader cannot succeed if his people cannot trust him. If he bends the rules and says what is convenient, he may succeed in the short run but inevitably will come up short in the end. Good leaders fight to protect their integrity. Once lost, you can never get it back.

  • Discipline:

Your character and your leadership is defined by both personal and professional discipline. A single lapse of discipline costs not only the leader, but his organization -- people always watch every move a leader makes. Good leaders do those things we expect responsible folks to do -- work diligently, stay healthy, balance their checkbook and take care of their relationships. They also know when they need a break -- a leader is no good to his team if he’s sick, run-down, or distracted. Finally, good leaders follow the very rules they make. If they’re not willing to stick by them, neither will the rest of the team. To get from intentions to execution requires great discipline -– that discipline defines your character.

  • Enthusiasm:

A group takes on its leader’s personality. If the leader is excited about the mission, so is the rest of the group. Enthusiasm is contagious and is a character builder. You’ll never meet a dull leader worth his salt. Leadership requires passion and fire -- your character defines your passion and fire. People have to believe in what they’re doing. A good leader must convince his team what they’re doing is important. They do that with energy and passion. If the leader is not passionate about leading, then he probably ought to find something else to do. Stop here for a moment -– more than anything else, the way you run your life defines your character -– it’s the underpinning of trust in you. If you want your people to execute as intended, they have to trust you – your character has to be above reproach.

  • Morals:

A leader must know right from wrong. It may sound simple, but a quick look at recent corporate and military scandals indicates it’s not. There is a growing acceptance today that almost any means are justified in the name of success. A leader cannot sacrifice personal or corporate morality at the altar of success.

  • Courage:

This leads us to the final and most undernourished of our values -- courage. In the end, nothing else matters if you don’t have the courage to pull the trigger. You must be willing to step up and execute. All the principles we discussed don’t mean anything unless you have the courage to act upon them. Your character, your success or failure, your very ability to lead, will be judged ultimately by your courage. It will largely determine whether your intentions get executed.

In summary, leaders must be willing to make the tough decisions without sacrificing their principles. They must have the courage to act upon these principles despite any immediate personal or corporate cost -- there is no room for compromise. With character, you either get it right or you don’t. It’s a tough hill to climb when your character is tarnished. It’s like a college senior with a 3.4 grade point average trying to graduate with a 4.0. Even with a lot of time and all perfect scores, you still won’t achieve a 4.0. Admittedly, no one is perfect, but life gives us second chances to take those good intentions, apply the character we’ve developed, bring our courage and execute! Doing the right things for the right reasons with the right people – that’s only done by men and women who possess and nourish character in their lives.


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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).