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The cult of the personality versus the character ethic

Mark Hollingsworth, CEO of The Nutrition Society, suggests the years 2020 and 2021 will not only be remembered as the years of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also for the ongoing sense of frustration and exasperation many of us have felt for the incompetence we witnessed in innumerable leaders in public life. Leaders who were found wanting in their performance in the face of this crisis. The question is why?

A narrated version of this blog is available at the bottom of the page

I have begun a personal research project to gather empirical evidence to help answer this question, with lofty ambitions of possibly writing a book on the topic. In this blog post, I set out the early case from my initial research for the banishment of the cult of the personality in leadership and for support to the ‘character ethic’.

Leaders found wanting

We have seen situations where a lack of foresight or of vision, of anticipatory planning, or even the ability to interrogate conflicting sets of data to make valid decisions, contributed to a ‘head in the hands’ moment for those of us watching and impacted by the outcomes. The past successes of these so-called leaders, often based on a function of their personality, public image, their connections, and being abundantly rewarded for achieving simple mediocrity, have now been found wanting and are no match for the demands of our time. 

A leadership contest

In essence, the experiences of 2020 and 2021 demonstrate we witnessed a leadership contest (perhaps long overdue) between the ‘cult of the personality’ against the ‘character ethic’.


I believe, based on my experience, character is what separates the successful from the mediocre. This idea of character is based upon principles of fairness, integrity, honesty, human dignity, service, excellence,. These principles are guidelines for human conduct that are proven to have enduring, permanent value. They are fundamental. Dr Stephen Covey, in the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, states essentially such principles are unarguable because they are self-evident.

It is my belief that for too long the cult of the personality, the ego, has driven the perception of success in leadership, when in fact the character ethic has quietly continued ‘behind the scenes’ to deliver lasting and sustainable success.

The servant leader

We all know the true price of leadership is the willingness to place the needs of others above our own. Indeed, the ACEVO Leadership Competencies are built ‘on a passion for success and a commitment to people’. Great leaders truly care about those they are privileged to lead and understand that the true cost of the leadership privilege comes at the expense of self interest. This is the idea of the servant leader. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. To serve should be at the core of our character as leaders.

Military values

Our character is shaped over many years and experiences. Through self-reflection I have come to understand certain principles have become embedded in me through my life, training and professional development and have shaped my character. For example, looking back at my notes from my diary whilst an officer cadet at the Royal Air Force College Cranwell in 1987, I can see the four values of the Royal Air Force that we were instructed in as cadets:

  • Respect
  • Integrity (moral courage, honesty, responsibility, justice)
  • Service (selfless commitment)
  • Excellence (courage, risk, discipline, pride).

Leadership attributes

As officer cadets we spent our months of training developing the leadership attributes in which to embed those values and principles. Those attributes were:

  • Courage
  • Self-awareness
  • Being emotionally intelligent
  • Taking risks
  • Being flexible and responsive to developing scenarios around us
  • Handling ambiguity
  • Remaining technologically competent
  • Being mentally agile and physically robust
  • Being politically and globally astute of the world around us
  • Being sufficiently flexible in our attitudes so we could lead and develop tomorrow’s generations.

When I read these notes now 34 years later, what a wonderful opportunity in life it was to be presented with such lofty goals and ideals at the beginning of one’s career!

Character has defined success

However, it is not too late at any stage in our careers to commit to further develop our leadership traits, skills and our character. I fundamentally believe that we have goodness in all of us, that all of these principles and attributes are deeply embedded in human beings, they are the very essence of who we are as a specie, but sometimes we have to find the right environment and the right need to extract them. I suggest they, and not personality and ego, have defined sustainable success in 2020 and 2021.

The bedrock of our character

His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, reflecting upon 2020, wrote ‘Much has been suffered; much has been lost. But much, too, has been rediscovered: an endurance that we somehow always knew was the bedrock of our character; a compassion that we trusted lay at the heart of our values; a courage which we sensed could always be called upon in the hour of our greatest need.’

A challenge

I would welcome any comments from colleagues who have experiences of the challenges, and opportunities, of being a values-based leader. Moreover, based on my research thus far I would challenge all of us in leadership positions in the voluntary sector to have the courage to live by our values and character, to look to banish the cult of the personality from leadership, and in doing so to help position our sector as the shining example of such enlightenment.

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