What you've done in your job shouldn't define who you are as a person.

Say you just start a new job as a college recruiter. You haven't worked in the academic field before, but you have a ton of sales experience. You go to a college event and make a big mistake with a contest giving out free shirts, which violates collegiate rules. Does that make you a complete moron? No. Does it mean you have no purpose in life? No. It means you didn't quite brush up on the rules for events related to handing out free gear.

The problem, of course, is that the boss might not see things that clearly. And, by "clearly" I mean she might not have the capacity to separate who you are from what you've done.

Great leaders--those who are insightful, perceptive, and show empathy--can spot the difference between an error on the job and an actual character flaw.

In fact, it may be the one trait that distinguishes the good leaders from the great leaders in business. This is not always easy, because what you do reveals your character...except when that isn't the case. Sometimes, what you do reveals that you're human. For that college recruiter, handing out free shirts is perfectly acceptable at an auto show or farming convention. It's not a perfect indication of character.

Employees know the difference. Let's pick a different example to illustrate how.

In one of my first jobs in management at a sign company, I led a graphics design team. One of my employees had great character, and she would always show up on time at work. She had an incredible capacity to show support to her colleagues, to pick up the slack on a project, and to work harder than anyone else. At the time, I was new to a role where I had to manage a budget and make most of the hire and fire decisions. However, all I noticed about this employee is that she was not learning how to use a new software program. It was a complete mystery to her. As her boss, I kept noticing how she'd insist on doing things "the old way" and refused to learn the new application.

Here's the mistake I made. Looking back, I should have noticed her ability to work with the team, that she had the character and underlying talents needed to complete projects. She just didn't like the new software and didn't have enough training. I should have found a different role for her. Maybe it would have been as a supervisor, or even in a different department. Instead, I went through the steps to have her terminated. Eventually, her replacement showed up and had an incredible knowledge of the graphics design app...but also had an uncooperative spirit. That new hire lasted about one year.

What was my mistake? I failed to recognize the difference between who someone is and what the person has done. At my next company working as a manager, I started looking for character traits like how the person works on the team, whether he or she could cooperate and learn, and eventually started seeing the potential in people instead of always noticing their mistakes. I've tried to maintain that outlook.

What about you? When you think about leadership, it's easy to come up with the wrong definition. It's not the person who knows everything or who has the biggest office. It's not the person with the loudest voice or the most commanding presence.

Often, it's the person who is the best at noticing the talents and character traits of employees and drawing out their potential. That is true leadership--that requires true insight and vision. A bad leader never looks below the surface--is this person following the rules only? Is this person skilled or talented? They just can't tell.

Skill is easy to fake. Anyone can learn an app. The real challenge as leaders is to become perceptive enough that you see beyond skill and see the character of the person.

Published on: May 24, 2017