My colleagues and I are working on research to measure a leader's character with the eventual aim of improving ethical behavior at work and elsewhere. A lot of this research is unpublished, and some of it is based on recent observations, but it all seems to converge on one thing: The best way to measure a leader's character is to focus on how the leader treats followers - particularly those folks at the "bottom" of the organizational hierarchy - the so-called "little people."
Leaders of great character are concerned with everyone in the organization. As a result, they are attentive to all followers and show them respect. The recent passing of legendary coach, John Wooden, made me realize that he personified this aspect of good character. Since my recent post on his remarkable visit to our campus, I have heard many people share their stories of the attention and respect he showed to our students, to our staff, and everyone with whom he came into contact.
The "revered" business leaders are famous for this. Southwest airlines, Herb Kelleher, was famous for his frequent visits to flight crews, where he called employees by name and stopped to chat with them. Former Best Buy CEO, Brad Anderson, was known to visit stores, sit down with salespeople, and learn their concerns and needs.
What about the other side - those leaders of questionable character? Well, the research is clearly showing that if you rely on superiors or peers to judge a leader's character, you won't get very far. Leaders of bad character are certain to put their best foot forward when dealing with superiors or peers. They are especially careful to say and do the right thing (including telling the top brass how much they care for the "little people" in the organization). There is also a sort of "default" response when superiors or peers are asked to judge the ethics and integrity of managers - they almost always give them high marks. In fact, the most positive ratings of leaders' performance evaluations are often in the area of character. Superiors and peers typically see only the "best face" of the leader, don't have access to followers' evaluations, and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, assume the leader has good character and ethics (a good argument for 360 evaluations, and giving attention to followers' evaluations!).
Need more "proof"? The very worst sorts of leaders - the bullies and the toxic leaders - typically get away with their bad behavior because they suck up to their bosses, and dismiss followers' complaints as a minority of "whiners" and "chronic complainers." The history of leaders of bad character, shows that while superiors and peers think the leader is great, followers tell a completely different story.
So, there is only one sure-fire way to assess character: Look at how the leader treats the "little people." Ask followers, particularly those who have direct day-to-day contact with the leader, to describe how the leader treats them (and others of low status).