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Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation


Inseparable: The Sobering Truth About Tomorrow’s Leaders

It seems everyone is talking about leadership these days. Everyone’s an expert and everyone wants to write a book. While there’s nothing wrong with that in itself, the more folks jump into the pond, the more muddy it becomes. Leadership now has a thousand definitions.

I’m convinced there are certain issues that cannot be separated from the practice of healthy leadership.  My blogs always surround the issue of leading the next generation well—so whether you’re parent, teacher, coach, employer or youth pastor—I’m hopeful this will be relevant to you. My topic today is inseparable from what it means to lead well.

I believe leadership cannot be separated from character.  Let me explain.

The word character is taken from an ancient Greek verb meaning “to engrave.” It’s related noun means “a mark” or “distinctive quality.” It’s who you are, good or bad. Regardless, you can’t separate your identity from how you lead. General Norman Schwarzkopf said, “The main ingredient in good leadership is good character. This is because leadership involves conduct and conduct is determined by values.”

Leadership and character

During the 1990s, when America experienced the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinski scandal, the big argument was: does it really matter what a leader does and believes in their own private life? It’s hard to believe we even debated that issue. Of course it does.  You cannot separate the two—unless the leader is an actor 24/7. Who you are eventually surfaces in your conduct.

Perhaps this is why Schwarzkopf once said, “Leadership is a potent combination of character and strategy.  But if you must be without one—be without strategy.”

A Sobering Discovery

This year, we had an unprecedented opportunity to survey and assess 8,500 high school students in 29 schools in our home state.  In many ways, they represent the typical demographic of today’s teen—attending public schools in urban, suburban or rural contexts.  We had just five months to expose them to Habitudes, but gained some significant takeaways afterward.

The clearest observation is that the Four Stages of Learning apply to Habitudes:

a. Unconscious Incompetence – I don’t know what I don’t know.

b. Conscious Incompetence – I know what I don’t know.

c. Conscious Competence – I know what I know.

d. Unconscious Competence – I naturally apply what I know.

Our greatest shock was to find a large percentage of students were unaware of the need for morals or ethics at all. For many, values are foreign. This is huge. It represents “Unconscious Incompetence” regarding the essential soft skills and character they’ll need in their career. The majority of students essentially reported: we see no need for character or morals. I do what I have to do to get what I want. It’s about expediency not ethics.

Somehow, the teens growing up in our homes today have not connected values like honesty, integrity, and justice to how they pursue their goals. We concluded:

a.  While basic, the principles of Habitudes are fundamental to personal growth.

b.  If graduates don’t possess them, employers must train for remedial life skills.

c.  Progress is made even when a student moves only from stage one to stage two.

If these 8,500 students are reflective of the teen population in the U.S. we have our work cut out for us. And change—must begin with us. Adults have frequently failed to model ethics for the next generation. Observing the leadership of our businesses, government, schools, and in the media, it’s no wonder character isn’t on their radar. So let’s examine our own depth of character with these questions:

  1. Do you have the unquestioned trust of your students?
  2. Do you embody those qualities you claim to have as values?
  3. Do you model ethics in your leadership, sending them clear messages?
  4. When you’re criticized, do others refuse to believe bad reports about you?

To address this issue, why not begin a fresh campaign to deepen your character?


photo credit: __o[IT]__ via photopin cc


  1. Joseph Lalonde on September 10, 2013 at 7:39 pm

    Tim, thanks for using the example of Bill Clinton. Even though I was young when the whole scandal broke, even I understood his character was tarnished and his trust was broken. If his wife couldn’t trust him, how could the rest of the world?

    • Tim Elmore on September 11, 2013 at 11:15 am

      It was certainly a tragic event. I hope that we can have better leaders for the next generation, so that they can become even greater leaders for the generations to come.

  2. richard on September 11, 2013 at 4:07 pm

    To be honest I am not surprised by this information. My generation of 20-30 year olds have been taught the shortcuts to the “good life,” Food Stamps, student loans, welfare housing, credit cards, illegal downloads, etc. If we see something we want we take it, regardless of the consequences. We don’t know the concept of delayed gratification or of working for what we want. The American Dream is not something that we work hard to achieve, it is something that we are entitle to receive.
    The only way we are going to change this mindset is by not giving our children what they want, but what they need. Sometimes we need good old fashioned discipline and to be taught the value of hard work. Interesting side note: In Genesis God commanded Adam to work before the Fall (Gen. 1:27-31). Therefore hard work is not punishment but something that God saw as “good.”

    Parents need to instill in their children the values of work, character, and self-discipline. Instead people focus on self-esteem where everyone is a winner no matter how hard the child has practiced. If there is no trophy for being the best, no child is going to put forth the effort to be the best.

    • Tim Elmore on September 13, 2013 at 1:21 pm

      Thank you for your comment, Richard. Great insight. I like your line on the American Dream being something we are entitled to receive.

  3. Daniel R. on September 16, 2013 at 11:18 am

    Thank you for your provoking perspective on leadership. I
    strongly agree on the correlation between character and leadership. Also, I
    believe that to be a great leader, one must be a follower as well. A leader is
    often following something or someone greater than himself. Our character is not
    based in ourselves.

    • Tim Elmore on September 16, 2013 at 2:02 pm

      I think a great way to “follow” someone is to surround yourself with the type of people that you want to be like. For me, I strive to be disciplined about reaching out to my mentors and those who add positive fuel to my leadership journey.

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Inseparable: The Sobering Truth About Tomorrow’s Leaders