[September 19, 2021] One of the most difficult character traits of leaders to obtain, and to develop, is the ability to judge character in others. Leaders are looking for specific traits in people that predict successful mission completion or are obstacles to teamwork. Sadly, we often see inexperienced leaders who misjudge character; leading to unforeseen problems.
“I admire men of character, and I judge character not by how men deal with their superiors, but mostly how they deal with their subordinates, and that, to me, is where you find out what the character of a man is.” – General H. Norman Schwarzkopf
During my time as a leader in the U.S. Army, I discovered early on that nearly all senior leaders are first-rate judges of character (there were exceptions, of course). Their capability was gained through hard-hitting experiences because, unsurprisingly, there is no other way to develop it. So crucial is this ability in leaders that those who cannot create the social and intellectual skills necessary to distinguish good and bad character are often not advanced in their careers.
It is interesting that despite the importance of the talent to judge character, there are no U.S. military training programs dedicated to it. I think the reason may be due to its elusiveness. Yet, we frequently discuss the concept of acquiring the right characteristics to succeed. This disconnect in training versus character development is striking. Although there are a number of civilian based courses that address it I’m unaware of their effectiveness.1
Some people claim that the skill to make good judgment about the traits of others is inborn and is not learned. They cite studies that show that dogs are good judges of character in people. I’m not sure if this is wishful thinking on their part. I personally consider myself an excellent judge of character and I worked hard to develop it, yet my wife is far superior to me and yet she has far less experience with people. Perhaps there is something to the idea that it’s innate.
Regardless of how we gain the ability to judge character, it is important to note that those who cannot do so would be best served if they had someone close to them who could help. I admire those with this skill because they have always been the best people to work with and to have as a friend.
- A cursory review on the Internet reveals many civilian companies that claim they can show us how to make good judgments in others. Furthermore, one can find a number of studies in psychology that supports the idea that the skill is learned and not innate.