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  • Richard Spilg

Culture of Character vs Cult of Personality

Updated: Aug 1, 2022

Over the past few months, we’ve witnessed the spectacle of people in positions of great power trying to hang on to their office without regard for anything, or anyone, that might get in their way. These are leaders who personify the Cult of Personality and provide clear examples of the danger when the size of person is not up to the size of their role.

Cultural historian Warren Susman contended that America shifted from the Culture of Character to the Culture of Personality during the 20th century – a change that opened a Pandora’s Box of personal anxieties. He famously wrote that “The social role demanded of all in the new Culture of Personality was that of a performer”. Susan Cain [1] adds “In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honourable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as to how one behaved in private.”

19th century character guides emphasised attributes that anyone could work on improving. Attributes described by words such as citizenship; duty; work; golden deeds; honour; reputation; morals; manners; integrity. New guides celebrate qualities that are trickier to acquire. Either one does or doesn’t embody qualities such as magnetic; fascinating; stunning; attractive; glowing; forceful; dominant; energetic.

One indisputable fact from the January 6 hearings in America and events leading to the resignation of the UK Prime Minister is that it took young people with integrity and the courage of their convictions to highlight the lack of integrity and/or morals of their much more senior leaders. As per the Financial Times of 7 July “The Conservative party’s most senior figures (aside from two) outsourced bravery to their juniors until the outcome was clear”. Those senior leaders have, at least, provided great case studies as to what bad and uninspiring leadership looks like.

In challenging clients to think about effective leadership, I ask what they would want their team members to ultimately learn from them. Good leaders have no problem with the concept of making themselves redundant to create space for advancement of others and move on to new challenges. They also add new dimensions to the way the people they lead think and behave.

I was extremely fortunate early in my career to work for two of the best possible role models leaders. They were always challenging, but in a way that made sure that just about every interaction with them was a learning experience for me. The two of them were great examples of the size of person being completely consistent with the size of their roles, which inevitably grew in line with the success of the businesses they ran and their increased public profile.

There are two aspects that inform the size of person – social-emotional maturity and cognitive ability. ‘Self-authoring’ leaders are secure in their own values and, while they respect and strive to understand different points of view, they aren’t swayed by things that are at odds with their own values. That level of maturity translates into leadership competencies including authenticity, insight, reliability, consistency, and empathy.

Cognitive ability includes the ability to think beyond the immediate. Leaders with strong cognitive abilities don’t think of situations as static but rather in terms of constant change, inter-connections, impact on relationships (people and processes) and transformation. Daniel Kahneman [2] writes about the two systems of our minds. ‘System 1’ operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. It is fast, intuitive, and emotional. ‘System 2’ allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it. System 2 is however inherently lazy and can accept what (the often-faulty) System 1 gives it without questioning – leading to cognitive bias. Leaders with strong cognitive abilities make the effort to engage their System 2 to think beyond the obvious.

Inspirational leaders never need tell their team members to come to meetings fully prepared, ready to argue their case, and open to learn. That happens automatically through the respect they generate by their actions, underpinned by their personal and professional values. If you are someone who walks away from an interaction with your boss thinking ‘how could I not have thought of that – it was so obvious’ without having been made to feel foolish [because your boss has created a psychologically safe environment and has the social-emotional maturity to not want to embarrass you], then count yourself lucky! That’s what effective leadership looks like and provides a great model for you to emulate with your team members, so that they too can be inspired to become great leaders.

Richard Spilg

August 2022


[1] Susan Cain (2012) Quiet. The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

[2] Daniel Kahneman (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow

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