A common thread that runs through all great leaders is undeniably strong character. Leaders come from all types of backgrounds, but each has big dreams and the determination to overcome obstacles and fear that often get in the way. Character and moral fiber are where it all begins.
One success story that rings true to honorable character is that of Brown University President Ruth Simmons, the first African American female to head an Ivy League University.
Ruth was one of 12 children born to her sharecropper father and her mother who did domestic work for a living. Neither of her parents were formally educated, but the life lessons and personal values Ruth picked up from them would provide the strong basis of character that would lead her through life.
By observing her parents at work and the rich spiritual traditions of her family, Ruth learned the importance of civility and respect for others, attention to detail and the value of hard work.
Ruth worked hard not for praise or enrichment, but because hard work was a value that was ingrained in her character. The Brown University selection committee no doubt admired that ideal.
Ruth's story is emblematic of the American Dream – hard work, unwavering values and strength of character lead to great rewards. She also provides a lesson in how our parent's values and leadership style have a profound effect on whom we become. A lot of leadership success stories begin with a parent or role model who teaches the value of consistently living in alignment with our values, goals and actions.
As Ruth’s mother used to say, "As the twig is bent, so grows the tree," which means that an influence on a person’s character as a child will continue to show up in the person as an adult and therefore have a greater impact on their path to success.
Over my entire leadership career going back to managing Cherry Chase Golf Course to my time at Contempo Realty, NRT and Intero Real Estate Services, and with my current partners John Thompson, Tom Tognoli and Bob Moles, the biggest leadership challenges we’ve had to overcome lie in trying to teach people values and traits that their parents should have imparted to them.
For me, personally, the influence of such early lessons runs deep. Sometimes, when making business decisions as CEO of Intero, I will provoke quizzical, “why did you do that?” looks from my partners.
My answer: “Because I am Paul Blefari’s son.”
Lessons learned early still stay with me – and guide me, in their own way, towards decisions that may not seem obvious to those around me but nonetheless contribute to my own growth as a leader.
To live in alignment with your values requires a strong sense of who you are and where you came from. That's the stuff that builds strong character – and strong character is what helps to build great leaders.