3 Character Warning Lights Leaders Must Recognize

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Wouldn’t it be great if there was a “check engine” light for a leader’s character?

Those of us who are mechanically dis-inclined rely on our car’s dashboard warning lights to remind us to pay attention to a small engine problem early on, before it grows to become a big, expensive calamity.

When it comes to issues of a character, leaders also need to pay attention to the early warning signs so they can take corrective measures before things get out of hand.

The key to maintaining your sterling leadership character is to recognize the early warning signs so you can take corrective measures.

Here are 3 of the most important character warning lights for leaders:

1.  The “humble-brag” warning light

Long before over-the-top arrogance sets in, subtle hints can appear in the form of the humble-brag (highlighting personal accomplishments under a thinly-veiled veneer of humility). Leaders using social media must be especially careful of this; for example, “Can’t believe we’re growing at a 25% rate while so many others are struggling. #humbled.”

It’s a short walk from a humble-brag to full-blown arrogance.

2.  The exaggeration warning light

Out-and-out lying often begins as innocuously as simple exaggeration.

In an earlier post I pointed out that leaders who succumb to the temptation to use hyperbole in their communication (“That was our best event ever!”) they run the risk of taking a credibility hit.

But a larger concern can also loom. Because when hyperbole and exaggeration appear, it can be a slippery slope to utter fabrication and deception.

3.  The rationalization warning light.

Corruption rarely begins with a calculated plan to extort massive of funds from one’s own organization.

Usually it begins as innocently as shaving a few minutes off the work day or getting a bit sloppy with one’s expense report.

The warning light appears when you begin to rationalize these indiscretions. “No one will miss a few sheets of paper” or “I work hard at other times; why shouldn’t I take off a few minutes early?”

When you start rationalizing like this you can end up disqualified from leadership.

Character loss creeps up on you, one unchecked minor indiscretion at a time.

But if you learn to recognize the warning lights you can keep the character of your leadership right on track.

the author

Scott Cochrane

Lifelong learner, practitioner and coach of leadership, across more than 50 countries. Follower of Jesus, husband of Nora, grateful parent and grandparent.


  1. Thanks Joseph. As is always the case, when I began thinking about these “warning lights” it began with a look at my own leadership. I need to be on a constant vigil against these kinds of character issues.

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