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The character to lead: a grounded theory ethnography of character in U.S. Army combat leaders

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After decades of dormancy, character is re-emerging as an important research topic among organizational leadership researchers in response to the need to better explain the source of certain exemplary and

After decades of dormancy, character is re-emerging as an important research topic among organizational leadership researchers in response to the need to better explain the source of certain exemplary and ethical leader performance (Hannah & Avolio, 2011; Leonard, 1997; Thompson & Riggio, 2010; Wright & Goodstein, 2007). However, efforts to operationalize character are criticized for their abstract and idealistic trait-based conceptualizations that fail to capture the reality of leadership and situational dynamics (Conger & Hollenbeck, 2010). The purpose of this study is to develop a more robust theoretical approach to character that is empirically grounded in the real life complexities of leadership. Combat provides the context for this study because the adversity of such an extreme context tends to make character a more salient and readily observable phenomenon than in more conventional organizational contexts (Wright & Quick, 2011; Hannah, Uhl-Bien, Avolio, & Cavarretta, 2009). I employed an ethnographic grounded theory design to gain a unique insider's perspective absent in many studies of leader character (Charmaz, 2009; Parry & Meindl, 2002). Data collection involved (1) physically embedding for six months with U.S. Army small unit infantry leaders operating in combat in Afghanistan; (2) participant observation in the full range of combat activities engaged in by these leaders; and (3) in-depth semi-structured interviews with key informants. An important contribution of this study is that the emergent concept of leader character is fully situated in the leader's social and environmental context represented by the leader's inner struggle to resist the adversity of combat and uphold the standards of leadership. In this dialectical framework, certain agentic resources important to resolving this inner struggle emerge as the locus of leader character. This agency-based concept of character is rooted in the internalization of the standards of leadership through identity-conferring normative commitments and entails particular motivational and volitional capacities. These produce a distinct mode of functioning--a strong form of personal moral agency--characterized by the leader's willingness to sacrifice in upholding standards in the face of adversity. This primacy of leader agency over adversity is the hallmark of leader character--what I call the character to lead.

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  • 2013