Think of a challenging situation you’re facing right now. Are you facing it with leadership character, or merely coping to survive?

Leadership styles are abundant and there subtle differences between a great leader and a toxic one. There is also a balance that must be constantly maintained between a myriad of variables and personalities. Leading from a place of adventure rather than a place of fear has been the differentiator for many successful companies. Leadership character defines the bold leader and works to set an example of culture and beliefs.

Leadership character works to transform and open up possibilities and potential. When we are leading from character, we exude qualities of authenticity, courage, purpose, openness, trust, congruence, compassion, and service. We have the ability to transform circumstances, open up possibilities, and create lasting value for ourselves and for others. The character-driven leader tends to emphasize service over self.

Are You Simply Coping?

Coping protects us and helps us get through challenging circumstances. In this sense, it has value, and if used sparingly and appropriately, will serve very specific needs. Coping works like a muscle. We need to use it at times, but if we overuse it, the muscle will collapse.

Qualities of coping include:

  • Safety
  • Security
  • Comfort
  • Control
  • Concern for image

The coping leader may get results but also exhibit defensiveness, fear, withdrawal, or a desire to win at all costs. He or she may exclude certain people or information. The coping-driven leader tends to emphasize self over service.

Leadership Character vs. Coping Character

Both leadership character and coping character are present in most business situations. However, we need to ask ourselves, “Which one is my master and which one is my servant?” When we make leadership character the master and coping the servant, we move toward better relationships and lasting value creation.

Building Awareness

It is essential as leaders to learn how to build our awareness of when we are being guided by leadership character and when we are being guided by coping character. Here are three examples that indicate whether we are in a character pattern or in a coping pattern.

1. Building Image vs. Building Authenticity

When we care a bit too much how we look to others and focus on getting their approval, adulation, or acceptance, our leadership may be guided by an image coping pattern. We are in this image persona when we try too hard to look great, when we present ourselves as more than we are, when our brand is more important than our substance, and when we misrepresent values, beliefs, or other information to win acceptance.

Case in Point

Recently, I was coaching the CEO of a firm and one of his key executives. Although the CEO needed to work on a few crucial growth areas, authenticity was not one of them.

A key executive in his organization, however unknowingly, was caught up in her image. At a critical point in one of their interactions as the key executive was over analyzing all the political implications of a recent, highly public failure, the CEO calmly and compassionately asked, “Michelle, do you want to look good, or do you want to make a difference?”

Michelle fell silent. Of course she wanted to make a difference. She needed someone to shock her out of investing herself totally in coping character and into shifting her awareness to leadership character.

2. Safety, Security, and Comfort vs. Purpose

If our actions are principally guided by safety, security, and comfort, we are in a coping pattern. This is a big one for most of us. It’s also subtle. We are usually unaware of how staying safe is actually limiting us from new experiences and possibilities.

Case in Point

I was working with a senior marketing executive who was caught in this coping pattern. The first day I met Jack he told me he had lost his passion for his work and was preparing to leave his organization to seek a new opportunity.

After spending some time together, he shared his career-life vision: to accumulate assets in order to replace his current income and in five years start his own business. On the surface it sounded all right. As we went deeper, however, it became apparent that he had sacrificed his purpose on the altar of security and comfort.

Driven by his need to accumulate money in an attempt to build his inner sense of security, he had gradually lost touch with what really gave him meaning: using his creativity and insight to help others achieve their potential. Once Jack reconnected to his purpose, he returned to his work with renewed passion, perspective and boldness.

When we are caught up in coping, we seek solutions outside ourselves like changing a job, accumulating enough money to feel secure, or changing a relationship. Too often we seek solutions in “Whats” instead of the “Hows” or “Whys.” Jack needed to re-learn how to show up in his life in a renewed way. He learned how and why it was vital to clarify purpose and to lead in character.

3. Control vs. Collaboration

If our energies are absorbed in having the world conform to our will, with a desire to avoid nearly all surprise, then we are likely leading from a place of coping.

Case in Point

For Tracy, a senior-level executive for an international service firm, coping was her “winning formula.” She viewed herself as an exceptionally competent person, and by all external measures she was. Based on a series of outstanding achievements in sales and marketing, she had been on the fast track in her company. She was known for always exceeding the need. If the organization wanted something done exceptionally well, Tracy was the one recruited for the job.

Some would say she had mastered her profession, maybe even mastered some aspects of her external environment. But her obsessive need to control everything around her had created strain in all her relationships.

Her marriage wasn’t surviving her need to control. Without understanding why, she gradually drove away nearly everyone around her. For many years, her external competence had been sufficient to help Tracy to face her life and career demands. However, her expanded life and leadership demands involved competence of a different order.

Leadership Character Training

It took a few months of coaching, but to her credit, Tracy slowly came to the realization that her excessive need to control was based on a shadow belief. She had come to believe that just being herself and trusting that things would work out was not an option for her.

At a crucial point in our coaching she said, “If I stopped controlling everything, my life would fall apart!” The instant she said it, the paradox hit her with full force. Her life was falling apart because she was so controlling. Yet, she felt that control was her only savior.

Over time, she gained the personal mastery to begin trusting and to be more open to change. As her self-awareness, self-trust and openness grew, Tracy’s ability to trust and to appreciate others grew as well. She had begun to develop leadership character.

The Leadership Character Transformation

As we have seen, leadership character transforms whereas coping tends to be more of a reactive survival mode. When we are in a coping pattern, we tend to see the problems of life as existing outside ourselves.

We say to ourselves, “If I could only change this person or that situation, then everything would be fine.” But life’s problems are rarely resolved by only changing the external situation. Lasting solutions involve dealing with our internal situation in order to transform the external circumstance.

Know When to Walk Away

Obviously, there may be times when we need to leave or walk away from a situation for self-preservation. However, if our first response is consistently to exit challenging circumstances, then we probably need to work on leaning into leadership character more often.

It’s important to note that personal mastery is not about eliminating coping but about increasing leadership character to such a degree that it’s primary and coping is secondary. Coping exists for a reason—to protect us and to deal with threatening situations—so we don’t want to eliminate it completely. It serves a purpose.

Master Our Behavior

But we do want to favor leadership character so that this more substantial way to lead becomes the master of our behavior. To have character as the master and coping as the servant—the inner supporting the outer—is the goal of personal mastery.

Kevin Cashman is the Global Leader of CEO and Executive Development at Korn Ferry. He is a leadership columnist at Forbes and bestselling author of Leadership from the Inside Out: Becoming a Leader for Life, Third Edition (Berrett-Koehler; October 30, 2017) and The Pause Principle.