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Does Character Matter? The Three C’s of Leadership

Paul Comfort

Great leaders possess these characteristics and require them in those they promote.

Character matters, as does competence and communication. Develop these characteristics in yourself and look for these three C’s in the employees you want to promote to management.

I was a young general manager of a midsize transportation company in Maryland, and my administrative assistant was responsible for reconciling the petty cash every two weeks. For some reason, she could never get it exactly right. There were always discrepancies, and she had some reason why it would never balance. (We gave cash to the drivers who went out on assignment to pay for meals and sometimes overnight at hotels, etc.) The assistant would always come up with some excuse such as “Driver X has not returned all his cash and/or receipts.”

Other than that, she did a good job. Other reports were completed accurately in a timely fashion, and she seemed competent in normal office functions, so this one anomaly didn’t set off alarm bells with me or the other senior managers.

One day, her name got pulled by HR for the random drug test that was required of all employees in our transportation operation. That morning when I arrived at work, there was an envelope on my desk containing her resignation. This came completely “out of the blue” and was generic in its content. I was shocked. She seemed happy with her work and had not mentioned any problems. As the day wore on, I found the drug test list and talked to other managers. Several interesting facts came to light. 

It seems the assistant told other managers and staff that she enjoyed smoking pot on the weekends. Then it all made sense why she was having “trouble” reconciling the petty cash. Then, of course, she resigned because she knew she wouldn’t pass the drug test, which tests for cannabis.

It became a good life lesson for me in management. Whenever something doesn’t make sense (i.e., a perfectly competent employee cannot properly reconcile petty cash), there is always another reason. The other troubling aspect of this incident was the fact that at least one of my senior managers was aware of what she was doing but hadn’t reported it. That really brought to light important issues about trust and commitment. 

This experience became one of the bedrock examples of my philosophy that I call the “Three C’s of Leadership.” These became the benchmarks that I strive for as a leader and that I look for in others.

Three C’s of Leadership

1. Character. In order to effectively lead others, people must respect you. Respect is based not just on what you say but on who you are. Employees in a smaller medium-sized business get to see you up close and personal and evaluate you based on their interactions with you. 

Are you trustworthy? Do you keep your word? Do you practice what you preach? Your employees look at all of these aspects of your character to determine their level of respect for you. If you demonstrate integrity as a leader – doing what’s right when no one is looking – then they will model you. If you don’t, then expect them to model that same behavior. 

You don’t want your employees stealing from you. Then demonstrate honesty to them and don’t steal from the government, customers or suppliers. If you are unethical, your employees see that, and, thus, they will act accordingly.

This same characteristic applies to those individuals you are evaluating for leadership positions. Are they honest? Do they practice what they preach? Do they have integrity? If so, they have achieved the first measurement needed under this leadership rubric.

2.  Competence. You should be able to perform any function that you are asking others under you to perform. Otherwise, how will you know if they are doing it right? How will you train new employees on the task if you cannot perform it yourself? Anyone you want to promote needs to be able to do the same over their new proposed area of management.

Again, this factor of leadership goes directly to the amount of respect that employees have for you as their leader. In my first experience as a transportation manager in my ’20s, I took the necessary training and received my commercial driver’s license (CDL) so that I could drive our buses, too. I entered my name into the MVA record-check-flagging system so I would be flagged if I had any moving violations or tickets, just like the other drivers. I made sure that I drove buses with passengers on board regularly so the other drivers would know that I could perform all the pre-trip inspection functions, radio back to dispatch and drive safely, just as they did.

Even though it may not be required of you or the new manager you want to promote, if you want your employees to respect and follow you (or the managers under you), your staff must know that you (or their new manager) can perform the same functions competently that you require of them.

3. Communication. Your employees need to know what’s going on. Once I was trying to convince the owner of my company to purchase or lease new buses. I developed several business plans that demonstrated a great return on investment, but I kept getting shot down without a good explanation after I made my presentations. I didn’t understand it. 

Later, he told me he was selling the company. I realized he couldn’t take on any debt or incur new liabilities (like an equipment lease) during the due-diligence period. I understood that he was most likely under a non-disclosure agreement at the time, but it upset me that I spent all that time developing several new business plans when he could have just told me to stop and that we could revisit it later.

Communicate with your employees the “why” of what they are doing, not just the “what.” Don’t be like the parent who says, “because I say so” when asked “why” by your employees. Usually there are legitimate reasons that you can articulate. Don’t use information (or the lack of it) as a weapon. Your employees usually want to do their best for you. Be transparent about what’s going on when you can (or some version of it that can be explained) so employees understand the “why.” The results are much better. 

Look for this same “information generosity” in those you seek to promote. If they keep work-related information unnecessarily away from those they work with now, won’t they most likely maintain this same approach when placed in a higher management role? Is that what you want?  

As a small business owner, you cannot afford to have supervisors who are “information hoarders” and that leave your front line folks always in the dark. You want your employees to feel like they are part of your company, and that comes when they have the information needed to understand the big picture of your business and the “why” of their functions.


Character matters, as does competence and communication. If you look for these three C’s in the employees you want to promote to management (and also develop them in yourself), you can find great new leaders that will help you carry on your mission of profit with a purpose.

Image Credit: Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock
Paul Comfort
Community Member
I am one of the public transit industry’s leading evangelists (a former CEO of the MTA, Baltimore City Transit System and the 2016 Winner of the President’s Award for Public Transportation from AASHTO (American Association of State Highway, Transportation Officials) and as VP of North America's largest transit technology/software company am writing and speaking on business leadership topics and how technology is affecting transit/mobility in our cities. I am also a keynote speaker at conferences around the nation and world and love to write and speak about leaderhip/management in business and how to be more effective at both.