Develop Character First, Leadership Will Follow


Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.  ~Helen Keller

In the middle of the second World War, Britain was facing a shortage of young officers. The task of developing young military leaders fell to Lord Rowallan, a Lt. Col. who was then Commandant of the Highland Fieldcraft Training Centre (HFTC) in 1943/44. The HFTC was set up by the Adjutant General in 1943 for the purpose of developing leadership qualities in servicemen who had been graded “NY” (Not Yet) by the War Office Selection Boards (WOSBs) looking for potential officers.

rowallanLord Rowallan had a strong belief that if you first develop character, military leadership skills would follow. So he put together a 10 week “Outward Bound” type of training in the Scottish Highlands. The training at the HFTC was highly successful in developing character and leadership qualities in the cadets, and the pass rate at the end of each 10-week course in the Scottish Highlands was about 70%.

The Rowallan Company became the successor to the HFTC. The Rowallan Company was set up in 1977 in similar circumstances to address the high failure rate (70%) of officer cadets on the Regular passammoCommissions Board (RCB). The 11-week course was based on the training developed at the HFTC in 1943/44 by Lord Rowallan, who was consulted about the establishment of the Company. Since 1977, 53 courses were completed and of the 2,900 cadets who started the courses, 65% were successful. Of the successful Rowallan cadets, 92% were successful on the subsequent Commissioning Course and many of these reached high ranks in the service. A successful innovation was to admit women officer cadets to the Rowallan Company courses as well as men.

Sadly the Rowallan Company was disbanded for financial reasons in 2002 but has been resurrected in a new course taught at Sandhurst called the Development Course.

What I find fascinating about this program is that it was a 10 week ‘non-military’ course designed to develop character, not military skills. Each participant took a turn at being the leader of one or more outdoor problem solving challenges and was then graded on their effectiveness by an observing officer and by their peers. The 10 week training was filled with many such exercises interspersed with lectures on the “character of successful leadership”.

I had a chance to speak with one of the former Commandants of Sandhurst a while agosandhurst and he had glowing things to say about the young cadets who had been through the Rowallan program prior to entering Sandhurst. Remember these were the rejects, the Not-Yet Ready to be accepted. He said he would always look hard at the “Rowallan chaps” when looking for a Cadet to head up special tasks.

So let’s fast forward to today. A few years ago I had an interesting meeting with two of the heads of the MIT Engineering Leadership Program. As you probably know, mentorship_mit_gel_logoMIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) is one of the elite global engineering and technology higher education schools. A major benefactor, Bernard M. Gordon, gave an endowment to “develop more leaders” among engineers, believing strongly that the skills of engineering coupled with the skills of leadership would greatly benefit business and mankind.

In developing their Gordon Engineering Leadership (GEL) curriculum, the faculty and advisors relied heavily on the principle of “character building through experiential learning” by having Leadership Labs every Friday where the students solve challenging situations and are then reviewed and critiqued by the advisors. In it’s fourth year now the MIT Engineering Leadership program is worth watching as an example of building more leaders. If you are curious, check out

Thanks for joining the conversation

Written and Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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