Character Matters…if our society can take anything away from watching the ridiculous nature of the public debacles that seem to occur on a daily basis, it should be that Character Matters. Character; that oft discussed leadership trait that seems to be inexorably tied to sustainable success…while much has been written about the importance of character, there is surprisingly little information in circulation which actually defines it. The word “character” surfaces in most every article, blog post, speech, book, or even casual reference to the topic of leadership so surely it must be easy to define…In today’s post I’ll take a crack at defining a word which is often used, and in my opinion often misunderstood…
Some would say that character needs no formal definition and is a principle that should be universally understood by all, with anyone lacking understanding of the concept to be a person of bad character. Wouldn’t it be nice if that was so? While this line of thinking makes for a good sound bite, it hints at a rather myopic and naive view of the world. You see, much of how one defines character (good or bad) begins with their view of the world as guided by their moral compass.
One of my favorite sayings is that “you measure a person’s character by how they act when no one is watching, and by the choices they make when they believe no one will ever know.” Regrettably, many people choose to live in two worlds…their public world, and their private world. The people who walk this fine line between the ever increasing conflicts posed by the duality of their principles are destined to suffer as a result.
The class of people mentioned above also tend to subscribe to the theory of moral relativism. They believe anything that can be justified or rationalized by the need at hand, or worse yet, manipulated for a desired outcome, constitutes right thinking (some would call this subjective reasoning). These subjective thinkers are the masters of spin, who while often appearing to do things right, often fail to do the right thing. People that fall into this camp frequently exhibit an inconsistency in their reasoning and/or positioning. While they would describe themselves as flexible, fluid, and open-minded, my take is that their character lacks integrity and can be easily influenced. When a person allows popular opinion, or situational characteristics to either define or supersede their principles, then I suggest their character is flawed. Simply put, my contention would be that if you subscribe to subjective reasoning and you serve as your own moral compass, your character will only be as good or bad as your thinking at that time.
In contrast, others utilize a form of objective reasoning that is guided by a higher authority (law, religion, or some other third party code) which provides a consistent set of governing principals or ideas. My belief is that objective reasoning will lead to a consistency of character and a predictable pattern of behavior (also reflected in both good and bad character, as well as the higher authority being subscribed to). People who subscribe to this line of reasoning may often choose to ignore doing things right in favor of doing the right thing. While they may be labeled as hard-headed, inflexible, extreme or even as zealots, you know where you stand with objective thinkers. My belief is that an unyielding commitment to principled behavior will serve you better than a subjective, ad-hoc approach eleven times out of ten.
It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “Character is higher than intellect.” I could not agree more with Emerson as virtually anyone can develop their intellect, but it is the rare person who can retain their character. Emerson clearly understood the law of scarcity in placing more value on character. The most successful business leaders of our time have built their personal brand by consistently exhibiting strong character regardless of the situation at hand. They let right thinking, right decisioning and right acting serve as their guide. If you have to manipulate the truth or compromise your values to gain an advantage, the advantage is not worth the perceived gain for any advantage gained in deceit will surely come at a very high cost the sacrifice of your character.