Friday, February 27, 2009

Article 6 of 6: The Role of Character

...Bo Short

“No man can climb out beyond the limitations of his own character.” …John Morely

Character is one of the most difficult words in the English language to define, but it is one of the easiest to perceive. The character of a person is something that we can sense almost immediately…and the character of a person is clearly demonstrated over time.

Character is the collection of personal attributes that encompass all of the admirable, inner qualities of human nature. The quality of our character determines the quality of our actions and our leadership; good character is essential to have if you want to live to win.

A friend related a story to me about a third grade school teacher he knows. He likes to teach his kids how to juggle. He says that whenever he starts to teach a classroom full of kids how to juggle, a couple of them always raise their hands and say they already know how to do it. So he calls them up to the front of the room and, of course, you know what happens. The same thing that happens to us if we don’t know how to juggle. The kids throw the balls in the air and wave their arms around but they don’t really know how to juggle. They try to imitate the real thing, but they can’t.

Juggling is not something you can fake. Either you can juggle or you can’t. One of the reasons juggling has always appealed to this teacher is that juggling is so unambiguous. There are no phony jugglers. If the balls stay in the air, then you can clearly juggle. The ability to juggle is always genuine. You have to learn to be able to do it. Character is exactly the same way. A person’s character, whether it’s good or bad, is always genuine. It has to be learned. And you might try to fake good character, but sooner or later, it becomes obvious whom you really are.

Character enables us to do what is right for the right reasons. When we act with good character, we develop integrity and gain the inner sense of satisfaction that comes with it. When we know that we have done right, we can live with a clear conscience. We’re free of any guilt or fear of getting caught.

When we are honest with other people…when we are reliable and fair and compassionate, we have no fear of being exposed as a liar or a cheat. The deeper we feel our convictions… the better our character… the greater our ability is to do what is right.

William Reed says, “It is sometimes frightening to observe the success which comes even to the outlaw with a polished technique, but I believe we must reckon with character in the end, for it is as potent a force in the worlds conflict as it is in our own domestic affairs. It strikes the last blow in any battle.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”

The author Anais Nin wrote, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” Ann Landers wrote, “Opportunities are usually disguised by hard work, so most people don’t recognize them.” Our character dictates how we see the world and how we behave in the world.

Character is the backbone of a nation. It’s the backbone of freedom. It’s the backbone of a marriage. It’s the backbone of a company. My wife says, “If you don’t have character in one part of your life then you simply do not have character.” That is so important to understand. It is not a “sometime” thing. Aristotle wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Our character, basically, is a composite of our habits. That’s why you either have good character in all aspects of your life or in none. Either you have good habits or bad habits. Another old adage goes like this, “Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.” Our character, then, is our destiny.

When you consider how character is developed, it becomes clear that every leader, regardless of economic background, is in a very real sense self-made. The more authentic and genuine a person is, the more effective he or she is as a leader. Why? Because the strength of their character makes them trustworthy and believable. People become much more willing to follow you in any pursuit — business, government, athletics, education, community service, anything — if they have reason to trust your character.

In the words of the writer Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “What comes from the heart, goes to the heart.” We demonstrate our character each and every day in hundreds of ways. In the decisions we make, in the people we choose as our friends and business associates, in the way we conduct ourselves in the privacy of our own home and office.

There’s a Japanese proverb that says, “When a tiger dies he leaves his stripes behind, and when a man dies he leaves his name behind.” Have you considered what people will remember about you when you leave your name behind?

One of the problems in business is that we look at everything as “business”. If we are not careful, we compromise our integrity trying to get ahead. The former Chairman of Coca-Cola, Roberto Goizueta, once said, “If you look at all the problems of Wall Street and all the bad publicity, it has been caused by human beings with a lot more intelligence than integrity.” Good character will never hold you back. Never. Good character will help you to get ahead.

I was inspired by a feature story that the journalist Charles Kuralt once did about a talented high school gymnast who happened to be paralyzed from the waist down. This young athlete was really good, and it was thrilling to see how accomplished he had become. At one point during the interview he said to Kuralt, “I don’t come with the wheelchair. The wheelchair comes with me.”

I suppose that statement also reflects the young man’s courage. And, of course, overcoming his paralysis even to become a gymnast of any talent, must have taken incredible perseverance. But just think of the tremendous character within that young man to be able to say, “I don’t come with the wheelchair. The wheelchair comes with me.”

As you continue to live to win, you are going to be presented with amazing opportunities. You may have the opportunity to build a successful, profitable business. You may have the opportunity to raise a family. You may have the opportunity to run for elected office or to serve in government in an appointed position. You may create a nonprofit organization. You may be a coach or a teacher or an attorney. You may decide to go into medical or scientific research. In every situation, your character will strike the last blow. In every situation, your character is what will leave the most indelible memorable impression.

St. Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, responded to some questions by members of the early church in Corinth. They asked him, “What are the things in life that are permanent, on which we can build priorities that are superlative?” Paul said, “They are the things that you cannot see.” This seems like a strange response until you think about it. What are the things that are permanent that we cannot see but that we use as a foundation for setting our priorities? It is character, and the qualities that make up our character — honesty, respect for law, decency, tolerance, trustworthiness, fairness, and duty. It’s our character.

A century ago, the French social philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville, traveled throughout America and then wrote down what he observed. He wrote, “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” Since America is a collection of individuals, de Tocqueville’s statement really applies to each one of us. We live in a country that provides us with resources, the opportunities and the freedoms to make the most of our lives. And what we do, how well we do, is determined by our character - as a nation and as individuals, as fathers, mothers, businessmen and women, leaders, volunteers.

Character is what will enable you to be a leader, to rally people around you. Character will keep your feet firmly planted on the ground as this information age swirls around us. Character, what is in your heart, is what you will communicate by the way you act. Character, your good name, is what you will leave as your ultimate legacy to your children. Remember that. When you die, when you leave this earth, what you possess will belong to someone else. But what you are will be yours forever. Please remember character is built slowly, but it can be torn down with incredible swiftness.

I saved Character for the end because I think good character is the most important quality you can have. I believe in you. I know you can do whatever you set your mind and your heart and your character to doing.