There is no real success in the world that can be separated from being a good person.
In 1944, in Marzobotto, a small town near Bologna, Italy, two thousand civilians were massacred by Nazi troops. The Nazis were retaliating for acts of sabotage committed by members of the Italian resistance. One young German soldier, however, refused to take part in the massacre and was shot.
While few of us will ever face losing our life to live in accordance with our conscience, everyone of us have opportunities every day to choose character over comfort. In our leadership and cultural alignment programs we teach that great character is the foundation of great cultures. Like the roots of a tree, character is hidden to the world, but is vital to an aligned, sustainable organization and life. It’s not the fierceness of the storm that determines whether we break, but rather the strength of the roots that lie below the surface. And, like that German soldier, having strong roots of character determines our strength and our courage.
Twenty-three centuries ago, Aristotle distinguished between what he termed “external goods,” such as prosperity, property, power, personal advancement and reputation, and “inner goods,” what he referred to as “goods of the soul,” including fortitude, temperance, justice, compassion, and wisdom. He taught that the good life is not one of consumption, but of the flourishing of these deeper, hidden virtues.
Unshakeable character calls you to shift from being the best in the world to being the best for the world, to strive not for what you can get, but what you can be, to endeavor to be a better person, before you attempt to be a better leader. Respectful and civil societies, organizations, and families depend on the self-respect, dignity, and the civility earned by their members, acquired by living with strong character.
Below are seven ways to develop unshakable character. Take a little time to notice the effect of these simple choices on your self-respect, your well-being, and your responses to those you love and serve.
- Take a character assessment. Take a personal inventory of your character. How are you doing in such areas as compassion, reliability, honesty, courage, prudence, contribution, and maturity? Are you one person in public and another in private? Like a business that takes regular stock of its inventory, this is a fact-finding process. There can be blind spots to seeing yourself, so get feedback from the most important people in your life. Being a good person precedes being a good leader.
- Let go of what you want. Prudence is the common sense – that unfortunately is not so common any more – to live with what you can do without, and the ability to find joy in what is here. Every so often it’s good to surrender something we want, but don’t need. In a world that confuses wants with needs, debt continues to rise as character continues to erode. Practice enjoying not getting everything you want, and find freedom in enjoying what you have.
- Do something difficult every day. “Do the hard stuff first,” my mother used to say. The earlier in the day you get the difficult work done, the better you’ll feel about yourself and the rest of your day will go better. Whether it’s having a difficult conversation, getting up and getting some exercise, or taking a risk, character is built on the foundation of overcoming the natural tendency to take the course of least resistance.
- Clean up after yourself. Something eats away at your character when you leave your messes for someone else to look after.
- Look beyond yourself. Character means choosing service over self-interest. Character grows in the soil of concern for others and the commitment to act on that concern. It is always a win-win when we find ways to make life better for someone less fortunate than ourselves.
- Spend less than you earn. This is truly one of the best character habits you can develop. Spending less than you earn, whether it’s reflected in your home, your car, or the stuff you buy, is another version of prudence. The space you create in your life by doing so will give you freedom, renewed worth, and contentment that money will never buy.
- Practice gratitude. Gratitude is integral to strong character. It’s the antithesis of entitlement, the poison that contaminates character. Be an appreciator, rather than a depreciator, of everything that shows up in your life, including opportunities disguised as problems. What you appreciate, appreciates.
Character is not developed over night. It’s a life-long process. Just as it takes years of unseen work to have an “overnight” success, great acts of character come from years of small habits, diligently and persistently lived each day. The payoff is profound: self-respect, freedom, peace of mind, and the courage and clarity to build a better world around you. The nineteenth-century British writer William Makepeace Thackeray captured the essence of character in four lines:
Sow a thought and you reap an act;
Sow an act and you reap a habit;
Sow a habit and you reap a character;
Sow a character and you reap a destiny.