Tag Archive for: Character
Over the winter, my wife, Val and I took time to transplant trees and repot houseplants. It’s been good for me to slow down and spend some time working with soil, getting my hands dirty and connecting to the land, reminding me of the value farmers bring to our culture. I’ve been learning from Val, our resident plant expert, that a healthy root system is necessary to ensure a robust plant. Through their natural intelligence, plants know this and develop extensive roots before their energy is transferred into growing foliage. You’ll see this in a houseplant that will get root bound in a pot before they flourish above the ground. The root system is first developed in the dirt, thus enabling the plant to support its growth above the surface.
Leadership is like that. The source of what is manifested in the world is not seen by the world. Like a plant, whose strength and energy come from its roots, the strength and energy of a leader comes from within. A good life – through a person’s roots – precedes good leadership. Below is a short list of what a good life means to me, and the roots that will sustain and support you to do the work that you are called to do.
- Clarity. Clarity is about living your life by design rather than by default. Living without clarity is like embarking on a wilderness journey without a compass. Any way will get you there if you don’t know where you are going. Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare and precious achievement. You’ll be told in a hundred ways what is expected of you and what is needed of you to be a success. The real discipline in life comes in saying no to the wrong opportunities.
- Courage. If you have ever walked through something that frightens you, and you grew through to the other side, you know that courage is inspiring. It inspires you and it inspires those around you. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is facing fear and walking through it. There have always been courageous men and women who have been prepared to die for what they believe in. What do you care enough about to give your life for?
- Character. If you want to attract others, you must be attractive. Strong character demands that you 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 give, to endeavor not for what you can have, but for who you can be. A job title, the letters behind your name, the size of your office, or your income are not measures of human worth. No success by the world’s standards will ever be enough to compensate for a lack of strong character.
- Calling. Calling is a devotion to a cause beyond you. It is inspiring to be around people who have a dedication to a cause they care about. When you feel an internal calling, a deep sense of pursuing what you are meant to be pursuing, you take a step toward completeness in your life. “A musician must make music,” wrote Abraham Maslow, the famed American psychologist, “an artist must paint, a poet must write, if they are to be ultimately at peace with themselves.” Whether you are paid or not to express your calling, a good life requires you listen and respond.
- Contribution. When we come to the end of our days on this earth, we take no material thing with us. It’s not what we have gained for ourselves but the contribution we have made to others that makes life meaningful. It’s not what we get from life that has the greatest most lasting reward. It’s what we give. A good life requires a generous spirit and a giving heart. A life of contribution is a good life.
- Connection. After three decades of observing and learning from thousands of leaders in hundreds of organizations and in every walk of life, I finally understand what my parents tried to teach me more than forty years ago. In an interdependent world, everything is about relationships. It’s not all about models or strategies or programs or the latest technology. Whether you are a CEO building a company, a middle manager leading a division, a supervisor ensuring results on your team, a front-line sales person, a customer-service representative, or a parent attempting to develop capable young people, leadership is all about making contact and building connections. And caring is at the root.
- Centering. “Dwell as near as possible to the channel in which your life flows,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. For me, a good life is built around a spiritual center that I constantly seek and return to. From this foundation I find security amidst uncertainty, serenity in the middle of success and failure, stability among the fleeting emotions of happiness and sadness. It is this center that sustains me and provides connection in loss, humility in achievement, perspective in chaos, strength in weakness, and wholeness in fragmentation.
It’s an exciting time to be living in this wondrous world. What concerns me is the possibility that our efforts to continuously improve and advance everything will create a society that is actually less satisfying to live in. Every day we have an opportunity to invent a new world through the choices we make. Not just in a narrow economic sense, but also in a broader human sense: for ourselves and for our children and for our children’s children.
What does a good life mean to you, and how does living in accord with what matters to you make you a better person and a better leader?
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.
“Think only on those things that are in line with your principles and can bear the light of day. The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you choose, what you think, and what you do is who you become. Your integrity is your destiny. It is the light that guides your way.” – Heracleitus
In my lifetime I’ve done a great deal of reflecting on the question, “How do you define success?” Now that I’m entering my sixth decade, I am coming to realize there is success, and then there is, what Fred Kofman (author of Conscious Business) would describe as, “success beyond success.” The first is outer success. The second is authentic or inner success: success beyond success.
If you set a goal (e.g. to win a game, get a promotion, make a certain amount of money) and you achieve that goal, you are successful. This is outer success.
Inner success is something quite different. Inner success is the kind of person you became and the contribution you made to the world in pursuit of your goal. Inner success is independent of whether you actually achieve your goal.
Outer success is what you put in your résumé. Inner success goes in your eulogy. Outer success is fleeting. It lasts only until the next record is broken or the next gold medal is won or the next headlines are written. Inner success on the other hand, is far more sustainable and lasting. Inner success can last a lifetime or longer when it leaves a legacy. Outer success might make you happy, but inner success brings you joy. Inner success is ultimately what fills you up and gives you self-worth, self-respect, and sustained confidence.
In workshops, I often use an exercise where I have participants think of three people they admire. They could be people who have made a positive difference in the world, like Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi, or people who have made a personal contribution to their life such as a grandmother or teacher. My choices would be my wife, my parents, and Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist.
There’s a second part to the exercise. They are to think of the character traits that make each of their chosen people admirable to them. In my case, I admire Val for her capacity to unconditionally love and accept me with all my flaws, which has helped shape the person I am today. I admire my mother for her wisdom and my father for his compassion, and I admire Viktor Frankl for his courage, resilience, and perseverance. From his harrowing survival story emerged a philosophy of living that is centered on the pursuit of purpose, and of finding meaning amidst deep anguish.
Finally, I ask the workshop participants to compare these fine and admirable traits with the typical success markers in our culture, the kind of character traits featured, say, in People magazine. After using this exercise with literally thousands of people, I have yet to observe anyone choose a person for the character qualities most frequently popularized in magazines and online such as as fame, beauty, power, youth, or wealth. It’s fascinating that, culturally, we gravitate unconsciously to things that ultimately mean so little to us. There is a difference between success that is defined by the world’s standards, and real, inner success that is defined by the strength of our character.
It is fine to have a goal of outer success, but from an inner perspective, the purpose of having that goal is not to achieve the goal. The purpose of a goal of outer success is to inspire yourself to become the kind of person it takes to achieve it. Then, whether you achieve outer success or not, you can still have inner success, or success beyond success. This is authentic success: living your life in accord with your values – in the service of others.
I’ve noticed that the most successful leaders I’ve met in organizations aren’t necessarily pursuing success, yet success comes to them. They aren’t after the next promotion or to get ahead in the organization because they are too busy bringing value and serving the people around them. While they undoubtedly have goals and intentions for their future, their focus is developing and using their strengths and unique talents to bring value to the organization today.
Take a few minutes and be inspired by two female softball players who demonstrate inner success. It speaks to the adults in their lives, their family and the coaches and mentors along the way who instilled a strong sense of character, compassion and a moral compass.