Most people have, at some point in their lives, heard or used the phrase coined by the iconic college basketball coach John Wooden, “The true test of a man's character is what he does when no one is watching.”
In his 2012 article in Forbes magazine, Walter Pavlo states; “Most of us who make difficult decisions in our ‘hidden’ world often make wise choices. But how do those positions, our character, hold up when confronted in the real world, with real people in real situations?” Perhaps the real test of character comes when everyone is watching?
Much has been written on the subject of character and leadership. In their book The Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership, James Sipe and Don Frick point out that character comes from Greek word charak meaning engraved or inscribed. It is the deep-seated qualities and attributes that embody who we really are. They go on to reveal that studies have shown that leaders who are seen as persons of character are more likely to generate loyalty, creativity, and productivity among followers. If this is true, then why isn’t character development lifted into the lexicon of skills required for a strong business acumen?
Perhaps the problem lies in the fact we often relegate character formation into a moral virtue that can only be accessed through meditation or personal soul-searching. To be sure, there is much to be gained from reflection, spirituality, and mindfulness. But what if there are practical steps we can take to open multiple pathways to becoming a person (and leader) of character?
Here are three steps that will set you on the path toward character formation:
Step 1: Read!
Reading requires disengagement from the constant hum of technology all around us. It opens space for our minds to receive and discern new ways of thinking that challenge our habits and biases.
Choose a book that unpacks the real life story of an exemplar or leader you admire or are curious to learn about. Use their story to hone your knowledge and understanding of the prominence and impact of character in their lives. Jot down your questions in the margins, copy quotes and post them in prominent places where you run into them all the time, ask friends and colleagues to chew on ideas you are struggling with.
The Road to Character, by David Brooks, is a great place to start. Brooks researched the lives of prominent leaders in the US, women and men whose personal character altered the course of history. What he discovered is that these individuals lived as if the essential drama of life is to construct character. Their gritty disposition led them to a kind of self-cultivation where the true self is conditioned to do good rather than being blown by the winds of personal preferences or life situations.
Step 2: Focus on living one value (character trait) for a month.
For example, if the value is authenticity, take time and make it a priority to risk being more authentic. Authenticity, rather than a passive state of trying to be real, is an active pursuit. Everyday we experience opportunities to be authentic; in conversations, in relationships, and in the way we lead. Taking action brings awareness that authenticity requires a courageous first step of intentionally making yourself vulnerable to the possibility that you are not right all the time.
This intentional focus on practice re-defines character from commitment to living on some higher moral ground to the discipline of engaging in actions necessary to develop an engraved set of disciplined habits, and a settled disposition to do good.
James Sipe and Don Frick, The Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership, highlight that character consists of operative values – which are defined as values in action. This happens when our character as a value becomes a virtue – a reliable inner disposition to respond to situations in a morally good way.
They go on to say, “Good character consists of knowing the good, desiring the good, and doing the good – habits of the mind, habits of the heart, and habits of action.”
Step 3: Commit to serve someone or something beyond yourself
In reality, true character is only engraved in your heart and soul in the context of the community where you serve and lead. Choosing to commit to serve someone or some organization for absolutely no personal gain or networking opportunity for your job is often hard to do. Yet, if we never take this step, we rob ourselves of experiencing the formative power of serving others.
Founder and lead practitioner of the Catholic Social Service Movement, Dorothy Day, modeled a radical congruency and connection between her character (deeply engraved by her spirituality) and her life practices. She once stated, “We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other.” Thus, every time she found someone a piece of clothing it was an act of prayer. To separate community service from prayer would have been to separate it from its life-altering purpose.
When you survey the culture of leadership today, it’s not difficult to find effective and successful leaders. It’s not as easy to find persons and leaders who are exemplars and practitioners of character. What if you and I choose this day to start a new kind of leadership movement? What if we risked making character formation our top pursuit, even if it costs us? How would the world change?