Why Does Character Matter?
Character can be defined in a variety of ways. Mental images abound as to the true definition but perhaps they can be summed up as, the motivation to do what it is right; or who you are when no one is watching. To be ethical, one must posses certain character qualities. Most actually originated as humankind has walked the face of the earth, such as patience, love, perseverance, self-control, humility, diligence, and so on.
Personal character clarifies one's value system and defines behavior in a most explicit manner. As we observe culture and human behavior, we can almost always trace backwards from behavior to find the meaning, values, and beliefs rooted in a person's worldview which subsequently influences behavior. In other words, our behavior is often consistent with our values; the way we act has meaning based on what we believe about ourselves, other people, the world, and in many cases one's higher power. Love, perseverance, humility, integrity, and countless character qualities that have permeated our societies have stood the test of time. However, whenever worldviews undergo rapid change due to technological advancement, economic and sociological change, or social revolution, one's corresponding value system and ultimately one's character are challenged and affected—sometimes dramatically.
Much has been written about the values of the 1950s in the United States. Post World War II technological advancements were clearly apparent on the American scene with the dawn of the television age, the transistor radio, and commercial jet travel, among the many leaps into the modern era. In spite of the Cold War fears, American society experienced the glow of peace and prosperity and a resurgence of traditional values. At the end of the decade, the United States and the Soviet Union entered the space age and the world experienced a quantum leap in communications capability with satellites orbiting the planet. The 1960s brought new challenges to this peaceful society and a dramatic shift in a modern worldview. The United States was beginning to move from a religious to a non-religious worldview, shifting the plausibility of many "traditional" values relating to familiar obligations, human sexuality, work ethic, and many other cultural mores and practices.
Character's relationship to ethics, however, is timeless and based on how one behaves to situations they confront on a daily basis. Doing the "right thing" means being ethical in today's vernacular. Ethical behavior is often linked to one's moral values. While there can be many sorts of values, such as aesthetic, political, and economic values, values are basically synonymous with ethical or moral values: self chosen or socialized standards that guide action in morally relevant contexts. Everyone, irrespective of ethical orientation, has such moral values. It can be said that no one has developed morally in a vacuum. Most people can trace the formulation of their values to religion, family, culture, and personal experiences, through either an unconscious or subconscious rejection or acceptance of values that have been learned. These values usually remain implicit with one's everyday actions or behavior. They become explicit when we are called upon to articulate what we believe and why we believe what we do; they become explicit in times when we must choose one particular behavior or another as right or wrong. Ergo, doing ethics.
Whether we like it or not, all of us are constantly making decisions that are shaped by our ethical values. No matter how amoral or immoral we may be, there is no escape from making decisions on issues that are essentially moral in character. Therefore, we are also ethical decision-makers and when it comes to leadership — character and ethics matter.
Ethical decision-making can be both a skill and an art. It is a skill because analytical tools greatly enhance our abilities to be competent ethical decision-makers. However, knowing the tools of ethical analysis does not make us proficient in ethical decision-making. Good ethical decision-making is also an art. It requires discernment and an intuitive ability to examine a highly complex ethical situation and focus on the heart of the matter. Undeniably, effective ethical decision-making requires that indefinable quality we usually refer to as character.
Character in this context is the courage and conviction to make difficult and unpopular decisions. Decision-making is inherent in leadership in that one often must face a dilemma on choosing the right course of action. Often this dilemma involves being ethical; but "what makes a person ethical?" Is it correct knowledge about right and wrong, good and evil that make one ethical? Right or correct knowledge will not ensure that I act consistently with what is good. What makes someone ethical is the practice of ethical behavior. The acts produced by us as moral agents cannot be separated by the motives and intentions for executing decisions and taking action. Furthermore, our character is reflected in our behavior, or in a certain sense, we are what we do. Therefore, ethics attempts to bring together in harmony right ethical thinking (intentions) with right ethical behavior (action). Since we are human beings, we tend to be morally weak and even knowing the right thing will not guarantee that we will choose the right course of action.
Leadership is highly effective and becomes utterly inspirational when difficult decisions are made with moral conviction. The question that often plagues humans is "why should I be ethical?" Ethical principles, laws, and moral criteria become meaningless and have no impact if they are not acted upon. Leaders, notwithstanding their frailties, subjectivity, convictions, and limitations, still have the ultimate power to act and decide. Character means having the courage and conviction to make difficult and unpopular decisions.
Character does matter.
Perry J. Martini, Ph.D., is a 1971 graduate of the United States Naval Academy and later earned three Masters Degrees in Business, Education, and International Affairs. He holds a Doctoral Degree in Education with Distinction from The George Washington University. Perry was a Naval Aviator and served for twenty-seven years in multiple leadership positions. He is currently the Director of Executive Leadership Programs at Academy Leadership, and an accomplished author and speaker.