It’s frequently denied, but more commonly ignored. We swear we don’t want to know what public leaders do privately—it’s their own business. (Yet the media claims it’s merely scooping up the private dirt the insatiable public appetite demands!)
Perhaps. But we need look no further than the morning’s headlines to document the direct correlation between countless individuals’ private and public behaviors. While it may be covered up for a time by bluster, talent, charisma or other gifts, we can all recall more than a few public failures, or “mistakes” admitted to in which private actions became public scandals.
When a leader’s intentions and behaviors clash, look to character to discover why.
Lance Armstrong, Gary Hart, Anthony Weiner, Jim Baker, Richard Nixon, Brian Williams, Rob Ford, Bernie Madoff, Martha Stewart, Mel Gibson: they’re just a fraction of the more infamous fallouts. Such a list of Exhibit A’s demonstrate the problem is not confined to particular professions, industries, ages or genders.
Here are five characteristics that make character the pivotal point of everyone’s persona:
Character is a foundational morality product.
Morality is universally and primarily a social issue, not a religious one. Conforming to the rules of virtuous conduct is good for everyone: virtues are universal and absolute standards that do not change with circumstances, time or point of view. When virtues are practiced, they always support personal and collective well-being. When rejected by a person, team or community, their foundations corrode and crumble. Virtue sustains character, but its absence destroys it.
Character is more than talk.
In my career, I’ve personally hired more than 300 individuals. As a usual part of my interview process, I ask the candidate to briefly tell me how each character trait I mention applies to them, and I take notes. Regrettably, there’ve been too many times I’ve had to go back to those very quotes to remind employees that their actions have contradicted their testimony. Nobody ever admits that integrity isn’t important, but our outward actions are the real indicator of internal character, no matter what we say. We cannot separate character from actions.
Character is a choice.
We can’t control the circumstances of our birth, nor little else of the world around us, but we can determine our character. We do it with each choice we make. How we respond and react to life builds it or destroys it a decision at a time. Challenges don’t create character, but they do reveal it as we choose capitulation, compromise or conquest. What others see of us is mere veneer. No matter how attractive or polished it may be with expertise, charisma or talent, it’s still just thin skin that occasionally gets torn open. The quality of the character inside then spills out for all to see. Ability may be a gift, but character is a choice.
Character builds up.
True leadership is built only as relationships are. As character is proven and relationships grow, so does trust. In that secure haven, a team thrives, a family flourishes, a society succeeds. Sensible people do not follow those they know are flawed and untrustworthy: relationships dissolve, trust disintegrates and community breaks down. Society is upheld only by popular adherence to a code of principles distinguishing right and wrong. Moral character brings strength to relationships and society.
Character is limiting—or liberating.
Sooner or later, but inevitably, character outs. This is a universal truth, as evident in the ancient proverb—“out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks”—as in the modern maxim: “garbage in, garbage out.” The strength of a leader is tied to the strength of his or her character. Everything rises or falls on leadership; and leadership rises or falls on character. Leaders cannot rise above the limitations of their character.
There’s really no doubt: your personal character directly impacts your public leadership.
What are you going to do about it?
MasterPoint: The strength of my character determines the vitality of my leadership.