7 Tests You Have to Pass to be a Person of Character and Integrity

If I asked you to name one of the biggest con artists of the past one hundred years or if I asked you who operated one of the biggest Ponzi schemes of all time, you’d probably name Bernie Madoff. He scammed thousands of people out of billions of dollars and was eventually sent to prison.

While he was there, Madoff was asked how he felt about his past as a con artist and his present as a jailbird. His response was alarming as well as refreshing. He said, “I’ve never been at more peace in my life. My lack of character was killing me.”

In a similar sense, we’re living in an age of lies, deception, and delusion … from the comments coming out of the Russian leadership, to the comments made by some of our own government officials, news media, and corporate meetings. And to some extent, every one of those delusions kill another piece of our spirit and effectiveness … on and off the job.

Today I urge you to take a look at yourself to see if indeed you are a person of character and integrity. There are seven tests you have to pass. Can you say “yes” to all of these? Confirm that you are following them?

► 1. Character is doing what’s right when no one is watching.

Some people think, “It doesn’t matter what I do in my private life. It’s nobody’s business.”

Well, that’s true if you want to be a nobody. But it’s not true if you want to be a leader that makes a difference in this world. As a leader, everything you do impacts others for good or bad. Everything! As leadership consultant John Hawkins says, “What a leader does in private does matter and will ultimately establish or undermine the credibility of his or her influence.”

You may think you can get away with a little white lie, a simple indiscretion, or a small unethical choice because no one is watching. But that’s a dangerous route to take. History tells us that the truth almost always comes out. As Helen Rowland (1875-1950), journalist and humorist wrote, “It’s easier to hide your light under a bushel than to keep your shady side dark.”

► 2. Character is doing what’s right when it’s not easy.

Your character is established and displayed when it becomes clear to everyone that getting ahead, financial reward, and recognition are not your gods. That the most important things in your life are not profit and popularity. That you value doing what’s right above all else.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often spoke about that. He said, “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”

That means you have to decide ahead of time what is right and truly non-negotiable. After all, if you don’t know what you stand for, you’ll fall for anything. And the day will come when so-called progress asks you to compromise your convictions. In that moment your moral authority hangs in the balance.

Put another way: People should know what you stand for. They should also know what you won’t stand for.

► 3. Character is telling the truth when a lie would be easier.

George Orwell wrote about that in his book 1984, painting a picture of what would happen to a society that wasn’t vigilant in protecting the truth. And to a large extent, we’re there today. That’s why Orwell proclaimed, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

If you doubt the validity of this third point, try this three-minute exercise. See how many things you can list that are considered okay, normal, mainstream or must be accepted today that you would never have believed would come true in 1000 years. And ask yourself how many of those things would be difficult or dangerous for you to speak out about.

► 4. Character is making sure your walk matches your talk.

You can’t say one thing and do another and expect to have character, trust, influence, and integrity. Indeed, the very definition of character includes a total congruence between who you are and what you do.

You can’t, for example, say you value quality but put in work that’s “good enough.” And you can’t say you value health but eat junk food and never exercise. So find the gaps in your life … where you say one thing and do another. Resolve to take some steps right now to close those gaps and in the process build your character.

As Julia Loggins, the former wife of Kenny Loggins, wrote, “Teaching is not always about passing on what you know; it is about passing on who you are.”

► 5. Character is playing by the same rules, no matter how big, important, or powerful you are.

Look around you, and you’ll see many leaders playing by a different set of rules. Intoxicated by their own success, they begin to think they’re the final authority on right and wrong. That somehow the rules no longer apply to them. I find such arrogance and hypocrisy absolutely sickening.

If you’re a leader of any sort, at work or at home, remember it’s a lot easier to achieve a title (like President, manager, or Mom) than defend it with integrity. Don’t fall into the trap that makes you think you’re above the rules. It will eat away at those who follow you, let alone your own spirit.

► 6. Character is tending the fragile to maintain the powerful.

As educator Sissela Bok noted, “Trust and integrity are precious resources, easily squandered, hard to regain.”

At any given time, you are only one decision, one word, or one action away from destroying your character … which took you years to build. Character is fragile. Keep this in mind because the time will come when the fastest route to what you want may not be the most honorable one.

But character, handled well, is also powerful. You see, your position of leadership may cause people to take notice of you, but it is only your character that will cause people to respect you. With character comes influence. Oh sure, you can manage people without character, but you can’t lead them without it

► 7. Character will determine your legacy.

When you focus solely on what you can DO, without first deciding what kind of person you should BE, you’re making a mistake. Your talent will make your name known, but your character will determine what people associate with your name. Your talent will dictate your potential, but your character will determine your legacy.

Take these seven guidelines to make sure your character and integrity is where it needs to be.