What Is "Character?"

“Integrity is the distance between your life and your lips.”
Mark Sanborn

When American mothers are asked what they want for their kids, by far and away the most common response is … “I just want my kids to be happy.” However, in a similar survey of Asian mothers, the most common response is … “I want my kids to be successful.”

Neither one of the answers is necessarily bad, but whatever happened to “wanting our kids to be good?” After all, we’ve all known people who should have risen to the top but didn’t. Their talent made them stand out, but their lack of integrity made them sit down.

In my speaking programs, I tell my audiences that the true champions are more than happy or successful. They’re good, character-filled people as well. Kitty Carlisle Hart, the film and TV star, said as much. She said, “A career takes more than talent. It takes character.”

But what does that mean? Character? It’s almost a forgotten word in today’s culture.

Dr. Charles Swindoll equates character to courage. He says, “The real tests of courage are much quieter” than such things as bravery on the battle field. “They are the inner tests, like remaining faithful when nobody’s looking, like enduring pain when the room is empty, like standing alone when you’re misunderstood.”

But I especially like the definition of character given by one of my clients, Hearth and Home Technologies. They expect their sales people to be people of character who demonstrate “personal integrity” … which means doing what is right even “when no one is watching.”

For many people, it’s difficult to grasp the real meaning of character, courage, and integrity. So I would say that it includes these 3 behaviors … for starters.

=> 1. Character is being honest WITH YOURSELF.

People of character … the true leaders in this world … refrain from denial. They don’t fool themselves, and they don’t lie to themselves … because they know that would be self-defeating. As Anne Morrow Lindbergh noted, “The most exhausting thing in life, I have discovered, is insincerity.”

People of character “take stock” of themselves. Charlie Gomez, the vice president of a major insurance company, affirmed that. At a conference where the two of us were speaking, Charlie challenged all the insurance agents in the audience to “take stock”… by asking themselves the following questions:

* Are you happy with the direction your business is going?

* Are you getting the results you want?

* If so, how do you continue to get them? If not, what do you want to change?

* Is your staff doing what you want them to do?

* Who is leading your staff? Is it you?

As Charlie said, “You need to know” these things because they’re all a part of the “recipe for success.”

Do you take time to assess yourself, where you are, and where you’d like to be? Do you take time to take an honest look at yourself and what you’re doing? You need to do this, because as Ted Johnson says, “If what you are doing won’t withstand analysis, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.”

And then,

=> 2. Character is being honest WITH OTHERS.

No distortions. No little white lies. No false fronts. No bravado. No failures to tell the truth. Character comes out in plain, simple … but tactful … honesty.

One pompous Colonel had a hard time with that, however. Having just moved into his new office and sitting at his new desk, a Private knocked on the door. The Colonel told the Private to enter and then quickly picked up the phone and said, “Yes General, I’ll be seeing the Brigadier this afternoon, and I’ll pass along your message. In the meantime, thank you for your good wishes, Sir.”

Feeling as though he had sufficiently impressed the Private, the Colonel asked, “What do you want?”

“Nothing important, Sir. Just here to hook up your telephone.”

Obviously the Colonel had a problem with honesty. Do you? Do you find it easier to tell the unvarnished truth or the embellished truth? Do you craft your words to “give the right impression” … even though that impression may not be accurate?

Of course, it’s not easy to be honest with others … each and every time. It may cost you. But that’s where character comes into play.

Take Ted Williams, for example. More than 30 years ago, Ted Williams was closing out his career with the Boston Red Sox. He was suffering from a pinched nerve in his neck that season. “The thing was so bad,” he later explained, “that I could hardly turn my head to look at the pitcher.”

For the first time in his career he batted under .300, hitting just .254 with 10 home runs. And that was an embarrassment for Ted, because he was the highest-salaried player in sports, making $125,000.

Nonetheless, the Red Sox sent him the same contract the following year. But when he got the contract, Williams sent it back with a note saying that he would not sign it. He said, “They were offering me a contract I didn’t deserve. And I only wanted what I deserved.” So he cut his own salary by 25 percent.

As is often the case, good things come to people of good character. During the next season, Williams raised his batting average by 62 points, and he closed out his brilliant career by hitting a home run in his final time at bat.

That’s what I call REAL honesty and integrity. Williams was honest with others … even when it cost him. And if you ever aspire to be a REAL leader, that’s what you have to do.

You have to exhibit REAL honesty all the time. After all, you can spend years building an honest reputation, and you can destroy it in one minute with one stupid lie. The papers are filled with such stories. As consultant Faith Baldwin notes, “Character builds slowly, but it can be torn down with incredible swiftness.”

There’s simply no shortcut to honesty with others. As one person said, “A man’s character is like a fence. It cannot be strengthened by whitewash.”

And finally,

=> 3. Character is being OPEN TO THE HONEST FEEDBACK of others.

By contrast, people of character are open to the honest feedback of others. When Johannes Brahm’s first piano concerto was booed at its premiere performance, the composer was duly disappointed. But he wrote to a friend, “I honestly think this is the best thing that could have happened. It forces me to buckle down, and it builds up courage.”

Hey, being open to the feedback of others might even save your life. Take the man who was bothered with continual ringing in his ears, bulging eyes, and a flushed face. Over a period of three years he went to doctor after doctor. One took out his tonsils, one his appendix, another pulled all his teeth. He even tried a goat gland treatment in Switzerland … all to no avail. Finally, one doctor told him there was no hope — he had six months to live.

The poor fellow quit his job, sold all his belongings and decided to live it up in the time he had left. He went to his tailor and ordered several suits and shirts. The tailor measured his neck and wrote down 16 and 1/2. The man corrected him: 15 and 1/2. The tailor measured again: 16 and 1/2. But the man INSISTED that he’d always worn a size 15 and 1/2. “Well, all right,” said the tailor, “but don’t come back here complaining to me if you have ringing ears, bulging eyes, and a flushed face!”

Some people find it difficult to receive feedback. As one person noted, “A skeptic is a person who … when he sees the handwriting on the wall … claims it to be forgery.”

Other people have a hard time with feedback because they pretend to know everything. But as another person noted, “Unless you can create the whole universe in 6 days, then perhaps giving advice to God isn’t such a good idea.”

How would people describe you when it comes to feedback? As being open and receptive? Or closed and defensive? Character comes from the former, not the later.

Action:  Take a look at yourself. How honest are you with yourself? Remember, one of the greatest impediments to success is pretending not to know what you know.