(We are glad you visited us to find Michael Josephson’s classic essay on the nature of character. The Josephson Institute is a nonprofit organization devoted to increasing the ethical quality of individual and organizational decision making. We hope you’ll browse this blog and like our CHARACTER COUNTS! Facebook page and our What Will Matter Facebook page and subscribe to our newsletters.)
(updated january 17, 2014)
What is character?
Here’s a riddle: You can hardly ever find it anymore — especially in politics or business.
Lots of schools don’t teach it anymore.
We want more of it in our children and in all the adults who interact with them.
We want it from our bosses and the people who fix our cars.
And most of us believe we have plenty of it.
What I’m talking about is character — or, more precisely, good character. So, what is character?
Technically, character is a morally neutral term describing the nature of a person in terms of major qualities. So everyone, from iconic scoundrels like Hitler and saints like Mother Teresa, have a character.
In most situations, however, when we are talking about a person’s character we are referring to the sum total of his or her moral qualities possibly balanced against his or her imperfections. To say a person has a good character or even to admire a person’s character does not require that they are perfect but it does mean we think this is a good person worthy of trust and admiration.
So when we say someone has good character we are expressing the opinion that his or her nature is defined by worthy traits like integrity, courage, and compassion. People of good character are guided by ethical principles even when it’s physically dangerous or detrimental to their careers, social standing, or economic well-being. They do the right thing even when it costs more than they want to pay.
No one is born with good character; it’s not a hereditary trait. And it isn’t determined by a single noble act.
Character is established by conscientious adherence to moral values, not by lofty rhetoric or good intentions. Another way of saying that is, character is ethics in action.
But what do we mean by ethics? All Josephson Institute programs, including CHARACTER COUNTS! and Pursuing Victory With Honor, are based on the Six Pillars of Character, values that transcend cultural, religious, and socioeconomic differences. Those six values are trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.
Anne Frank, the 13-year-old victim of Nazi persecution said in her diary, “The formation of a person’s character lies in their own hands.” I have no doubt that she was right. Of course, efforts by parents, teachers, and others to instill these values are very important. They can have a great deal of influence on the values a child adopts, but we must never underestimate the role of choice (and accountability for making that choice) in the formation of character.
Thus, character is both formed and revealed by how one deals with everyday situations as well as extraordinary pressures and temptations. Like a well-made tower, character is built stone by stone, decision by decision.
The way we treat people we think can’t help or hurt us — like housekeepers, waiters, and secretaries — tells more about our character than how we treat people we think are important. How we behave when we think no one is looking or when we don’t think we will get caught more accurately portrays our character than what we say or do in service of our reputations.
Difference between character and reputation.
Of course, our assessment of a person’s character is an opinion and it isn’t always right. Abraham Lincoln recognized an important difference between character and reputation. “Character,” he said “is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”
Because the shape of a shadow is determined by the angle of light and the perspective of the observer, it’s not a perfect image of the tree. In the same way, reputation is not always an accurate reflection of character. Oscar Wilde once said, Sincerity is one of the most important qualities in a person. And once you can fake that you have it made.” This cynical quip explains why some people are able to create a much better reputation than they deserve. By the same token, there are others who deserve better reputations than they have.
Though reputation is merely a perception it still has very significant real impact. Reputation is not only the result of what people think of us it often determines what people who don’t know us think about us, treat us and whether we are held in high or low esteem.
A good reputation for integrity, for instance, is a primary determinant of credibility and trust, two very marketable assets. Think of how the Tiger Woods “brand” crashed and his endorsement value disappeared after it was discovered that he constantly cheated on his wife. Similarly, the once highly respected accounting firm Arthur Anderson had to change its name (to Accenture) to try to recapture trust after its involvement in the Enron scandal.
Whether fair or not, the indisputable truth is that people, companies and institutions are likely to be judged by their last worst act. Thus, some unwisely became so preoccupied with protecting their image that they actually made things worse, undermining their character and destroying their reputations, by concealing or creating facts to make them look better.
The importance of character is captured in the mantra: “hire for character, train for skills.”