COMMENTARY: What Is Character? And Why Is It Important

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: is she a good person or bad person, is he worthy of trust and admiration or not.

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.

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, caring, fairness, and citizenship.

Efforts by parents, teachers, and others to instill these values are important, but ultimately, 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.

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. Some people derive more benefit from their reputation than they deserve; others are better than their reputations.

Still, reputation matters. It determines how others think of us and treat us and whether we are held in high or low esteem. That’s why many people and organizations are so preoccupied with their image that they actually undermine their character by concealing or creating facts to make them look better. It’s ironic that reputations are often the result of dishonesty or the lack of accountability.

This is Michael Josephson urging you to be a person of character because character counts!

Comments 8

  1. Mr. Josephson, there is no one else like you. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. This truly is good work you do. I appreciate you.

  2. Thanks Michael for discussing this literary piece.
    Character too is reflective mirror of inner self ,displayed in course of action

  3. I am so glad that you have introduced character building in schools. That’s what we need more than electronics toys in children’s lives. I am retired after 40 years of teaching. Ihave many examples to give what I did to instill that quality called character. Many objected to do what I did because I ,for them I was wasting time. You see I a from india where teachers are revered whether inside the classroom or outside in the market place. Even now my students see me outside and call out my name. Is that you? Great work and great quotes. Love it. Thanks sincerely.

  4. An excellent discussion with much value; but my thoughts turn to HOW we learn, develop, practice (until perfect?) and generally improve our character?? The loving models from parents, teachers, coaches, bosses, etc certainly inspire stronger, improved personal character. How does one personally strengthen and grow their character “closer to Jesus’ ” as I like to say to friends? :):) Without my submitting further thoughts to this personal pursuit; I hope to inspire some productive improvements. Thank you Michael for all you do :):) Our school Principal, Mr. Derek Wickliff quotes you on occasion during the morning “Flag Salute” at Alamo Elementary, Vacaville, CA !!! Ahhhh, maybe we are building “richer” character at those moments ? :):)

  5. Dear Michael:

    I don’t think it stretches President Lincoln’s analogy too much to point out that a lot of “little people,” like the ones you mention, often cast a long shadow because they are among the ones you will find at work when the sun is low in the sky, at dawn and/or at dusk. That takes great character, and more.

    Please keep the character coming. It does matter, and it will matter even more.


  6. I went to a six pillar meeting with my Grandaughter about 8 years ago. I put it into practice and it literally change the course of my life for the better. I started getting promotions on my job and gained a peace I didnt have before.

  7. The problem today is we have to be able to make jugmedent calls and when we do we are often told it doesn’t matter what we think or we shouldn’t judge anything and in the end who cares. The young man who committed suicide because he had taken too much information from Harvard (if I understand this all correctly) had the right to take information from there, had access granted but took way more than he was supposed to. Harvard did not want to prosecute but a prosecutor for the government did and the end result is he faced 36 potential years in prison. The more I read on this the more I agreed with the young man’s father the government went way too far and should have some accountability in what they did. BUT who decides what is too far in either case? We live in such a complex world that it’s amazing any of us can focus on anything. With Armstrong, I feel no sympathy for him at all, will not be seeing his interview as Oprah is no favorite of mine either, BUT do they all do it? Is this another of those cases where the rules cannot be enforced and are too easy to break with no consequence until somebody finally goes too far?I think skepticism doesn’t have to end up with cynicism but it’s easy to see why it can. I don’t want to give up being a skeptic though because I think that’s healthy. The problem is when does it go too far?

  8. Thanks for your reminder of good character is its value.
    “What Will Matter” is inspiring and motivational.
    Appreciate it!

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