What Happened to Character?


What Happened to Character? In a recent training session, I recommended to a group of sales managers that they hire their next salesperson on the basis of that person’s character, rather than his/her skill, experience or knowledge. A couple of them looked like Bambi being caught by a pair of headlines on a dark night in the middle of the road. The thought I had just expressed was incomprehensible. 

“Character? What on earth was I talking about?”

Unfortunately, the lack of understanding of the role that character plays in a person’s life, as well as in the larger national culture, isn’t limited to these couple of people. It looks to me like it is a pandemic, every bit as widespread as Covid-19. As a culture, we have lost the emphasis on character, and we are suffering the consequences.

First, let’s understand the concept. I like this Merriam-Webster definition of Character: the complex of mental and ethical traits marking and often individualising a person, group, or nation: moral excellence and firmness.  

And from Wikipedia: Strength of mind; resolution; independence; individuality; moral strength. He has a great deal of character.

A person’s character, more than anything else, determines his/her individual success. For decades I’ve had this in my database of pithy quotes:

  • Watch your thoughts: They become words.
  • Watch your words: They become actions.
  • Watch your actions: They become habits.
  • Watch your habits: They become character.
  • Watch your character: It becomes your destiny.

Author unknown.

So, character is the combination of attitudes, habits, and values that make us who we are. These evidence themselves as patterns of behavior so that, in any combination of circumstances, we can be expected to act or react in a certain way. That’s how people come to know our character – far more by what we do than what we say.

Some character traits are more desirable than others. For example, integrity is universally admired, laziness is not. When a person evidences a combination of the more desirable character traits, he/she is said to have a higher character. The opposite of course, is a lower character.      

Because character so impacts the results a person achieves and the quality of his/her life, it ought to be upper-most in our minds when we are called on to make important decisions about people. We should take a person’s character into the mix when we are making a determination as to how suitable a person is for a specific position. It doesn’t matter if that position is an open sales position, or President of the United States, character should be the overriding issue.

That’s what wise and thoughtful people have said for eons and eons. You can find it in the Bible, for example. Among lots of other passages, there is this praise of higher character:

A wife of noble character is her husband’s crown, but a disgraceful wife is like decay in his bones. (Proverbs 12:4.)

And then there are multiple passages articulating the more desirable character traits: Here’s one:

Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, Christian love.(2 Peter 1: 5–8)

The founding fathers recognised the importance of higher character:

“Good moral character is the first essential in a man.” – George Washington.

“Nothing is more essential to the establishment of manners in a State than that all persons employed in places of power and trust must be men of unexceptionable characters.” – Samuel Adams.

Benjamin Franklin said: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” 

Samuel Adams said: “Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt. 

In more recent times, Martin Luther King Jr, in his “I have a dream” speech, had this to say: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. August 28, 1963.

Imagine that. Being judged by the content of your character! 

Virtue! I’m concerned that, in recent years, we have been ignoring this age-old wisdom. In place of the ‘content of their character’ we hire people, promote them, and elect them for other reasons. 

There is a set of desirable character traits that should define the folks we put into positions of leadership: Integrity, empathy, open-mindedness, personal responsibility, rational decision-making, self-control, patience, kindness and wisdom to name a few.

Politically, we elect people for such superficial attributes as their race, sex, ethnicity and political positions. I think that began with the Bill Clinton presidency. Prior to that, a politician’s character meant something. Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were all said to have been ‘good people.’ With Clinton, questions of his character were stifled under the pressure of political expediency. 

The press pushed this mentality: “He holds political positions we like, so we’re willing to pass on his character.” As a nation, we gave him a pass. And this fueled the national disregard for character in our elected officials.

That started a trend among the press and the electorate to more highly value more superficial characteristics. Who cares what his character is like, if he’s the same color skin, or the same ethnic background, or holds the same political positions? Honestly, if the nation had valued high character in its leaders, would we have had some of the leaders that we’ve had?

 If we valued high character in our new hires, would we have employees who commit and then leave in a few months for a bit greener pasture? Would we have the turnover rate that we have if we had hired more people of solid character, exhibiting personal responsibility and loyalty?

Would we have the talking heads on cable TV so eager to make rash generalizations and leap to unsubstantiated positions, if we had hired them for their integrity and ability to think?

If higher character was on the qualification list, would our colleges be filled with professors who are more concerned with indoctrinating their students in what to think, than instilling the higher character ability to think?

If we had selected teachers of solid moral fiber, would we have all the teacher-student sexual liaisons that seem to be de rigor today? If we hired teachers of higher character, would we have so many of them objecting to the prohibition of teaching sexual preferences to kindergarteners?

The list goes on and on. The consequences of our foolishness crop up in every nook and cranny of our society. We’ve neglected higher character as a pre-requisite for positions of influence, and we’re paying the price.