Arthur Friedman said “Men of genius are admired, men of wealth are envied, and men of power are feared but it is only men of character who are trusted and respected”. The concept of character is often quoted but seldom practiced. Talk is cheap but doing makes the difference. In this regard, character seems to be the forgotten word of our generation.
Throughout the pages of recorded history, in the wake of human development and civilization, are scattered the sad stories of great men and women who rose to impressive position of leadership influence. They exercised skill, courage, bravery, expertise, passion, power, vision and charisma, a sense of purpose, faith, resilience, commitment, dedication and all other qualities and characteristics we admire in all leaders. Yet most of them failed in most common area of human experience, the area of character.
Just a few names remind me of the reality of this fact of defect in character, names like the Enron Corporation chiefs, President Bill Clinton, Mega church leader Ted Haggard, the head of International Monetary Fund Strauss-khan. Each has been at the centre of scandals and these are all attributed to the cracks in their character.
Cracks in character are not only confined to the world or contemporary leaders but also to the biblical leaders. Among biblical leaders are: Abraham succumbed to the compromise of his wife, Moses lost the control of his temper, Saul became a victim of his jealousy, King David surrendered to his lust, Samson laid his strength at the feet of beauty and Solomon used his influence to indulge his passion. What is the common denominator among all of these leaders? A character defect!
We see a character defect manifest itself in the administration of Roman Empire. At its height, the Roman Empire was the greatest human administration the world had ever seen. Roman legislation was so effective that it is still the basis of the legal code of many countries. Despite Rome’s achievements, however, her legions were unable to conquer one insidious enemy: corruption. Corruption hastened Rome’s downfall due to character defects amongst its leaders and people.
After a long search for the best man and woman to occupy the two positions in the judiciary an announcement was made by the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) and stated, “We have picked on renowned reformers, a man and woman of impeccable record, integrity and sound legal grounding”. Since then, safe for the man, a woman deemed to be of impeccable record, integrity and legal standing has stumbled.
Note that I have no issues or problem when a man or woman stumbles. In fact here is what the President of Coke Roberto Goizueta said about his decision to hire the man responsible for the new coke disaster. “We become uncompetitive by not being tolerant of mistakes. The moment you let avoiding failure become your motivator, you are down to the path of inactivity. You can stumble only if you are moving”. The only problem I have with her is that she stumbled while walking on the wrong path and this signifies the cracks in the wall of her character.
Did the JSC concentrate on intellectual talent and ignored other critical soft skills?
The hint to the answer to this question may be given from a case of bees and flies described by Karl Weick in an experiment by Gordon Sin: … If you place in a bottle half a dozen bees and the same number of flies, and lay the bottle down horizontally, with its base to the window, you will find that the bees will persist, till they die of exhaustion or hunger, in their endeavor to discover an issue through the glass; while the flies, in less than two minutes, will have sailed forth through the neck on the opposite side…. It is their (the bees) love for light; it is their very intelligence, that is their undoing in this experiment. They evidently imagine that issue from every prison must be there where the light shines clearest; and they act in accordance, and persist in too logical action…..Whereas the feather brained flies, careless of logic as of the enigma of crystal, disregarding the call of the light , flutter wildly hither and thither, and meeting here the good fortune that often waits on the simple, who find salvation there where the wiser will perish, necessarily and by discovering the friendly opening that restores their liberty to them.
It is the JSC’s Endeavour to discover an issue through the glass and their love of light (impeccable record and intellect) was its greatest undoing. No wonder other candidates found of average intellect were embarrassed and humiliated.
From the foregoing case scenarios, I am convinced that the future of leadership in our organizations, counties or countries will be determined by the return to character as the priority. For many years now, in our country, much of the focus of leadership has been on titles, power, position, skills, talent, education, charisma, personality and management competence. It is as if reputation has become more important than personal responsibility and position more than disposition. We need leaders with character.
How can we real define character? I attended a seminar a year ago and I learned that the foundational concept of the word character is from four principles: fixed, predictable, image, and statue. It implies something that is unchanging and firm. Fixed means it is stable and set; predictable means it can be trusted and sustain expectations; image means its nature is inherent and reflects its essence. Integrity is from the root meaning ‘’integrated’’ or to be ‘’one’’.
In other words, having character and integrity means having an integrated self who you are, what you say, what you do, and how you appear are all one. It means there is no division in your person. You are not one thing in public and another in private. You are the same in the dark as you are in the light. That is why D.L. Moody defines character as “who you are when no one is looking”. Character is present in what you say, and what you do is who you are.
In the coral reefs of the Caribbean lives a small fish known as the Kissing Fish. It is only about two to three inches long. It is bright blue and quick and a delight to behold. Most fascinating is its Kiss. It is not uncommon to see two of these fish with lips pressed and fins trashing. They give appearance of serious underwater romance. You would think the species would be an aquarium lover’s dream. They look energetic, vivid, illuminant, and affectionate. But looks can be deceiving. For what appears to be a genuine friend in the sea is actually a pint-sized bully of the deep.
We don’t have to go the Caribbean to see that kind of behavior in character. Look closely at people in your world (or the person in your mirror). You will be surprised how fishy things get when people have cracks in the wall of their character. Families, promises and hearts have been broken, love has been betrayed, organizations have lost money, government resources have been misused and squandered and all these is as a result of character defect.
Therefore, the missing ingredient in leadership today which must be restored to the position of number one priority is ‘character’. It is interesting to note that most people are characters rather than having character. Should you maintain your character and integrity nobody can stop what you were born to do. One writer said “Never let your leadership gift take you where your character cannot keep you”. Let us all mend the cracks in our character.
Joseph is a member of ICPAK and Institute of Directors (Kenya) and a Motivational Public speaker on Transformational and Servant Leadership.