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By Daniel Shogren, CPA, SPHR

Lot's of people talk about character, but the real question should be, "Where do we get character?" Or perhaps better said, "Who or what defines our character?" Before we tackle those questions, let's take a quick look at what character is. Character is about who you are when nobody is looking. Reputation is about who you are when people are watching. Reputation or image is what others think you are. But character is what you really are. Both matter, but of the two, character is far and away the most important.

Character is the basis for credibility and trust. And without credibility and trust, you can't lead anyone. Great leaders should have character, but should not be characters. A character is either a role, played by an actor, or someone who tries to attract attention to himself. When we play a role or we are showing off and trying to get noticed we are not showing our true character, and thus we won't be able to build credibility or trust.

Character Described

Character is the quality of your behavior, revealed by your:

  • thoughts and expressions
  • attitudes and interests
  • actions
  • personal philosophy of life.

Character means having purpose, meaning and values. Character is thus the combination of an individual's personality traits and the link between a person's values and behavior. Character is not something you are born with, but rather the sum total of your life developed over many years, in fact throughout your life. It is developed through study, introspection and the influence of others over a lifetime of experience. Character is indeed different for everyone. Each of us develops our own unique character, consistent with our personality and values. While we can learn a lot by understanding the character of others, we would not be well served by trying to emulate their character. Character has to be ingrained; it has to be seeped into your pores and DNA. It has to be authentic and heartfelt. Character means looking deep into yourself and deciding what is most important to you, what things you absolutely won't compromise or give up.

Strong and Good - Not Even the Same Coin

We see character expressed in the discernment, willingness, and determination to make and carry out moral, ethical, and spiritual choices. People have strong character when they are able to make fast decisions, decisions consistent with their values. And we say people have good character when they make right decisions regardless of the circumstances, pressures, and tendency to do otherwise. No matter what your politics we all recognize these people as leaders:

* Hitler
* Saddam Hussein
* the executives of Enron
* Bill Clinton

All these people had followers. They influenced others to struggle for shared aspirations. They were leaders. And yet while many of those reading this article would argue that these leaders had questionable or even weak character I would argue that they had strong character - they had purpose, meaning and values. It's just that their ideas of right and wrong are different from ours.

Good or Right Character

Of course the ability to make "right" decisions necessitates a value judgment; some ability to choose between right and wrong. Having character means putting your values and personality on the proverbial scales of justice and having them weighed against a standard of good or evil, strong or weak. Many of the followers of these leaders mentioned above would tell us these leaders had good character. Many of us would say their character was bad. To their followers these leaders did the right things; they stood up for their principles and made "right" choices. So we see that right and wrong, good and evil are often interpreted in the context of the audience.

Character is doing what is right in terms of your personal values, no matter how much it costs. That then brings us to the big question of, "How do we know what is right?" And just whose measures of right and wrong or good and evil are we talking about? If character can be identified by the core philosophies and life stories that define an individual, then we need look no further than the sources of those philosophies and life stories.


We develop our character primarily from five sources:

  • Our relationships
  • Our religion
  • Our challenges
  • Our followers, and
  • Ourselves


Character is a way of building enduring relationships with others. And thus the foundation of our character is built on the relationships we have had with others, and it will be continually molded by relationships throughout our lives. Our character will be a reflection of the people we deal with and who influence us, and thus to a large extent the "correctness" of our character will be judged by the standards of those around us. Certainly many of us are strongly influenced by our parents. In fact, a common measuring stick by which to evaluate our decisions is the question, "How would I feel if my parents found out about this decision?" To a great extent our character can be described in the context of how pleasing our decisions and choices might be to our parents and to those who have influenced us in our development.

Role of Religion

In addition to developing our character through our relationships with others, many of us develop our character through our relationship with God. No matter what your religion or your denomination, you learn purpose, meaning, and values through religion. While character may transcend religion as a universal standard, like relationships character is interpreted in the context of the audience. For instance, few Christians would consider someone who blows himself and innocent bystanders to bits to have good character. But to many such a martyr would be an exemplary example of someone with outstanding character because he is demonstrating the conviction of his principles.

Facing Challenges

Your character will be tested. Character is ultimately forged in the fires of conflict and challenge. There will obstacles in your path that you will have to navigate. Quite often in life we are challenged to rise to another level by risking, by testing our courage. These challenges force you to go beyond your known capacities and limits. You make choices and face the consequences. In so doing you discover new strength and resolve and more fully develop your character. Adversity isn't bad - it is a necessary element in the development of your character.


Surely followers define a leader's character. People follow leaders when they know where those leaders stand. Character means consistency. Character is embodied in leaders as hope, empathy, and integrity. But that hope, or empathy, or integrity are all interpreted in the context of the followers. What one group sees as hope, another group may view with disdain. Good leaders are good readers of their followers, and will usually have an understanding of what behaviors and decisions will be consistent with their follower's expectations.


In the end, we all define our own character by how deeply we believe in our values and by how we react to the challenges we face. No leader can say he was a victim of circumstance or fate. We are each responsible for the decisions we make and how we interact with those around us. But developing our character is not an overnight thing, nor is it possible to ever stop the development process. It is much easier and quicker to develop our talents, skills, abilities, and gifts than it is to develop a strong character. The development of character is a lifetime process, reflected every day in every decision we make and in every relationship we establish.

Character is about who you are when nobody is looking. It is about who you really are, deep down inside. You can have strong character or weak; good character or bad. The decision is yours. You have to give time and attention to your growth and development and to the matters of the heart. And then you have to give careful attention to how you make choices in your life. Choose wisely and you will establish good, strong character. Choose poorly and you will have weak character. Either way remember that without character you can't lead anyone.

Copyright 2004 Leading Values
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