Evaluating our Character

Fred Smith writes about the way to construct a system to promote clear decision making

By Fred Smith

In evaluating our character, we will be better judges of matters not directly involving our personal welfare. This is the basis of America's jury system. Uninvolved individuals tend to be more open-minded and, we hope, fair-minded. That is one reason to have a qualified person to help make decisions when we are personally involved. We tend to feel any proposition that favors us is fair.

We want the machine slightly tilted in our direction. In a business meeting a key player stood up and disputed the concept of a level playing field when he said, "We don't want it level --- we want it tilted in our favor." We assume that we deserve it � or at least we can rationalize that we do.

Once I was on a corporate board whose director wanted his son elevated above what most of us felt was his capability. His father, normally a fair-minded, objective executive, lost reason in his campaign for his son. I would rather have sold refrigerators to Eskimos than try to convince this father his son wasn't the one deserving promotion. I have found that an outside "authority figure" is most helpful in difficult decisions that involve my character.

I use several authority figures, for I want an expert in the area of the counsel I'm seeking. One has impeccable social sense, another financial fairness, and others have further areas of expertise. It is possible they would ask my opinion on the same matter if they were involved. The critical point is the difference personal involvement makes. The ultimate question in evaluating our own character is. Do I really, truly want to be right? Do I believe right is best? One of the surest evidences of fine character is its clarity. Pure character is transparent. We say, "You can see right through the person" or "What you see is what you get" or "He is all wool and a yard wide."

My favorite signature is the one Job Stuart used in signing his letters to his commander, Robert E. Lee: "Yours to count on." When I wrote notes to my mentor, Maxey Jarman, I signed them YTCO. He understood, for he had given me the story. Last year when I was hospitalized for an extended period one of my close friends came to visit and left a small piece of paper taped to my wall: YTCO. He didn't have to say anything ---- he had said it all!

A few years back, I was leading a seminar on speaking, which was attended by many ministers. I had used various illustrations, mostly from my own experience. One of the ministers said that he envied my exciting life because I had a lot of stories to tell. Another minister told him, "You've got the same kind of stories, but you don't want to tell them because you don't want people to see you." How transparent are you with your stories? How are you using them to be helpful with those around you?

Clarity can be clouded by self-serving confessions. One doesn't have to be astute to recognize when a speaker is hitting two licks for himself while hitting one for God. Self-serving confession is one of the tools used most often.

For example, a young speaker said, "While I was valedictorian of my high school class as well as my college class and one of the youngest men to ever receive a Ph.D., I realize that God knows more than I do, and I have to be humble in his presence." I blush to think how many times I have done that. I'm instructed by the verse, "As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool returns to his foolishness." Every time I do it I wonder, "Why can't I just hit licks for God and forget myself?"

The seventeenth-century Christian writer Michael Molinos said, "You are willing to say things about yourself to disclose your faults before others and many other such impressive things, but within you, you are justifying yourself far more than you are seeing your faults. By such means the monster within you returns again and again to esteem himself."

One way we can tell if we're self-serving is when we are tempted to augment what we say according to the audience reaction. I find confession easily turns into explanation and then into justification, or at least rationalization.

The temptation to operate in a self-serving way weakens our leadership effectiveness. It turns our focus to ourselves and away from those we lead. Bringing in the voice of outside authorities helps us hold to the love of truth and the search for the best. Objectivity is a critical element of authentic leadership.