Window into Character

Weighing your character and determining its measure.

By Fred Smith

It would be helpful if we could have a load-limit sign on our character, like that on a bridge. One of my preacher friends was coming under the influence of a man of extensive wealth. As the man plied my friend with benefits, this wealthy person began to ask questionable favors. My friend broke the relation, saying to him, "I am afraid I have a price, and you're getting too close to it."

Character is a set of values we have chosen to live by, and hopefully ones that will work under pressure. It reminds me of the professional golfers who speak of a golf swing "that will work on Sunday" because it operates when the pressure is on.

Personality has an effect on character, for it fosters different pressures and desires. I know a talented, wealthy young executive who is exceptionally introverted. Occasionally he talks to me about the pressures of being an introvert and his desire to change. But his introversion protects his strong desire to be right. I have rarely met a man who wanted to be right as much as he. His introversion protects against an overwhelming desire to be liked, to be the first to talk, to lead. A situation must build pressure to bring him out. He does his homework. He synthesizes the aspects of an issue, permitting him to be in the limelight as little as possible. He must be drawn out, while most extroverts must be reined in, either by self or others.

As a leader, a friend, or a mentor, I have tried to validate the areas of health or weakness in the character of those with whom I share responsibility. I have sometimes been criticized by my associates for going to what they feel are extreme lengths to ascertain weakness and strength in a person's character. I do it for a definite reason—I don't want to be surprised. I want to know the person so I can build on his strength and buttress his weakness. Since character is the foundation of relation and accomplishment, I don't apologize for evaluating someone's strengths and weaknesses. I prefer to test someone when failure is not fatal.

Marines build character that will stand up under fire. They don't want failure when it counts most. To "give others the benefit of the doubt" sounds good, but that isn't good stewardship in leadership. Napoleon said that the most dangerous general was one who fought based on fantasy. So it is with a person trying to lead based on fantasy or ignorance of the character of his or her associates.

In evaluating character, I start with the known past. Few people change character after becoming an adult. I not only quiz the person but also everyone who might be knowledgeable about him or her, particularly the spouse. Our family and close friends know our character much better than our talents.

Another good method is to tell stories that get a reflex reaction. For example, a salesperson will laugh when another salesperson outwits a tough customer, but a doctor doesn't laugh when another doctor takes advantage of a patient. The ethics of the doctor will typically be higher regarding the patient than those of the salesperson regarding the customer. However, the doctor might guffaw at a story about beating the government out of taxes.

Stories reveal the heart. People become involved in stories. Humor draws out spontaneous reaction, which is a window into character. In the past I've spoken many times in Las Vegas at conventions and while there heard famous comedians. Inevitably they test the edge of social acceptance, even in such matters as ridiculing religion and God. Listen to the audience's reaction, and you have a fair evaluation of the character of a person or a crowd.

Knowing the load limit on your character gives you the freedom to say no. A strongly developed character operates out of experience and well-honed skills. There may be gaps in knowledge, but most failures occur because of cracks in the foundational character.