The Illusion of Character

I recently read a quote by British writer and politician Thomas Macauly (1800-1859) who said, “The measure of a man’s character is what he would do if he knew he never would be found out.” In Leadership From The Inside Out,  Kevin Cashman provides a helpful distinction between character, the essence of who we are, and persona, the external personality we have created. In fact, the very definition of the word character contains both of these thoughts: 1. the mental and moral qualities of an individual; the essence of a person, 2. the persona, role, part in a play.

Thus when it comes to leadership, we want a person of the first definition. Someone who is guided by authenticity and not one who is playing a role. Abraham Lincoln once said, “Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” My public persona is what I project and what others think of me (my carefully crafted Facebook or Linked-In profile), which may or may not be true, but my character is who I really am.  This is why we stress integrity; a person who is integrated is the same on the inside as on the outside. Who I am in private should be the same person I am in public. To put it in the words of Will Rogers, “Live your life in such a way that when you die they can give your pet parrot to the town gossip.”

And so, as we evaluate people who are leading our churches, corporations, or running for political office, we must discern as well as demand that they do not act one way when the security camera is on and another way when they have moved out of range. Like the minister, who after giving a wonderful children’s sermon en mufti (ordinary clothes) went back stage to change and forgot to turn off his lapel mic. He was heard by the entire congregation saying, “I hate those little brats!” Humorous perhaps, but sad and dangerous at the same time. What if the pastor felt that way about the whole congregation? Could you trust him? What if a political candidate had a public persona that created questions as to what he/she was really like or really believed?

How many stories have we heard (after the fact) about the private lives of pastors and presidents that make us shudder to think we trusted them with our lives and our country? We might dismiss these things as peccadillos or idiosyncrasies, but at the very heart they were character issues brought as baggage into their sacred office.  The leader who leads through character will be characterized by a clear set of values (not the shifting sand of public sentiment), will always speak the truth (not just what people want to hear), will not take short-cuts to get the job done (Henry Ford said, “quality means doing the right thing when no one is looking”), will be consistent (not a flip-flopper), and will be a leader who will regularly take inventory of his motives and actions. Such a leader will engender trust and compassion (not fear and self-interest), and will create an atmosphere of openness and inclusion (not control and exclusion).

In the Old Testament, Boaz, speaking about Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David, said she was a woman of “noble character” (Ruth 3:11). We learn many character lessons from Ruth’s relationship with her mother-in-law. Ruth shows herself to be faithful, kind, merciful, steadfast, industrious, and humble. Ruth for President!

On the other hand, Saul, although he looked like the right choice as a king had some serious character flaws. He had the image but not the substance. He was driven by fear. In one of the first accounts about him “…he did not tell his uncle what Samuel had said about the kingship” and then later “…he has hidden himself among the baggage” (1 Sam. 10:16 and 22). Saul’s failure to address this deep issue of fear continued to show up throughout his royal career, resulting in numerous acts of disobedience, murder, deceit, and pride.

One of the great lessons Jesus taught his followers is that our character is always a matter of the heart. This is why God tells us that we are to guard our hearts, to protect them with the greatest of care. “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” Proverbs 4:23. When I lie, cheat, or steal, it is because these things have bubbled up from the inside. They are what I have fostered and nurtured in my heart. I may choose not to actually commit a wrong, but my external “purity” may only be because the evil in the heart lacks the opportunity to express itself. This is why Jesus told his disciples that adultery was defined by lust in the heart.

Jesus also said it this way,But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” Matthew 15:18, 19. Jesus nailed the character issue here. Every action can be traced back beneath the surface to the character.

We may fool a lot of people most of the time in the process of getting what we want, but our character will ultimately be revealed. “The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later” 1 Timothy 5:24.

So, what are the things you are nurturing in your heart that you would never want anyone to know about? These are issues of character. They will eventually affect those around you (your family, your congregation, your business) even though you feel you are keeping the lid on.  By the way, what are you looking for in a political candidate? Someone who mirrors your own character flaws and prejudice, or a person of character? Just thought I’d ask…


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