Who fills the void when leaders don’t lead, when those in positions of power and responsibility seem more interested in their own narrow self-interests than the greater good?
We have seen others step up on a national stage (like these courageous teenagers in Florida), but what can you and I do in our everyday lives? On our own local level, plenty. You and I are the ones who can lead by example, showing our children, our family, our friends, our peers, our community, what it means to be a woman or man of character.
In David Brooks’ book The Road to Character, the author defines what makes a person of character and what it means to live your life by a code of what is right and just. These values have nothing to do with your political affiliation or religion. We all know there is good and bad on both sides of the political divide and that just because you attend church does not make you a better person than the non-church goer.
It has to do with a certain set of characteristics. Scanning Brooks’ book, I compiled a list of attributes that I believe define a person of character and put them into an 11-point list. The words below are all Brooks’, though I have removed them from their context.
11 Traits of People with Character
- They possess an inner cohesion.
- They are calm, settled and rooted.
- They are not blown off course by storms.
- They don’t crumble in adversity.
- Their minds are consistent and their hearts are dependable.
- They answer softly when challenged. They are silent when unfairly criticized…restrained when others try to provoke them.
- They get things done. They recognize what needs doing and they do it.
- They make you feel funnier and smarter when you speak with them.
- They move through different social classes not even aware they are doing so.
- You’ve never heard them boast, you’ve never seen them self-righteous or doggedly certain.
- They aren’t dropping little hints of their own distinctiveness and accomplishments.
Brooks also tells us about the flip side of character, pointing out that those who lack it “never develop inner constancy, the integrity that can withstand popular disapproval or a serious blow. They find themselves doing things that other people approve of, whether these things are right for you or not. They foolishly judge other people by their abilities, not by their worth.”
The person with character has followed a different path.
Brooks points out that the person with character has a different set of priorities. They have surrendered “the climb to success” and instead have decided to “deepen the soul.” (Character over career.) They have learned to suppress the ego, or in Brook’s words “quit the self,” and find it is better to give than receive.
The person with character is humble. They are open to the idea that they don’t know everything—and are open to finding answers from anyone at any time. This is important: When you think you know everything you stop learning, and growing, as a person. Here’s more from Brooks on the value of humility and how the humble person compares to the ego-driven know-it-all:
The humble person is soothing and gracious, while the self-promoting person is fragile and jarring. Humility is freedom from the need to prove you are superior all the time, but egotism is a ravenous hunger in a small space—self-concerned, competitive and distinction-hungry. Humility is infused with emotions like companionship, love and gratitude.
The act of being bumble may require some effort on our part, especially in a world where boasting and self-congratulation seem baked into our culture, as evidenced everywhere from the White House to the NFL. (Ironic, isn’t it?) That means we need to become “strong in the weak places” by magnifying what is best in ourselves and suppressing what is unpleasant, including any hints of arrogance or pretentiousness.
Brooks also reminds us that we are not alone in our efforts to be men and women of character. While we must lean heavily on our inner resources, we also can look outside ourselves for help. It is “never a solitary struggle.” In his words:
No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. We all need assistance from the outside—from family, friends, role models, rules, traditions, institutions, and, for believers, from God.
It is an on-going process, one that starts at home and extends to the relationships at our workplace and in our community. It involves striving to improve ourselves each day by emulating those we respect and strengthening our moral core which for many of us means reading the wise words of others or engaging in a regular spiritual practice, at home or through a religious institution. It means digging deep to be the best possible person we can be, each and every day.