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? You and me, of course. It may be our time to step up and display the moral and emotional qualities, such as honesty, kindness, and empathy, that are features of people of character.
Why is character important? Because it sets the tone for those around us, whether they be your co-workers, your children, grandchildren, or extended family. What you do and how you act rubs off on others, in positive or negative ways. It’s a choice. Do you lead by example? Can you engage in civil discourse with others even when they don’t share your point of view?
In The Road to Character, David Brooks defines what makes a person of character. It starts with having a certain set of universal traits that include a code of ethics, an inner knowing of what is fair and just. These values have nothing to do with your political affiliation, your social or economic status or your religion. They have everything to do with what makes you tick.
Scanning Brooks’ book, I compiled a list of the attributes that help define a person of character and put them into an 11-point list.
11 Traits of People with Character (According to David Brooks)
- 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 about 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 or not. They foolishly judge other people by their abilities, not by their worth.”
Those with character have 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” (choosing character over career). They have learned to suppress the ego, or in Brooks’s words “quit the self,” and they find it is better to give than to receive.
People with character are 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 humble 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 Washington, DC, to the NFL. 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. We can be helped by reading the wise words of others or engaging in a regular spiritual practice, at home or through a religious institution. We do whatever it takes to live a life that is an example for others.
This story will be included in the book version of Wake Up Call, a compilation of my top stories from 2013-2023. It will be released November 1, 2023, via Wildhouse Publishing.