Character. Have you got it?

Sep 07 2011 by Peter Vajda Print This Article

I run along a main road most mornings past a side street on the right that cuts through a winding residential neighborhood. The side street is a shortcut to another through-street and saves a good half-mile if you know about it. But there is a big sign just before this side street that says: "No right-hand turn between 7:00 and 9:00 am." You can't miss it.

From time to time, I stop and pause here to watch what happens. Last time I did this, for 15 minutes on a weekday between 7:40 and 7:55 am, eleven cars came by. Eight ignored the sign and made the right turn.

What piques my curiosity is what these folks are thinking (assuming they are), as they make the right turn. I'm sure we all can muse about their reasons, excuses, stories, rationalizations and justifications.


One definition of character is who you are at 4:00 am in the dark when no one is watching. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is also a confession of their character."

How we are in the world - at work, at home, even while driving, is a reflection of our character, or lack of it.

Character is a type of internal guideline, a moral compass that operates 24/7, 365 – a compass that one cannot tinker with to change its bearings or setting. It always points to true north. Always. A flawed character has been tinkered with, like fooling with the odometer of an automobile, to give it the "appearance" of authenticity.

What muddies character?

In a word, pride. An inordinate sense of self-esteem often morphs into hubris, an exaggerated sense of self-confidence. When we become immersed in a sense of pride or hubris, we become separated from our true self. And when we separate from our true self, we abdicate responsibility for accepting responsibility for how we live our life.

When we abdicate responsibility for how we live our life, we lose our sense of self-respect. And when we lose our sense of self-respect, it follows we lose respect for life – so rules of right conduct, right living and right relationship cease to matter.

The Buddha writes: "…the thought manifests as the word; the word manifests as the deed; the deed develops into habit; and habit hardens into character. So watch the thought and its ways with care, and let it spring from love born out of all concern for all beings…as the shadow follows the body, what we think, so we become."

When our pride - our ego - is in charge, our "thinking" often becomes warped and self-centered and our character suffers. Over time, as our character suffers, so does our reputation and we become known as one whose orientation to life and work is self-serving, egocentric and uncaring about others. We do what we need to do to "get by." It's all about "ME!"

From this place, it is easy to circumvent the rules, ignore principles of right living, and right loving, and assume inappropriate, and perhaps even illegal behaviors, with the justification that it's okay "as long as I don't get caught".

The one and the many

So, that's one person - perhaps me. But what happens when this one person, lacking true character, becomes ten, then 100, then more?

The strength of a team or an organization, is represented by its character, the character of its people (think Enron, AIG, WorldCom…). What happens when a team loses its character? It begins to atrophy, to become dysfunctional, to engage in in-fighting and sabotage. It loses it way. The one and the many suffer. It's character has become corrupted.

Character is a reflection of moral purpose, or the lack of it, and reflects those classes of things that an individual, or group, or team either chooses or avoids. That is, one's character is constructed from what one does, or does not do.

Character and values

There are basic principles of effective living - honoring and respecting others, thinking rationally, helping others succeed, listening with our heart, collaborating and cooperating, protecting the environment around us, seeing the meaning and value of work, treating others with respect and acting with compassion, integrity, justice and fairness.

Having true character means integrating these principles into how we live our life, even at 4:00 a.m. when no one is watching. Character is determined by how closely we choose to allow our value system to integrate into our lives - in every moment.

Some questions for self-reflection

  • What matters to you?
  • What stops you from acting in integrity?
  • What do you most want in life?
  • "Do the right thing" vs. "do things right" – which drives your everyday actions?
  • Do you believe you have character? What would your colleagues, friends, spouse or neighbors say?
  • Have you lied, cheated or stolen recently? What was your rationalization or justification? How about running a stop sign?

  • Do you use a different measuring stick to judge your inappropriate behavior from others' inappropriate behaviors?
  • Who are you at 4:00 am in the dark when no one can see you?
  • When did you first know you had character?
  • What was "character" like in your family as you were growing up?
  • Can you visualize a world where everyone operates with character?

The foundations of character are integrity and courage. Once we become dishonest, even when no one is watching, then we lose all sense of character. Then, mistrust, lying, and deception define who we are. The toothpaste is out of the tube. Once we compromise our values, it is well-nigh impossible to regain or re-establish our reputation, credibility or integrity.

In the end, moral shortcuts, cutting corners, and "turning right at 7:45 am" will always – always – find a way to catch up. The Universe insures there is always payback for inappropriate and indecent behavior.

Blaming and excuses

"But, I'm late for work." "I didn't see the sign." "I had a spat with my spouse and was distracted." "A friend said it would be OK." "I have an important meeting to get to."

Blaming and deflecting self-responsibility are art forms in our culture. Only now we're using the adult form of "my dog ate my homework". It doesn't wash. Our obsession with blaming and excuse-making is simply an indication of how we've become a nation of narcissists, victims and adult-children.

Emotionally and spiritually mature adults are self-responsible, make conscious choices, and do the right thing. As Helen Douglas said, " Character isn't inherited. One builds it daily by the way one thinks and acts, thought by thought, action by action."

Every one of us faces issues and challenges every day – some complex, some simple – at work, at home, at play, in relationship, even on the road. Our character is tested when we make split-second decisions and choices about what to do, and not do, and why.

So, practically, or metaphorically, when you come upon the sign that says, "No right turn between 7:00 and 9:00 am," and it's 7:45 am, where is your character?

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About The Author

Peter Vajda
Peter Vajda

Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D, C.P.C. is a seminar leader, workshop facilitator and speaker. He is the founding partner of True North Partnering, an Atlanta-based company that supports conscious living through coaching, counselling and facilitating.