Character is King

This past week, we saw a great outpouring of affection for the late Senator John McCain of Arizona. In the many tributes and eulogies offered, we heard words to describe him – words like maverick, hero, curmudgeon, patriot. Whether you agreed with his politics or not, no one could doubt his physical courage, his absolute candor in dealing with his illness, or how deeply he felt his mission here on earth. Here was a man for whom duty, honor and sacrifice were as natural as breathing itself. It is hard to read his farewell letter and not feel moved by it. I was particularly struck by his deep gratitude and reverence for life, and the great privilege he felt it was to live a life defined by public service.

This got me thinking about the word “character” – what it is, and what it is not. Like honor, it’s something of an old-fashioned word nowadays, very 19th century, and not always easy to define. You probably won’t find it on any curriculum in business school, and yet, character is such a central, important element of leadership. Character demonstrates more than anything – what we value, how we view the world around us, how we engage with it, and how we choose to act from moment to moment. There is no consensus on a definition of what constitutes “good character.” But here are five elements that I would deem as essential components.

  1. Accountability. Accountability says, “I am responsible. The buck stops here!” When I assume a leadership role, I am responsible for any failures, as well as successes, that my organization may have. Of course, being accountable requires a degree of self-awareness and self-scrutiny. It demands that we are honest with ourselves and with others. Senator McCain was no stranger to failure in his life and political career, but never did he seek to apportion blame on anyone but himself. His whole “straight talk” persona was modeled on the premise of radical transparency, which he believed reduces the room for misunderstanding and for problems to fester. For a culture of accountability to develop, it must be modeled from the top down.
  2. Courage. Aristotle called courage the “first virtue,” because it is what makes all the other virtues possible. At root, it is the ability to act in the face of our fears, and real leadership demands it. The courage to persevere when the hoped-for outcome is uncertain; the courage to risk failure; the courage to change direction when something is not working; the courage to trust in other people to do their jobs well – these are all essential components of steady leadership. Senator McCain embodied physical courage on the battlefield, but he also displayed a deep moral courage by making highly unpopular decisions with his own constituency. If it’s not right, you don’t do it. If it’s not true, you don’t say it.
  3. Ability to learn. One of the hallmarks of good leadership is the ability to take onboard new information, and more importantly, to recognize its necessity – essentially to “know what you don’t know.” Most good leaders exhibit a fairly rigorous intellectual curiosity and almost insatiable hunger for knowledge. They are unafraid to test the validity of any argument or viewpoint. They are more interested in listening to others than in listening to themselves. Of course, this requires the sublimation of ego, which in turn necessitates a degree of humility. Without humility, it is nigh impossible to learn.
  4. Compromise. Coming from a military background, I suspect Senator McCain believed in the precept that no worthwhile goal is ever accomplished alone. He would therefore work with whoever could help him get the job done. Democrat, Republican or Independent, the goal was always to work together in service of the people he was elected to serve. I admire this “servant-leader” model, because it stresses the importance, and necessity, of engaging with others. It takes real courage and humility in order to compromise.
  5. Optimism. Of all the many components that define character, I think one of the most essential ingredients is a generally positive outlook on life. An optimist believes that tomorrow can be better than today; that our problems are not insurmountable. An optimist sees opportunity where others see only uncertainty and despair. An optimist, even when they are wrong, is always a better traveling companion. Emerson put it this way: “Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.”

While far from perfect, Senator John McCain exhibited rare character in the way he lived and died. By his legacy, we are reminded once again that true character is rare, but it will always be king. We mourn his passing, and thank him for his service.

*The Sketch is by Debra Carmichael

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