The Formation of Character

By Dr.Peter Cheng

This article is the third of a 9-part series that discusses the Who-ness and What-ness of a Real Leader who Shapes Culture and Drives Performance.

In my previous article “What Does it Mean to Be Competent?”, I shared how you can build your team members' competence, which is one of the eight essentials of Real Leadership. As a quick recap, Real Leaders seek and act on feedback, develop tenacity to learn and stay relevant, commit to transform their team members, and ask quality questions to help others see the light. In this article, I’d like to expound on the formation of Character, one of the essentials of the Who-ness of a Real Leader.

Reputation and Character

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Reputation is the shadow. Character is the tree.” He advocated that one’s character is much more than one’s reputation, which is what you try to demonstrate for others to see. Character defines the true self of who you are even when no one is regulating your behaviours or watching you.

Character comprises a complexity of mental and ethical traits or qualities that are unique to an individual and imbued into a person’s life. Your character influences your response in any given situation.

In the context of leadership, building and embracing good character separates a Real Leader from others. If you have good character, you’ll do the right and ethical things.

Good vs Bad Character

Proverbs 28:6 cites “Better is a poor man who walks in his integrity than a rich man who is crooked in his ways.” This proverb is an excellent example of what good character is, which influences the intentional behaviours that you choose to demonstrate in situations when no one is watching.

The question is, why would one choose to embrace bad character? One theory suggests that the embracement of bad character is resultant from people succumbing to temptations to do wrongful things repeatedly. To justify their wrongdoings, they build a psychological framework to “console” themselves, that it is “okay” to do those wrongful things.

Over time, this shapes their character and dictates the way they behave. People of good character are successful in overcoming such temptations as they too have built a psychological framework that supports right-doings.

In the paragraphs below, I discuss how values, moral principles and ethical principles have a bearing on this psychological framework that shapes character.

What Forms Character?

Most people have some values that they embrace. Such values could be inculcated from their parents, teachers, religious leaders, or even their bosses, among other sources. These values form their “inner compass,” which is the philosophy that guides their behaviours in their interaction with people and daily issues.

Real Leaders build their character by first discovering what they truly believe in. Jim Collins, author of the book Good to Great, once cited that values are enduring tenets of special importance to the person embracing them. Values do not require external justification and serve as a philosophy that shapes peoples’ character and ultimately, their behaviours.

The clearer people are of their values, the clearer they’ll be about what to do or refrain from doing. Hence, if you’re unclear about your values, you’ll find your behaviours flip-flopping in situations. For example, if you’re clear about embracing integrity, you will not give in to temptations to break promises, cheat on others, or fabricate stories to support your cause.

On the contrary, if you’re unclear about embracing integrity, you’re likely to fall into the temptation to break promises, fabricate stories, and so forth. You might find yourself justifying those actions and why they are “okay,” and this forms the psychological framework in you. Over time, such behaviours become acceptable by you. This iteration to justify your actions eventually has bearing on shaping your character.

Intertwined Relationships Between Values, Morals, And Ethics

The selection of your values is also influenced by your moral principles and ethical principles. The concept of morality is based on understanding the difference between right and wrong and living according to that understanding of doing what is right. The concept of ethics is the philosophy of how morality guides individual and group behaviours.

To put it simply, morals are your principles for doing the right things, and ethics are the society’s rules and norms for doing the right things for the greater good of the society. Hence, morals can be seen as being the foundation of ethics.

The above diagram shows the intertwined relationships between values, morals principles, and ethical principles. When you go through life, you will likely be taught some values by your family, teachers and even friends. Along the way, you’ll learn and develop moral and ethical principles that intertwine with the values you embrace.

Whether morals are embraced before values or vice versa remains a debatable topic. What’s key to note here is that the three elements have reiterative relationships like a three-stranded cord that is not easily broken, thus forming the character of a person.

In summary, Real Leaders demonstrate good character that is nestled in values, moral principles, and ethical principles. The clearer you are about the values that you embrace, the less likely you’ll be overcome by temptations to do wrongful, immoral and unethical things. Values, morals, and ethics form a three-stranded cord that is not easily broken and can withstand the tests of critical incidents (i.e., situations that put a person’s values to test).

Are you clear about your values? Do you have a set of moral and ethical principles that guide your behaviours? What would others say about the character you demonstrate? Which of the three elements in Character formation do you need to re-think in order to demonstrate a good character?

You can also find out more about PACE's Real Leadership solutions here.

In the next article of the series, I’ll discuss the essential of Conviction with Courage, which is critically needed for leaders to stand up for what is right in the path of adversity, to speak up, and maintain their stand. You can read the previous articles of the 9-part series here:

  1. What Does It Take to Be a Real Leader?
  2. What Does it Mean to Be Competent?

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