The character issue has been in the forefront as of late. One of the most famous case's of a man’s character being called into question was President Clinton’s when he lied to the American people about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Many other cases have been in the news lately regarding ministers, politicians, teachers, and others.
In the 1996 Presidential campaign, Senator Bob Dole made the character issue one of the cornerstones of his campaign. Senator Dole believed, as well as many of us, that character and personal integrity are more important than Gallup poll results, political campaign slogans, or 30-second sound bites on the evening news.
In his book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, Stephen Covey discusses character by putting it into terms of what he calls the “Character Ethic” (32). The Character Ethic is based on basic principles such as, humility, integrity, fidelity, temperance, courage, justice, fairness, service, patience, modesty, and the Golden Rule. The Character Ethic defines the parameters by which personal character is measured. By using principles as our guiding beacon, it can be concluded that success and self-respect come from incorporating basic principles into our daily lives.
Character builds on the idea that principles guide our effectiveness and to many extents our self worth. Principles according to Stephen Covey are “natural laws that can’t be broken” (33). Most rational people would agree that principles are universal in all societies. They are common to almost every major religion, ethnic group, and social institution throughout the world. Principles are fundamental truths handed down through the ages that have universal application. Principles should drive our values, and values in turn give us a direction for our lives, much like a roadmap. “Values, are the worth or priority we place on people, things, ideas, or principles. Principles are self-evident and are enabling when understood” (Franklin Covey 11). If our values are derived from principles (and they must be to have good character), we, by default, will have a solid foundation on which to build good character.
Most reasonable people would agree that one of the most important groups of people that must possess and exhibit a strong Character Ethic are our leaders. Too many times we are disappointed that our leaders are unwilling or unable to take a stand for what is good, decent, right, and fair. We see examples in the media every day where corporate, political, and religious leaders take the easy way out. They do what is best for them, and their constituents, and not what is in the best interest of society. Many people over the course of the last 15 years have fit in this role. Jim Baker, Jimmy Swaggart, Bill Clinton, and Richard Nixon all conjure up memories of men that have made poor decisions, based upon selfishness, and not principles. When leaders fail to rely on principles to make the important decisions, they are no longer credible or fit to lead.
Character, as stated earlier, uses principles as its underlying foundation. Our own personal values must be derived from these principles to start the process of building character. We have learned from the public mistakes of others that you cannot have good character while neglecting core principles. We all must keep trust and trustworthiness as core principles, without which, it won’t be possible to obtain or keep a reputation as having good character.
Effective leaders, and all people must have the trust of others, and more importantly, must be worthy of that trust. Trust, is not given, it is earned. Once you have lost people’s trust, and especially if you are considered to be a leader or role model, you have immediately lost much of your effectiveness with your constituents.
Character, is not something you acquire overnight. It is a result of a lifetime of effort. It only takes one incident for your character to be called in to question. Once your character comes into question, even for a single issue, such as a lie or indiscretion, your reputation, and all that you have worked towards, will be called into question.
In the end, we would all do well to surround ourselves with people that exhibit high ethical standards and lead principle-centered lives. These individuals, will help us along our journeys by showing us through their example how to live and work in a world which seems to no longer hold the Character Ethic as fundamentally important.
Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Fireside, 1990
Franklin Covey Co. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Training Program Manual. 1998 ed.