Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The measure of character

The measure of a man's real character is what he would do if he knew he never would be found out. - Thomas Babington Macaulay
I've been thinking a lot about character lately. It seems good character is something that's no longer especially valued in western societies. Generally, we accept that people act dishonestly and without integrity in some circumstances. We also have a tendency to accept a range of excuses for their bad behaviour (the person was angry, hurt, damaged or depressed, for example) and to accept bad behaviour in situations where we think "no harm will be done".

But is good character really so "situational"?  Doesn't what we do when no one is looking say everything about who we really are?  Whether or not we're ever caught or anyone is hurt, the things we do out of sight of other people determine whether we're really men and women of integrity who treat others with respect and caring - or not.

A case in point:  I once had a truly unpleasant boss. She was frequently short-tempered and abusive towards staff, and often mislead and bullied colleagues. Nonetheless, her clients loved her because they only ever saw her being kind, thoughtful and reliable. For a long time I made excuses for her. I told myself to be patient because, after all, she'd put up with a lot to succeed in a male-dominated profession so perhaps she needed to treat people badly at times to deal with the stress. It was nonsense, of course. The fact was she was perfectly capable of controlling her emotions and behaviour when it was in her best interests to do so.  Her true character was the abusive bully her staff and colleagues had to put up with every day behind the scenes.

By contrast, a few years later I had another boss whose character I came to respect very much. He was liked and admired by staff and colleagues because he was known for being honest and providing genuine support and sound advice whenever needed. He once explained that he tried to act with integrity in relation to even the most minor things because he worried that if he ever started down the road of dishonesty it would be too easy to keep going.

The example he used was one I never forgot. He got caught late in a meeting one evening and needed to get down town in time to pay tribute to an employee who was retiring. He jumped in a cab and arrived at the bar where the party was taking place with only a few minutes to spare. As he was filling out a taxi chit to settle his fare, it occurred to him that some people might think it was inappropriate for him to use a company chit to pay for transportation to the bar - even though he was attending the event in his official capacity and, by company policy, was authorized to do so. He told me that just for a moment he was tempted to write the address of a nearby government office rather than the address of the bar on the chit in order to avoid the possibility of embarrassment, but he reminded himself that it was against his personal ethics to be dishonest - even about such small things - and wrote the name and address of the bar instead.

It would have been easy for him to tell a little white lie in that situation, and likely no one would have noticed or been hurt if he had - but he told the truth simply because it was the right thing to do and I admired and respected him for that. As I came to know him better over time, I learned he was a man who lived up to that same high standard of honesty and integrity in all other aspects of his life as well.

Just as it's not possible to draw bright lines between "big" and "small" lies for purposes of defining character, I don't think it's possible to draw lines between our professional and personal lives either. The man who cheats on his wife probably shouldn't be trusted by his business partners. The woman who betrays colleagues and misleads her bosses to secure a promotion likely can't be trusted to keep a friend's secrets. We take our characters with us wherever we go.

Of course, most people fail to demonstrate good character at some point. We're fallible human beings after all. But when that behaviour becomes our default response in some situations and we feel no genuine remorse or regret for it, can we any longer claim to be people of "good character"? I don't think so - no matter how charming, successful, generous or kind we may be in other areas of our lives.

Personally, I've failed to live up to my own moral and ethical standards more times than I care to admit so this post isn't really about how badly "other people" behave. It's about challenging myself to pay closer attention to the decisions I make each and every day and to try to live with as much honesty and integrity as I know how - as hard and uncomfortable as that may be sometimes.


  1. Good piece Jan. Enjoyed reading it. Spent last 2 years trying to understand my character vis-a-vis people I interact with and "when I am alone by myself". My decision to go into partnership in business 90% based on character 10% based on economics. Not sure if this is wise but I wake up everyday knowing the last thing I need to be aware of is being scr%wed by my partner.

  2. Thanks. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  3. A wonderful post, Janice, and so well written. It captures very well the idea that we shouldn't really think that integrity can be doled out in degrees depending on the circumstance. Rather, we should view integrity as binary. You either act with integrity or you don't, in all situations. Thanks for the eloquent reminder...