Most tombstones are engraved with a name and date of birth and death, separated by a hyphen. The hyphen is a symbol of everything that person as a human being. It represents both what we call one’s “resume virtues.”, the aggregate of the notable events of a life and one’s eulogy virtues, the summation of the manner in which life was lived. For a little line, it packs a lot of meaning.
This little hyphen makes us think.
What do we want to be remembered for? What will it represent when the hour type has come? For what we’ve accomplished on paper, or for who we are as a person, our attributes? Most of us instinctively want to be remembered for our qualities of character. They’re more about who we are as people, our essences.
Mastery alone isn’t enough. Character is a glue that holds everything together.
Think of the most successful leaders throughout history: Aristotle, Joan of Arc, Lincoln, Gandhi, Marie Curie, Martin Luther King Jr. Some of them were brilliant scientists, some visionaries, some were masterful at strategic planning. They led huge organizations, built grant businesses, led armies to defeat facism or inspired whole movements. Their mastery of their field was important to their success. But it wasn’t the secret to their highly effective leadership.
The latest research underscores the connection between character and leadership. Leaders who are competent in their field but who lack critical positive character traits such as integrity and honesty may be successful over the short run, but will ultimately fail. Sports teams led by unscrupulous coaches may succeed for a season or two, but fail over the long run. Companies led by CEOs that folder a culture of deceptive practices might report strong quarterly gains for a handful of years, but will ultimately collapse
Developing the ‘gut’ strength
Adapting to military training or surviving the most grueling programs in the world has little to do with strengths of the head (intellect) but almost everything to do with strengths of the gut.
“Having a high IQ doesn’t help when you’re cold, tired and wet. Having the tenacity and determination to complete a long and difficult task by never giving up captures the essence of grit.”
Grit provides a character edge in completing difficult tasks. The best combination is to be smart and gritty. One can’t help but think of the saying from Thomas Edison: “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” Here are some suggestions to build your strengths of gut:
- Know yourself. You may find you’re already strong in physical and moral courage, integrity and grit. Regardless, assess yourself and see where you stand on the grit scale.
- Practice courage. Make it a habit, when faced with a difficult task, to develop a plan to use your strengths in completing the task.
- Look for and be a role model. You can learn vicariously by reading about the brave and courageous. But learning by observation is one of the most powerful ways we can change our behavior and beliefs.
- Use social persuasion and feedback. Find others who’re in a position to observe and evaluate your behavior and provide you with feedback.
- Embrace stressful conditions. By framing stress as something that goes hand in hand with an opportunity, rather than something that’s inherently damaging, you can better maintain the attention and motivation to do hard things.
- Surround yourself with courageous people. You’ll often live up to or down from the standards set by the people you associate with. You can’t change your family but you can definitely change your friends.
Developing the ‘head’ strength
If you need an example of a leader of character who leads not only from gut and heart, also from the strengths of his head, Bob McDonald is a good place to start.
McDonald developed his leadership philosophy at West Point, where as a freshman, he was allowed to reply with one of four responses “yes, no, no excuse and I do not understand.” These four responses put him as a soon-to-be-a leader in a position that’s perfectly in line with his character – to put the needs of others on your own. As McDonald says “A leader who lives by his or her word can be counted on to do the unpopular thing when it’s right. To always follow the harder right, a leader must truly believe that a life directed by moral guidelines promises deeper and richer satisfaction than a self-serving, self-absorbed life. Living up to this ideal of character requires courage, determination, integrity and self-discipline. You must live by your word and actions and know that’s the most powerful demonstration of leadership.
Here are some ways to build your head strength.
- Know your best talents and use them systematically. You might not have a formal assessment of your intelligence since high school but it could be worth making an appointment with a mental-skills coach for an assessment.
- Practice creativity. Brainstorm different solutions. If you’re a manager, form small teams to assist you in driving multiple solutions to a problem.
- Rediscover your innate curiosity. Children are serious by nature. As we mature, many of us become locked into narrower lanes of interest visiting a museum. Spend time reading about art or science. Keep a journal. Write down new things you find interesting and learn about them.
- Work on your open-mindedness. People can become more open-minded by intentionally entertaining views that are counter to their initial way of thinking. Develop the habit of exploring different sides of issues with others.
- Live the lifestyle of learning. Engaging in learning may be done for learning’s sake alone. But you may also learn new things that will aid you in your job as a leader or in your family and relationships.
- Gain perspective and wisdom. You can be intelligent and knowledgeable but not possess perspective and wisdom. There’s no easy path to both and aging alone won’t necessarily give you these capacities. High social intelligence helps. Learn to use your other strengths of the head, be considerate of others, their opinions and take time to reflect on stuff that matters in your work and life.
Developing the ‘heart’ strength
Strengths of the gut and head help us in many ways but the strengths of the heart enable us to be an empathetic leader, a trusteed partner, a reliable teammate or a loving parent. Capacity to love, forgive, be kind and grateful matters for everyone. These strengths transcend beyond culture, context, time and present what it means to be human. These strengths are capacity to love, kindness, forgiveness and gratitude.
- Capacity to love. All forms of love are important to the good life and represent a trait that enables us to derive meaning and purpose in life. If you’re high in this trait, you’ll have close relationships with others and your feelings of love for them will be reciprocated.
- Kindness. To tout kindness is a trait that is central to being human seems like stating the obvious. Understanding kindness is a positive trait is one thing but being kind is completely another.
- Forgiveness. Psychologists find forgiveness diminishes negative emotions such as anger, hostility, depression and anxiety. Adaptive people learn to forgive and channel negative emotions into socially constructive ones.
- Gratitude. Capacity to give and receive thanks in life is one of the most powerful strengths of the heart. Practice daily gratitude visits to reduce negative feelings such as depression while simultaneously increasing positive ones.
So what do you want your hyphen to r?
We opened by posing the question of what we want the hyphen on our tombstones to represent. What do educational, professional and personal achievements mean in the absence of positive character?
Character is fundamental to trust, and trust is the bedrock of leadership. Great leaders know this and consciously center their lives around their strengths of gut, head and heart. These strengths become the personal body armor needed to face life’s biggest challenges and to not just prevail but to flourish. Great organizations also know this and make positive character a number one priority for themselves.
“A positive character provides anyone or anything with the edge they need to win and win the right way. Start today by making positive character the hallmark of your epitaph.”
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