Maintaining Your Character

“It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character.”

 

Ryan Holiday starts one of the chapters in his book Ego is the Enemy with the above quote from Marcus Aurelius. Holiday, in both Ego is the Enemy and his previous book The Obstacle is the Way, outlines principles of stoic philosophy and connects stoicism with the modern day. The only thing we can control, Holiday explains, is how we react to the events of the world around us. We are going to experience a lot of good and bad luck, and it is how we react to the events of our life that determine whether we will be successful.

 

No matter what goes on around us, Holiday argues that we can always think about how we are behaving and reacting and choose to act in the way that will be the most helpful for us. Whatever bad luck, failure, loss, or challenge rolls our way, we can decide how we will react to it and what impact it will have on who we are. We may lose the physical ability to do something, we may lose a spouse or family member, our property could be taken away from us, our career paths may be derailed, or our Facebook post might not get any likes. In each of these situations, we could react as though our life is over and as though there is no possible recovery. If we do, then we will create an almost self-fulfilling prophecy where the negative thoughts and opinions of our minds manifest in our lives. Stoic philosophy would encourage us to look at the loss around us and see that within the misery exists the opportunity to display strength in character and to maintain clear thoughts.

 

Most of us will never be tortured in our lives, but Holiday does give examples in his two books of prisoners of war who used stoic philosophy and maintained their character to stay united and survive the horrors of torture. There are people who are trafficked and exploited, and their pain and trauma is certainly real and help and guidance is certainly something they should seek out, but a touch of self-awareness can help everyone look at their current situation and think about how they can move forward in a positive way. For most of us, we can recognize that we will struggle and will feel as though things could never get worse, but we can also remember that people have faced far worse pain and recovered.

 

Ultimately, we can look at the negative pieces in our lives and the decisions we make each day and try to move in a direction which continually improves our character. The good things and the bad things in our life are only good or bad based on our opinions and decisions. Nothing can ruin our lives unless we decide that it has the power to ruin us. Choosing to maintain our character in any situation always gives us the option of being strong in the face of obstacles and turning those obstacles into learning opportunities for ourselves and the people around us.

Privilege, Opportunity, Character, Honor

United is Senator Cory Booker’s story of his time living in Newark, New Jersey and the start of his venture into politics. The son of IBM business executives who overcame racial obstacles to find success in the business world, Booker grew up keenly aware of the challenges that people face on their journey through life, and he received down to Earth advice and support from his parents. Booker’s parents, despite their wealth and success in the business world, always remembered the struggle and fight of those who came before them to create the opportunities they enjoyed, and they made sure Booker understood the ways in which he had benefitted from the actions and decisions of others.

 

In his book he shares a quick message from his parents, “Privileges and opportunities say nothing of character and honor, they would tell me. Only actions do.” His parents taught him that social position and that a person’s socioeconomic situation at birth are not what define them, but rather actions are what make us who we are and who others understand us to be. For Booker’s parents, character is enacted in our actions, and honor is demonstrated by the way we live.

 

The quote from Booker’s parents reminds me of three quotes that I recently wrote about. In his book, Come Back Frayed, Colin Write states, “We show with our actions what our priorities are. Time unclaimed, time traded for something else, is one’s priorities in practice.” His idea of actions aligns perfectly with the message from Booker’s parents. Having privilege and opportunity means nothing if our actions are not in alignment with the message we try to present to other people. We may be able to fool ourselves by telling others about our character and about what we want to do, but ultimately, our actions reveal what is truly important for us and demonstrate our true character.

 

On opportunity Ryan Holiday writes, “If you think it’s simply enough to take advantage of the opportunities  that arise in your life, you will fall short of greatness. Anyone sentient can do that. What you must do is learn how to press forward precisely when everyone around you sees disaster.” The idea in Holiday’s quote stretch beyond the lesson of Booker’s parents, but still connect through the idea of actions and opportunity. Booker’s parents did not simply accept the status quo in their pursuit of career success and the lifestyle they wanted, but instead they made deliberate decisions to drive toward the future they wanted. The opportunities they experienced were open to many, but they put forth true effort and lived in a way that made the most of the opportunities presented to them.
The final quote that comes to mind from Booker’s parents also comes from Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way, and is a quote he uses to express the importance of our actions:

 

“The great psychologist Viktor Frankle, survivor of three concentration camps, found presumptuousness in the age-old question: “What is the meaning of life?” As though it is someone else’s responsibility to tell you. Instead, he said, the world is asking you that question. And it’s your job to answer with your actions.
    In every situation, life is asking us a question, and our actions are the answer. Our job is simply to answer well.
    Right action—unselfish, dedicated, masterful, creative—that is the answer to that question.”

 

What builds our character and our honor, in the eyes of Viktor Frankle is not the outcomes of our lives that we often drive toward, money, nice things, a powerful career, but rather the actions we take to reach those end goals. The opportunities and privileges we are born with are nothing if we cannot make unselfish and creative decisions that we can act on in dedicated and masterful ways. Through action that is beyond ourselves and designed to put others first we can show that our honor and character are priorities in our life, and we can use the opportunities we experience to build something greater than ourselves and the situation we are born into.

Owning Our Mistakes

Fred Kiel gives a few examples of what it means to be a great leader for a company in his book, Return on Character, where he focuses on the ties between strong moral values, success, and leadership. One of the examples he gives of what it means to be a leader who focuses on ethical and moral strengths involved owning up to our mistakes and being honest and forgiving with ourselves and others when we make mistakes.

 

In his book he tells a story to focus on a fictional character who does not receive a promotion. The character then begins to examine himself through a process of self-reflection to understand how he can change his behaviors and actions to enhance the skills that he had already developed. One area he identified for growth involved abandoning his habit of creating excuses for mistakes and failures, and working to better accept his errors. Kiel uses the simple example to show how an individual can become a stronger leader by beginning to better understand their mistakes and take responsibility rather than pushing blame onto others. Kiel’s character began to see that accepting his mistakes and forgiving himself for his errors made him a leader with stronger character, helping him connect better with those in the workplace. Kiel wrote of his fictional character’s change, “By owning up to his own mistakes, he would communicate to others in a very powerful way that he cared for them as people. He was telling them that he’s no better than they—that he shares a common humanity with them.”

 

By being honest and leading with character Kiel explains that we become more likable as people. Those around us with whom we work, spend time with, and live with will find us to be more complete when we acknowledge our mistakes. If we do not honestly address our mistakes then we put ourselves above others on a pedestal of perfection, and we fail to recognize an important part of our humanity.

 

Kiel also suggests that owning up to our mistakes helps make us better leaders and  more successful individuals. Failures and errors are things we will all experience and being able to recognize those shortcomings in a safe way will help us move forward. This part of his message reminds me of the advice that Bob Schacochis shared with James Harmon for him to publish in his book, Take My Advice. Schacochis writes of his early days working as a carpenter, “When it comes to making mistakes a bad carpenter and a good carpenter is the same. The only difference is, the good carpenter figures out how to correct his.” What he is saying is that we will all have errors along the way, but to truly be good we must recognize those errors and take the time correct them, allowing us to grow.  We can’t expect to be perfect and we can’t expect others to be perfect, but we can expect everyone to own up to their mistakes and to find ways to correct their errors.

Compiling a Coherent Life Story

One characteristic that high performing and morally focused CEOs have in common is an understanding of their life story and the events that happened in their life, shaping them into the people they are today. This idea is a cornerstone part of Fred Kiel’s book Return on Character. Kiel researched successful companies and CEOs trying to identify the importance of strong moral judgement, personal ethical behavior, and ideas of responsibility among company leaders.  He found that CEOs who displayed strong moral character and built leadership teams that mirrored their approach to relationships and ethics, outperformed those who were self focused and did not apply rigorous moral standards to their work and companies.  The businesses led by these moral CEOs had employees that felt more engaged, and productive, had better relationships with the communities in which they served, and had loyal customer bases. All of  these benefits stemmed from the CEOs high moral standards and made the companies more successful.  A key aspect in the lives of the CEOs who led these high performing companies was self-reflection and self-awareness.

 

Kiel argues that you cannot build a foundation of strong moral habits and characteristics without reflecting on what has impacted your life and led in you in a direction where you become more considerate, looking beyond your own benefit to see the world from multiple perspectives.

 

“Uncovering the sources of your character and moral habits is, in many ways, an essential element of compiling a coherent life story.  By piecing together a clear picture of how you formed your understanding of the world, you can identify the source of the negative ideas, emotions, or responses that may be promoting those aspects of your character that you need to address.”

 

This process of self-reflection is challenging, but what it uncovers are the motivations that push us to action and drive us toward goals which we were not aware of.  To avoid becoming self focused and acting in only your own interest one must truly examine how they define success, and where that definition originated. If we are chasing a certain lifestyle, a certain size of house, or a certain car just to show others that we have become successful, then we are acting out of a misplaced motivation.  Our motivation is based on what others see as successful and we are trying to act in a way to impress and show others that we are valuable, ultimately pushing us to be more interested in our own success than the success of the bigger organization in which we fit.

 

Contrasting this vision of a self-focused individual, a CEO with a strong moral character would have at some point recognized what drives their motivation and their definition of success, and they would have realized that it can be toxic to act out of motivations defined by another individual.  To truly follow ones passion and find a better aligned level of success, it is important to know what pressures society, parents, friends, and others have placed on us.  We may want to reach a certain level in our career to impress those who are in our social group, or we may be trying to reach standards of success presented to us in advertisements. A virtuous leader would understand their own vision of success, and find a goal that aligns with their inner self and is worth driving toward. Their life story would help them understand where they are, where they want to go, and how to move forward in a way that returns the benefit to everyone.

Personal Change

Author Fred Kiel advocates for self-awareness and and the development of strong moral character traits among leaders in business throughout his book Return on Character.  Kiel spends time explaining the ways in which leaders with strong values, who truly care about the people they work with and providing real value for the people they serve, bring more to the companies they lead and help their companies find greater growth. His research showed that workforces become more engaged, customers view the companies from better perspectives, and leadership teams are more effective when they are guided by self awareness and a drive to make the best moral decisions possible for their teams.  In the book Kiel addresses the transformation to become a leader with strong moral character and he explains the challenges with our self-transformations.

 

“In any event, personal change is, by definition, personal. Changing the habits that shape your character is an act that penetrates to the very core of who you are as a person.  Such change isn’t quick or easy, but it’s well worth the time and attention you’ll invest in it.  Developing the character of strong, principled leadership helps you in every aspect of your life: decision making, relationships, goal setting, conflict resolution, life and career satisfaction, and so much more.  Of course, it also involves hard work.”

 

In this quote Kiel is addressing the idea of applying self-awareness to your current situation to help drive the change that you want to see to become a better leader.  It is never easy to begin a process of self-reflection and to truly understand what parts of yourself are working well and what parts are in conflict with the goals you want to achieve, but it is crucial to growth as a leader.  Kiel explains in his book that those leaders who his research identified as the strongest moral leaders had a well developed understanding of their past and the events in their past which shaped them.  Working through the difficult process of understanding what impacted our lives to push us to where we currently are does not have a specific road map.  The journey is individual and personal. It is also a process that develops over time and, as we strengthen our self-reflection muscles, becomes more specific.  The way we see the events in our life will change over time. As we grow and become better at reflecting on our lives, we will begin to reach places where we better understand not just our actions, but the actions of others and why we feel the way we do about them.

 

By driving through this process and constantly focusing on self-awareness and self-reflection it is possible to become a moral leader.  We can reach a place where we are fully understanding of ourselves, our reactions, and emotions, and we can use that to better connect with those around us. Our decision making will be more complete as we can better empathize with those around us and view the world through more perspectives.

Human Capital

Many employees in companies across the country do not feel very engaged in the work they do.  As a result, they don’t feel inspired to do their best, and they do not provide the most value possible to the companies they work for.  Fred Kiel argues in his book Return on Character that this is because employees know when they are truly being treated with respect and when they are simply being treated as “human capital”.

 

Kiel’s book focuses on morals, ethics, and how leaders who display strong moral character habits shape the companies they oversee. By creating teams that match their values and support their moral goals, a company’s top leaders can create a system that better engages the workforce. When describing a common feature of workforces that engage their employees, Kiel writes, “They treat their employees with respect.  Employees experience the culture as one that cares for them as people—where they are not treated as “human capital.”” What he is showing is that those who we expect to work for us and provide value for us need to know that they are valuable as human beings and individuals, and they need to feel a sense of purpose and appreciation from their leaders.

 

When a leadership team or a supervisory team does not expand respect to all levels of the workforce, then the work that each individual does will not become a sense of pride and will suffer.  The employees become disengaged causing productivity and quality to diminish.  If a leadership team broadcasts strong moral values and guides supervisory teams to truly respect and value their employees as more than warm bodies, then the employees can develop meaningful relationships with their leadership and with each other. These relationships will stem from respect and encourage everyone, not just the employees but management level workers as well, to commit to their work to maximize their potential.

Organizational Structure

In his book Return on Character author Fred Kiel addresses ways in which a business leader’s strong moral character can boost the bottom  line for the company they work for, and how their strong moral character can have a meaningful and positive impact on the lives of the employees working for them.  Part of the way that strong character can translate into a more engaged and fulfilled workforce and a better bottom line is through an organizational structure which supports the employees of the company, and helps them do their best work with the ethos of their virtuoso CEO. A strong structure can help guide a company by allowing everyone involved to act in a morally defined manner, helping everyone do better work.  Kiel sets up the idea that a great business structure depends on a strong moral ethos developed by the leadership team and the CEO:

 

“Even an ideal structure offers no guarantee that the dynamics will be positive, harmonious, and energized.  As the ROC [Return on Character] data revealed, this is where the character habits of the executive team come into play.”

 

Kiel is explaining that an efficient organizational structure within the business is not enough for great business success.  His argument is that CEOs need to develop moral habits and characteristics that help build people up by treating them as more than just extra hands on deck.  When the CEO is able to truly live through this idea and create and shape a leadership team that can spread this idea, then everyone within the company will be taken care of, and they will feel as though they work in an environment where people truly care about them and want to help them do their best work.

 

The opposite end of this scale would be a self focused CEO who displays character habits of a dog-eat-dog, success hungry individual. This type of character will show that what is most important is personal growth, even at the expensive of others. They likely will not develop strong leadership teams that can put the interests and goals of employees at the same level of importance as their own. As a result, employees feel disconnected and have no reason to demonstrate strong moral habits within their own work.

 

By voicing, living up to, and building a leadership team that is focused on strong moral goals, a CEO can create a structure in which all actors of the company are able to make positive moral decisions and feel encouraged to do their best work.  The strong moral values of the company will be reflected beyond the work space and into the world in which the company provides value to those with whom they serve.  Reinforcing this structure and maintaining it requires more than just a keen eye for efficiency, and requires a true respect for human beings.

Leadership and Your Life Story

Reflecting on self-reflection in Return on Character author Fred Kiel talks about the interviews he did with corporate CEOs. Through speaking with executives in companies of all sizes within different industries across multiple states he found multiple similarities in those CEOs that he described as morally and socially responsible and their approach to their lives and roles within a company shared many themes.  One of the similarities in their lives, which surprised Kiel, was how well leaders were able to recognize their own life story. He writes,

 

“Perhaps the most important fact revealed by these interviews was whether the leaders knew their life story … In every case, the CEOs later identified as virtuosos leaders were able to recognize the threads that they had woven together to create their life story, and how their principles and beliefs were reflected in their actions and decisions.”

 

Currently in my life as I have begun preparing the enter college for a graduate degree, I have been looking over scholarship applications which all seem to focus on this same issue.  Building self-awareness and recognizing what pushes us in certain directions or motivates us seems to be a key concept of the scholarship application, and Kiel’s quote above shows it to be a key concept of leadership as well. Shifting my focus on the scholarship applications I can see them as an opportunity for me to apply my practice of self-awareness to my practice of writing to help me grow in the direction of Kiel’s strong moral leaders. Kiel’s writing continues,

 

“Self focused leaders seem to have had very little opportunity to construct a meaningful platform of beliefs or principles.”

 

Looking at both of Kiel’s quotes together one can see that it is difficult to build character without self reflection, and without pausing to consider the influences in ones life, it is hard to be aware of our actions, motivations, and the way in which our decisions impact others. Building processes into our lives like journaling can help us build our self-awareness and connect the dots within our lives so that we understand ourselves, others, and how we come together in the world.  Scholarship applications for me will be a great opportunity for refined reflection to understand my journey and why I am motivated to head in the direction that I am.  Kiel would suggest that this practice will help me better recognize the parts of me which I am proud of and where they came from, as well as the parts of me which are not reaching the highest potential or moral standards that I expect in my life.  His research seems to suggest that this is a cornerstone piece of any truly great leader.

The Slow Brain’s Decisions

Fred Kiel addresses our decision making in his book Return on Character as a way to describe the thoughts, choices, and actions of leaders with strong moral character. Kiel contrasts the idea of a fast brain, or subconscious brain, with a slow brain, or rational brain, and the ways in which we make our decisions.  The fast brain is reactionary and always acting to guide our choices without needing  energy or attention, but it is our slow brain that guides our moral character and our willpower as Kiel explains,

“Our slow brain is where we do all our conscious and analytic work.  It provides us with tools of logic and reflection … Our slow brain can call on a number of beliefs or rules and use them to guide our decisions. It can also override the intuitions of our fast brain, a process we know as willpower.  Our slow brain can also learn to identify and ignore erroneous signals from our fast brane, which is how we demonstrate self-awareness and wisdom.”

I really enjoy this quote because it shows how reflection and self awareness-both result from our slow brain, but help to also develop our slow brain and improve the choices we make. What that means to me is that reflection and self-awareness are conscious decisions and tools that can be used to build and improve our decision making and thought process. When we are more aware of our fast brain and the impulses and desires it creates, we can logically think through our impulsive desires to determine whether we are seeking a need or just looking to fulfill a temporary pleasure. Slowing down and  applying logic through self-awareness can help us understand not just our choices, but our reactions to the world. We can avoid poor judgements about actions, decisions, and how we treat others. Our slow brain can be trained to help us eat better, treat others with more respect, and drive nicer.  Our willpower will grow, our self-awareness will be boosted, and better choices can help us become more productive when we cultivate a strong slow brain and pair it with a well habituated fast brain.

Kiel continues to explain how often we usually engage our slow brain over the course of a day, “Amazingly, most researchers agree that very few of the choices we make in the course of a day — from what to order for lunch to which business alliances we form—are guided by conscious thought or our slow brain.” This means that we are not pausing to reflect and make choices that are as logical and rational as we would like to think. Keeping this in mind can help us understand the importance of using our rational brain at meaningful times so that we in some sense train or set up positive habits for our fast brain. The idea that Kiel lays out about our lack of slow brain thought can also help us understand the importance of how we view others. Judging poor decisions and actions of others can be done in way in which we view which brain, slow brain or fast brain, the other is engaging. This can help us better understand others, and understand that we often do not make decisions that are much better or much more thought out. Thinking about thinking in this way allows us to build more self-awareness to help our slow brain become a better thinking machine which will further drive our self-awareness and understandings of others in a positive feedback cycle.

The Fast Brain’s Habits

Return on Character by Fred Kiel is a business book that argues that individuals with high moral character become better leaders in the business world and create more value for the companies they lead.  Kiel spends time in his book explaining how leaders with strong moral characters improve the workplace, and he also discusses ideas about where those moral character habits come from. He addresses the idea of the fast brain where our subconscious makes decisions and drives our emotions and behavior, and our slow brain where we rationally think through our ideas and actions. Focusing on the fast brain and its role in our behaviors, habits, and character Kiel writes,

“The fast brain is where all of our subconscious intuitions, cravings, habits, and emotions reside.  The fast brain’s primary purpose is to prove the subconscious “spurs” to drive behavior patterns aimed at bringing us safety, security, food, and social connection. … Our Fast brain also spurs behavior through habits — automatic responses such as putting our foot on the brake when we see a stop sign.  Those habits that determine how we relate to others, such as a reflexive response to tell the truth or own up to our mistakes, become our character habits.”

What Kiel’s quote shows me is that we will not be able to control, guide, or shape our character if we are not able to recognize the habits that are formed within our fast brain.  Increasing our level of self-awareness, focusing on our reactions to others, and being cognizant of our interactions with those around us will allow us to begin to form our fast brain into a tool that guides us along a moral path. We can use practices of self-awareness and perspective  to turn our fast brain into a machine that builds our character over time.  By focusing on our relationships with others and becoming comfortable with adopting strong character habits we can reach a level where we treat everyone around us better.

I think that an important component within the idea of shaping our fast brain is accepting the reactions and habits we have formed without realizing it. Often these habits can be quite negative, such as looking the other way when a person from a different ethnic background walks by, and it is important that we accept those habits rather than sweep them under a rug and hide them from ourselves. If we cannot accept that we have negative habits formed by our fast brain, then we never give our slow brain a chance to think through them and tumble through a solution to become a better person.  During the process of shaping our fast brain we must recognize the behaviors we want to change, but we must do so by accepting that we have those habits and behaviors before we tell ourselves how wrong they are, and before we castigate ourselves for having such thoughts and behaviors. An honest inner dialogue of reflection will help us grow, and give us a chance to help others grow by accepting our flaws, as well as the flaws of others, and finding a way to grow in a positive direction as a group.