#102 "The Content of Our Character"

Tomorrow marks the 25th anniversary of our national holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and because of that there have been a lot of news programs lately commemorating his life and his work. As I was watching some of them throughout the week, I remembered back to the 8th grade when I was made to memorize and then recite his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. There is a portion of that speech where Dr. King said:

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

I started to think about the words, "..content of their character" and what they mean for leaders. What is your character? What helps create it, define it, and how much time do we spend thinking about it?

And then I got a gift from the gods. Joe D. has been a follower of the blog almost since it's inception. He replies often and he and I have an on-going dialogue, that, although we have never met personally, allows me to call him a friend. I am grateful for all of his support and commentary over the years.

The other morning Joe sent me a document written by Vice Admiral James Stockdale entitled, " Courage Under Fire - Testing Epictetus's Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior". (Although I have searched for an on-line copy of the document I cannot find one, so if you are interested in reading it send me a note.)

As people may or may not know, Vice Admiral Stockdale was a fighter pilot in Vietnam who was shot down and then held captive by the North Vietnamese for 8 years. According to the introduction of his paper he was tortured 15 times, kept in leg irons for 2 years and spent over 4 years of his captivity in solitary confinement. He was also a student of philosophy and had been studying the works of Epictetus while serving in Vietnam.

Epictetus was considered one of the Stoic philosophers and the main theme of his works was that there are things that a person can control and there are things that he cannot. Stockdale put it like this:

"As I ejected from that airplane I had the understanding that a Stoic always kept separate files in his mind for (A) those things that are “up to him” and (B) those things that are “not up to him.” Another way of saying it is (A) those things that are “within his power” and (B) those things that are “beyond his power.” Still another way of saying it is (A) those things that are within the grasp of “his Will, his Free Will” and (B) those things that are beyond it. All in category B are “external,” beyond my control, ultimately dooming me to fear and anxiety if I covet them. All in category A are up to me, within my power, within my will, and properly subjects for my total concern and involvement. They include my opinions, my aims, my aversions, my own grief, my own joy, my judgments, my attitude about what is going on, my own good, and my own evil."

I would call these things one's Orientation. They are, at your core, those things that are ultimately yours regardless of circumstance. They cannot be taken, only surrendered. And more importantly, learning to separate what matters - really matters - from that which does not. Stockdale makes an important point here that I believe has real relevance to leader development today:

"What is not up to you? beyond your power? Not subject to your will in the last analysis? For starters, let’s take “your station in life.” As I glide down toward that little town on my short parachute ride, I’m just about to learn how negligible is my control over my station in life. It’s not at all up to me. I’m going right now from being the leader of a hundred-plus pilots and a thousand men and, good-
ness knows, all sorts of symbolic status and goodwill, to being an object of contempt. I’ll be known as a “criminal.” But that’s not half the revelation that is the realization of your own fragility—that you can be reduced by wind and rain and ice and seawater or men to a helpless, sobbing wreck—unable to control even your own bowels in a matter of minutes. And, more than even that, you’re going to face fragilities you never before let yourself believe you could have––like
after mere minutes, in a flurry of action while being bound with tourniquet-tight ropes, with care, by a professional, hands behind, jackknifed forward and down toward your ankles held secure in lugs
attached to an iron bar, that, with the onrush of anxiety, knowing your upper body’s circulation has been stopped and feeling the ever-growing induced pain and the ever-closing-in of claustrophobia, you can be made to blurt out answers, sometimes correct answers, to questions about anything they know you know. “Station in life,” then, can be changed from that of a dignified and competent gentleman of culture to that of a panic-stricken, sobbing, self-loathing wreck in a matter of minutes. So what? To live under the false pretense that you will forever have control of your station in life is to ride for a fall; you’re asking for disappointment. So make sure in your heart of hearts, in your inner self, that you treat your station in life with indifference, not with contempt, only with indifference."

You can lose so many of those things that define you in your present reality. Your title, your place, your possessions, everything. And what will you have then? Who will you be? Without some consideration of those important questions how can you lead others? How can you be led by others? How can you form the content of your character?

Stockdale realized something else during his captivity that I also think is important for leaders to consider which is the idea that once you learn to surrender those "Station in life" things that currently seem so important, the ability of others to define - and gain power over you, is greatly diminished. Because they believe so strongly that they can affect you by changing that status, the methods they employ are aimed incorrectly in that direction. In effect, they are attempting to influence you in ways that will not work, because those ways or methods hold no value to you. If leadership is the ability to influence others, then knowing what others hold most dear becomes even more important to understand. If, as a leader, your method of exerting influence touches something your subordinates care deeply about, then you will be successful in moving them in a particular direction. If the influence does not, then you will fail.

These are important ideas to think about. So much of who we are is actually controlled by forces outside of us. I cannot control what others think about me, how they view me, or how much they value me. That is entirely up to them. I can only present me - in my current form. They will decide to confer, or not confer, their respect and value on me. To chase after their approbation will only exhaust me because I can never stop running. And so the question becomes, what will they see? Whatever that is, that is what is in my control. The rest is up to them. And whatever that may be, I am certain that it equals the content of my character. To put it simply, I used to tell trainees that at the end of the day, all you have is your name. What that means to others you cannot control. What it means to you, you can. Therefore, the goal of all personal development ought to be the refinement and development of our character. You cannot lead others without it. You can force, coerce, or threaten them for sure, but you cannot lead them without the development and understanding of your character. Ultimately, what this idea brings up is that I choose to lead others, and I choose to be led by others. The power of choice is mine. And that power resides with each of us. My Soldiers choose to be led by me. My title and position place me in their path, but it is ultimately their choice to allow themselves to be led by me. If they were to choose one day to say that they did not wish to be led by me anymore, in reality there would be precious little that I could do that would affect them. Have you ever considered that?

Have you ever thought about what would happen if you lost everything that currently defines you? Your home, job, title, money, possessions? What would happen if all of that were stripped away? If you went from commander to private? From CEO to janitor? From ruler to prisoner? Is your sense of self-worth intimately tied to all of these external things? The fear of losing these defining things - especially in a hierarchical military system has an extremely powerful influence. People do and say things everyday that they do not believe out of fear that their station will be reduced and they will lose all the defining labels they currently have. They agree to plans that will not work, they obediently tote the current party line, they get wrapped up entirely in their personal location on the organization's totem pole. At the core of it, they are afraid to be alone with themselves, so they protect at all costs their status identities.

These ideas came together in a powerful way this past week. I have been tasked to develop a program for the entire Division. As we prepare to brief a senior leader, threats have been made that I will get fired if the product is not to his liking. But we are currently playing a guessing game with what he wants. What was originally asked for cannot be delivered correctly in the time allotted. It has been refined many times and we had gained his approval awhile back. But who knows how that has changed since the last briefing. And at every level between he and I people are guessing and reinterpreting what they think he wants to see. We are chasing approbation. But what influence he believes he has over subordinates he truly does not. He might say that everyone will do this or that, but in reality those units have leaders who will choose what their Soldier will or will not do. People around me are very concerned about this potential that we might be fired. They are worried about it and have mentioned it often. And their nervousness for awhile had the effect of making me nervous. What if I get it wrong? What if he doesn't like the product we present? What if he does fire me? What if, what if, what if? And then I really asked myself, "What if?" I know that the product I will deliver will get results, and will be good for the unit. I know that, and I can prove that. I have been doing it for the last 3 years. I know it because over 3,000 Soldiers have benefited from it. So what am I afraid of? And then Epictetus showed up in my in-box. A gift from the gods. Turns out that I was afraid of a loss of station. I might lose my title. I might lose my place in the organization. I might lose the respect of others. But those things were never mine to begin with. They were all external.

I have been here before under much more serious circumstances than these. The lessons of Epictetus were first shown to me in the aftermath of what happened in Iraq, I just wasn't smart enough to see them then. My Orientation was in the wrong place. Little by little my understanding of the depth of these lessons is becoming more clear to me. At 42 years old, I have become a student again. I get a sneaking suspicion that it will never stop.

I will deliver my briefing - the best that I can produce. That is up to me. That cannot be taken from me. What I can control is me, what I demand of myself, and the content of my character. The rest doesn't really matter much. I am not working for his approbation, I am working for mine. The only fear remaining is that any loss of the 'externals' might reduce my ability to assist other people. This is not about me. I will be fine no matter what the outcome is. That is because the choice to be that way is mine alone. I answer only to my expectations of me. Somewhere in there you can judge for yourself the content of my character.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.


  1. Very happy the tip/article was timely....we are all in this together....I read this article weekly and carry it with me....easily one of the most powerful stories EVER....the Stoic mindset and orientation is timeless and inarguable.....hell, it was tested in the worst possible "laboratory" on earth.....and Adm Stockdale passed the test....what we can control and what we cannot control.....if this message does not humble us, make us think and take a close look at ourselves, nothing will.....

    Joe D

    "It is amazing how much can be accomplished if no cares you gets the credit" John Wooden, legendary basketball coach at UCLA

  2. This was sent to me from a friend. Very powerful thoughts.

    "I think the lesson you so eloquently wrote of in the terms of leadership, are present in my work everyday as well. Cancer, Parkinsons, COPD, MS are all lessons that teach you of what you can control in life and what you can't. They teach you that when all is said and done, as you lie there embracing the peace of the next world, your character is all you take with you. Not your stature, not your financial achievements, not your political power, or control you have over others. That control may define who it is sitting with you and holding your hand, it may even allow you a false sense of loyalty because even til the end, there are those who act from greed but seldom is it more apparent, the character of a man, than at his death.

    I have sat with patients, surrounded by the most beautiful acquisitions, and no one but me to hold them as they resign to that most basic of struggle. Just to breath. Their last conversations often are of regrets they had. They talked of things they lost because they lived by authority, power, and stature or pride. Afraid of showing weakness or losing their station in life. When they got sick and it was a time for the real respect, the real leadership, the real influence they had over others to show, it was lost because they were no longer able to exert the control and fear. They lost children, brothers, sisters, parents, and friends...and the only one sitting there to clean them up if they soiled, to give them a sip of water or ice cube, to tell them it was ok, was a stranger.

    On the other hand I have sat in the corner of a small room, in a small house, with standing room only as family and friends laughed and cried and told stories of love and honor and respect for someone who to outward appearances had little but the influence and leadership, the respect and honor they bestowed upon those in attendance were abundant and deep... everlasting. It makes you ponder your own life and how you want to be remembered and what you wish to leave in the hearts of your family and friends.

    True leadership should be the same. It should never be about what you can SEE your subordinants do or what they do as they serve under you. It should be about what they do when they leave your authority and carry out on to their lives and jobs.. That is character. That is honor. That is leadership.

    To lead is not to push, prod, coerce, or demand. It is to guide in a manner that men follow out of respect and admiration because they believe it is the right way and they in turn are able to carry those beliefs forward."

  3. Our habits of thought, word and deed shape character. Each word, phrase, utterance and thought counts. I refute claims that we are nothing more than a collection of complex chemicals that through a series of genetic mutations and natural selection have evolved the power to love. I believe that the soul exists. Knowing this impacts my life and my approach to leadership. However, I remain on guard, even while recording these thoughts, against my pride, fear of man and appetite for affirmation in a world that values intellect, relativism and aesthetics over truth, obedience and justice. FEAR - Future Events As Reality. Help to allay your hear by using historical perspective and truth.

  4. Fen,

    Another insignful blog entry..

    As a matter of fact, it reminds me of some leadership studies that I’ve done in the past. Most notably were the escapades of Henri Turenne. Henri Turenne was a French soldier who climbed the ranks to the “Marshall-General of the camps and armies of the king” in the mid-late 1600s.

    He was inspired by the workings of Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, and recognized time and time again by Napoleon Bonaparte as one of France’s strongest leaders and was destined for greatness.

    He wasn’t catapulted to this stature because he stepped on soldiers and people to gain status, he was catapulted because of his character and undying devotion to his soldiers.

    Turenne’s personal character wasn’t anything more than a simple and honorable soldier, endowed with much tact, but in the world of politics and intellect almost helpless in the hands of a skilful intriguer or casuist.

    His morals, if not beyond reproach, were at least more austere than those prevalent in the age in which he lived. He was essentially a commander of regular armies.

    His life was spent with the troops; he knew how to win their affection; he tempered a severe discipline with rare generosity, and his men loved him as a comrade just as much as they admired him as a commander.

    Henri Turenne was once quoted as saying:

    “You must love soldiers in order to understand them, and understand them in order to lead them."

    Kind of makes you wonder, it seems as if this is exactly what the Army's trying to foster in their leader development programs as if it were a new technique;it has been practiced and proven since the 17th century and beyond.

    I ask you, is it the subordinate or superior that fosters the environment where status is everything?

    I'm sure your briefing will go well Fen!!