When we think of character, we normally think of enduring qualities of virtue. Noble traits like compassion, integrity, and courage come to mind, as do leadership qualities like loyalty, optimism, and curiosity.
Common wisdom convinces us that cultivating a strong character is a pathway to a meaningful and productive life. So, the idea of character plays a central role in how we evaluate leaders and ourselves.
Character is judged against a specific set of values important to society at the time. The character trait of humility is in vogue today, but that wasn’t always the case. Only a few decades ago, the qualities of charisma and boldness took center stage for leaders, while humility was often overlooked.
Our view of character, it seems, evolves as society places more or less emphasis on certain values, such as results or relationships.
When judging character, it is much easier to think of it as something innate and unchanging. We like to think of character as a core set of qualities that define the very essence of a person. This makes for a tidy picture of who the person really is, deep down, when no one is watching. Character, then, is set in stone and the observer’s only job is to let the person reveal themselves through their actions, choices, and decisions. We just need a bow to complete this package.
But what if character was more fluid and malleable than many people believe? What if character is really a skill?
Educators have long attempted to teach character to young, impressionable minds, presuming it is something that can be learned. In this way of thinking, character is comprised of life skills that can be practiced and strengthened. Skills such as open-mindedness, cooperation, reliability, self-control, and empathy can all be codified and performed. The more we repeat them, the stronger the skill becomes.
The thought is that even honesty or generosity can be practiced and engraved into a habit of everyday action and belief. Pick any character quality you admire and ask yourself, “If it were a skill, how could I develop and strengthen it?”
Temporarily suspend the idea that character is a set of static traits. Open your eyes to the possibility that character is a set of skills that can be amplified through practice. Pick a character quality and design some practice for yourself. It’s not as hard as it sounds. Now, teach others to do the same.
You are absolutely correct. Our notion that a some unspecified age we just are who we are with no way to change is one of the greatest lies we tell ourselves. There is no reason you cannot learn new and beneficial habits and behaviors throughout your life. You can even become smarter.
I use this Skills Framework to help me determine how much effort I will need to put into making gains: Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, Leadership, and Business. Moving left to right in this list will determine the level of difficulty in making changes (intrapersonal being the hardest, business skills being the easiest). This makes sense given intrapersonal skills are developed earliest in life and leadership and business skills are developed later. Like the saying goes, "Old habits die hard." But it is possible to change. Through daily insight, reflection, and deliberate practice, we can begin close the gap between the leader we want to be (identity) and the leader that we actually are (reputation). Nobody said it was going to be easy. There is no magic sauce when it comes to being the best.