On Character

The thing about character is that it doesn’t really draw much attention to itself.

Actually, I once heard somebody say cuttingly about an executive who’d bailed on her company and set up an eerily similar company with an identical product-line, “I guess anyone who lectures on integrity all the time is probably covering his own deficiencies.”

Ouch. If I were inclined to be cynical, I would agree. But since I want to talk about integrity, I feel compelled to come to my own defence.

I have integrity. So far. There have been a couple noteworthy slip-ups in the past, but I made amends, learned from my mistakes, and moved on.

So I acknowledge both my desire to have character, and my ability to fall short. That, in my opinion, is as solid an acknowledgement of character as I am aware of.

Because everyone can be put in a situation that, at least in theory, can force them to betray their principles.

Let’s say you catch a good friend stealing. You have two competing principles here: loyalty, and justice. Now, if you don’t think stealing is wrong, for instance when it’s done against a large institution, you don’t have a problem. If you can prevail upon your friend to return his ill-gotten gains and make amends, you might feel you navigated that well.

But what if your friend refuses? What if admitting to (or getting caught) steal means that he loses his kids, gets disbarred, or goes to prison? What happens to your principles then?

If you value justice over loyalty, well, I hope you’re in law-enforcement. If you value loyalty over justice, I’m sure you make a valuable friend.

But usually it’s not that clear-cut. To resolve the cognitive dissonance, we begin to make judgements. Maybe your friend is not deserving of loyalty, if he could brazenly steal. Maybe, though, you decide he has a point. He’s really more like Robin Hood.

Either way, you’re put in a tough spot.

I’ve liked these sorts of see-what-you’re made of situations because the insight into other people’s thought processes is just as useful as my own. I told the story of Felicia here, the very first time that I realized that someone could have all the same information as I did, and come to a completely different conclusion based on their own value system.

This is the sort of thing my clients often share with me – these “no right answer” situations. They’re tough to navigate, no question. That’s why getting to the core of what you really think, and what’s a conditioned response, or what you’ve decided is the most defensible position, is so crucial to living your live in congruency. Because having that kind of cognitive dissonance in your life is kind of like constantly hearing the frequency that shatters glass. It’s just harrowing to live like that.


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