Character is often discussed. However, it is commonly done in terms of values and leadership styles. It becomes a surface-level talk, almost naïve in approach. Yes, our character may be apparent in meetings, conversations, and good times, but how does it really work when faced with everyday reality?
During the past several weeks, I have been participating in an online leadership class, facilitated by the Willow Creek Association and Dr. Henry Cloud, author of Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality.
Early in his book, Dr. Cloud defines character in the following way:
“Character = the ability to meet the demands of reality.”
This definition of character seems odd at first, but then it begins to sink in. We face all sorts of reality. When our reality is going well, it may be easier for our character to shine bright. When our reality encounters challenging situations or people, our character may dim. In both cases, reality is demanding something of us, and we need to respond with our character in full.
Another essential aspect of character is integration. It is described as:
“The integrated character feels the same hunger and awareness of the drive in all areas, the relational, spiritual, intellectual, and other aspects. In that, they create balance, and growth in one area fuels growth in another.”
For our character to be robust, it needs to be fueled in different ways but always in balance. We need to face the truth about our character and where it stands – absorbing it, learning from it, and (re)building it. Meeting the demands of reality requires our integrated, composed character. It is the only way to face reality and leave the right wake with our choices and actions.
All of this relates to a moment of truth. What happens when a negative situation appears? How do we handle it? Do we ignore it?
Does our integrated character rise to the challenge?
“…our look at character is twofold: First, integrated character does not avoid negatives, but does the opposite – actively seeks them out to resolve them. Second, integrated character does not see facing negatives only as something painful, but as an opportunity to make things better and get to a good place.”
Leading and living are both about solving problems, not sidestepping them and hope they self-resolve. It doesn’t work! Our character needs to step up and forward!
“If you fail to confront, you will lose. But, if you confront poorly, you will also lose. So, you must confront, but confront well. That means that the truth-telling side of your character must be integrated with the loving and caring side of your character… Confront the problem, but in a way that preserves the relationship and the person.”
Again, it comes down to our wake. If we choose to ignore a problem, the wake we leave behind churns in an unsettled way, creating greater waves and larger problems. With our wake in mind, we should not attack the person or create political situations; we need to address the issue. As Dr. Cloud says, it is a balance – an integrated character approach: “I try to go hard on the issue and soft on the person.”
We need to confront the situation, but it shouldn’t be adversarial at a personal level. Confront, after all, means “to turn your face toward.” It is meeting a person or situation eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart. Unresolved issues gnaw and irritate, and something will burst.
Untouched, what this translates into is people leaving organizations, culture disintegrating into finger-pointing, and individuals losing character traits embraced during good times. Leaving negative issues unsettled begins the quickening, circular, and draining motions within a person, team, and organization.
Our character – our leadership – needs to rise to the situational challenge. It is about ownership and integration. We need to own the good, the bad, and the indifferent. We need to own the problem and resolve it with head-on grace. We need to ensure our character is integrated to support actions in all types of situations.
In full confession, I am guilty. I have let issues slide, because it was easier. I have let problems fester, because ignoring them preserved a false peace. My character was imbalanced, and I was leaving a negative wake. Reading these pages was like a fist in my gut, full on realization of the pain I was bringing to myself and, worse, what I was leaving undone, unsaid, and unaddressed.
It seems easier to side-step, yet that is not what leaders with integrated character do, is it? We need to solve the problem by focusing on the issues while maintaining the relationship as best we can.
Although I had to swallow hard on this one, I felt something inside that popped with inspiration. This is a change I can make and have made already. It is not about personally attacking someone. It is about attacking the issue fully until resolved and doing it with a graceful spirit and an open mind of understanding. This is the leadership opportunity!
Is it tough? Yes.
It is necessary? Absolutely.
Why do it?
- We need to leave a complete and transparent wake behind. Any below the surface problems need to be addressed.
- Our character determines whether or not we can deliver, meaning our goals are achieved successfully and people are fulfilled.
- Our wake needs to be clear, steady, and direct – full of purpose-filled actions and grace-filled relationships.
How are you addressing negative issues and challenging situations? Are you leading with an integrated, well-balanced character across the spectrum of daily activities?
Note: A special thanks to the Willow Creek Association for enabling me to participate in the Leadership Institute for Transformation (LIFT) class entitled Leading for Results. It is from this class, designed by Dr. Cloud, in which this blog post is inspired.