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How to Develop Your Character

By Dr. Alan Zimmerman

In the final analysis, when everything is said and done, your character will prove to be more important than your career. Put another way, your character is more important than your talent. You see it all the time. People with talent often make it into the limelight, but without a strong character, they rarely stay there very long. Their absence of a strong character eventually topples them.

Leadership expert John Maxwell noted:

  • Talented people are sometimes tempted to take shortcuts. Character prevents that.
  • Talented people may feel superior and expect special privileges. Character helps them know better.
  • Talented people are praised for what others see them build. Character builds what's inside them.
  • Talented people have the potential to be difference makers. Character makes the difference in them.
  • Talented people are a gift to the world. Character protects that gift."

That being the case, you need to know the answer to two questions...

1. What is character?
It's quite different than being a "character." Will Rogers, the great comedian of the Great Depression, commented on that. He told to people to "live in such a way that you wouldn't be ashamed to sell your parrot to the town gossip!"

And character is not something that comes ABOUT as a result of crisis; it merely comes OUT in a crisis. As Robert Freeman puts it, "Character is not made in a crisis; it is only exhibited."

In reality, character is composed of three things...

  • HAVING the right values.
    As columnist Bob Talbert writes, "Teaching kids to count is fine, but teaching them what counts is best." Unfortunately, our world and our organizations are having some major problems in this area of values. Just look at the research. When you ask Westerners what they want out of life, their number one answer is "I want to be happy." When you ask Easterners what they want out of life, their number one answer is "I want to be successful." I think our whole world would be in much better shape if the number one universal answer was "I want to be good."

    Of course, HAVING the right values is not enough. As values expert Dr. Sidney Simon has written extensively, you've got to walk your talk. You've got to know what you value, and you've got to live by what you value. So the second ingredient of character is...

  • DOING the right thing.
    People of character know there is no right way to do the wrong thing. And conversely, people of character know there is never a wrong time to do the right thing. I speak a great deal to builders and contractors, and they know a great deal about building on a strong foundation. As William Bady, Jr., a builder and developer tells his people, "Living a life is like constructing a building: If you start wrong, you'll end wrong." You've got to do the right thing.

    But there's one more element in character. We all know people who "technically" HAVE the right values and "typically" DO the right things, but they're still unpleasant. They're not the type of people you want to be around. So character has a third element, and that is...

  • BEING the right kind of person.
    Gordon H. Taggart struggled with the whole concept of character, wishing he had more of it. As he wrote about what he lacked in character, he did a fantastic job of describing what it meant to BE the right kind of person. He described 11 characteristics.

    Taggart wrote:

    "I wish I were...
    honest enough to admit my shortcomings;
    brilliant enough to accept flattery without it making me arrogant;
    tall enough to tower above deceit;
    strong enough to treasure love;
    brave enough to welcome criticism;
    compassionate enough to understand human frailties;
    wise enough to recognize my mistakes;
    humble enough to appreciate greatness;
    staunch enough to stand by my friends;
    human enough to be thoughtful of my neighbor, and
    righteous enough to be devoted to the love of God."
    It may be worth a few minutes of your time to see how you stack up against those 11 characteristics. I know it opened my eyes as to where I needed to grow my character.

    However, if that seems too difficult, you might try Marcelene Cox's test. As a 20th century author, she proclaimed, "No man knows his true character until he has run out of gas, purchased something on the installment plan, and raised an adolescent." Simply take a look at how you behaved in those situations to see if you were or if you are a person of character.

Once you know the meaning of character, the second question is...

2. How do you build a strong character?
If you were lucky, you were raised in a family that modeled good character all the time, and you soaked it up unconsciously. And if you were very lucky, you were also educated by teachers who modeled good character, and you chose friends whose lives were filled with character. You learned from their examples. Good character became an almost automatic, natural part of who you are.

The truth is... very few people are that lucky. Almost everyone has some work to do when it comes to improving his/her character. And the good news is you can change and grow your character if you will practice the following behaviors...

  • DECIDE to be self-supporting. No one owes you a living. Not your parents, not your employer, and not the government. Unless you are totally disabled by some unfortunate event, you are in charge of you. And the quicker you decide that, the better you will feel the and the better person you will be. In fact, there is no way you can have any sense of self-esteem if you think it's somebody else's job to take care of you. The great orator, Robert G. Ingersoll spoke of that in the 1800's when he said, "Every human being should be taught that his first duty is to take care of himself, and that to be self-respecting he must be self-supporting. To live on the labor of others, either by force which enslaves, or by cunning which robs, or by borrowing or begging, is wholly dishonorable."
  • SEEK continual education. No one is perfect. Everyone has room for improvement. And improvement can only come through education, whether formal or informal. Indeed, what you learn from your job may be more important than the money you earn. As business leader Harold Geneen noted, "In the business world, everyone is paid in two coins: cash and experience. Take the experience first; the cash will come later."
  • SPREAD kindness. It may be one of the best ways to build your character. As T. Rubin notes, "Kindness is more important than wisdom. And the recognition of this is the beginning of wisdom." When you're kind to others, you grow your character. It's a total win-win-win. And your acts of kindness should have nothing to do with how you feel or the struggles you face. Charlie "Tremendous" Jones often said, "Many times the Lord will take you through experiences that have nothing to do with you but are meant to help you understand what others are going through." That being the case, Charlie would say we need to move away from being thin-skinned and hard-hearted. We need to become thick-skinned and soft-hearted. In other words, spread kindness simply because it's the right thing to ... and your character will grow.
  • WORK on yourself. Follow the advice of legendary author and speaker Jim Rohn. "Work harder on yourself than you do your job." And a part of that work is listening to yourself. When I was at the North Pole a couple of weeks ago, there was a sign that read, "When your heart speaks, take good notes." Good advice.
  • PURSUE excellence. I learned that from my parents and the way they ran their small business of raising and selling Christmas trees. They always told me that people will never know how long it takes to do something. They will only know how well it is done. You see ... being a person of character has little or nothing to do with the position you hold or the title you carry. It's all about the way you do your job. Even Booker T. Washington, the one-time slave and later-on biologist, talked about that. He said, "Any man's life will be filled with constant and unexpected encouragement if he makes up his mind to do his level best each day."
  • ADD value. Whatever you do, whomever you meet, add value to that transaction. Leave the situation or the other person a little bit better than you found them. For example, you could add value to your job by contributing to the organization's bottom line. Just ask yourself one question on a regular basis: "If this were my money instead of the company's money, would I spend it this way?" Apply this question to everything from your expense account to buying new office equipment.
  • PRACTICE persistence. People of character are known for their persistence. They don't bail out when the times get tough. They just keep on keeping on. As Deborah McGriff notes, "We must always go the second mile. When we go the first mile, we simply do what is required of us. It is when we go the second mile that excellence is achieved and minor miracles happen." And it's that second mile that distinguishes people of character from plain, ordinary folks. Of course, it's easier said than done ... to practice persistence. But it will be easier if you keep on repeating Dean Karnazes affirmation: "Run when you can, walk when you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up."
  • DETERMINE to be determined.
    People are very rarely overnight successes. And character is seldom achieved in one fall swoop. More often, character is the result of a long process of determined determination. Roscoe Dunjee observed, "Some people succeed because they are destined to, but most people succeed because they are determined to."

    It's one of the secrets of success that determination plays a bigger role in your success than almost anything else. Business consultant John Baker has seen that so many times that he now says, "Durability is stronger than talent, better than luck, more real than potential, and more valuable than intellect."

    Some of the time, you will have to stay the course, climbing up the ladder one hard step after another. Other times there won't be an obvious next step on the ladder. Then you'll have to do what 20th century singer William Warfield learned to do. He said, "When rungs were missing, I learned to jump."

The quality of your life, your relationships, and your career is deeply affected by your character or lack of it. So go ahead and put some extra thought into the character you are building.

As a best-selling author and Hall of Fame professional speaker, Dr. Alan Zimmerman has taught more than one million people in 48 states and 22 countries how to keep a positive attitude on and off the job. In his book, PIVOT: How One Turn In Attitude Can Lead To Success, Dr. Zimmerman outlines the exact steps you must take to get the results you want in any situation. Go to Alan's site for more information.
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