A recent, and much discussed event in the news has started me thinking about the difference between personality and character. There are perhaps some who have spent little time considering if there even is a difference between them. Even the Thesaurus on my laptop suggests the word ‘character’ as an acceptable substitute for the word ‘personality’. But to me, they are quite different. And, especially if you are a leader, understanding the distinction between them is critically important.
With my strictly layperson’s eye, I see that distinction as this:
Personality refers to our basic nature. For instance, some of us are extraverted and some introverted. Some of us are even-tempered, some hotheaded, and so on. In short, personality mainly consists of those things we inherit genetically. It dictates our personal preferences and choices. And, it drives our social interaction with others.
Character refers to how we choose to use our inheritance to make our way in the world. Character is built over time. It comes from living, learning and making mistakes. It shows up in the decisions we make and the risks we take. Character measures and tests the strength of our will, our beliefs and our sense of justice. And it is often a hard taskmaster.
It was W. Somerset Maugham who once said, “ When you choose your friends, don’t be short-changed by choosing personality over character”
I think the same could be said of leaders. Sometimes, of course we don’t get to choose our leaders. And sometimes we don’t get the leaders we choose. However, we do get to choose the kind of leaders we are going to be. Will we ride on the coat tails of personality, going where the wind blows us? Or, will we rely on the deep-seated beliefs that form our character to guide us, even if that road is harder… and even if it makes us unpopular?
To many people, the answer will seem obvious. But, character can be difficult to discern. It can go for a long time without being publically tested or uncovered and can often be eclipsed by the strength and easy attraction of a winning personality.
So how do we know? How do we recognize when we are leading from the depths of our character and when we are not? Under what circumstances would we be able to recognize strength of character in others?
Well, I can think of a few circumstances anyway that would provide some pretty good clues. Like:
In a crisis ~ the measure of any leader becomes most obvious when things go wrong. It is then when wheat and chaff part company.
In Private ~ If, what leaders say in public differs from what they say in private, on the same subject, that is very telling. Those who change stories to fit the situation cast doubt on the veracity of any of them.
In the Face of Temptation ~ The power that leadership brings can be quite an aphrodisiac. How leaders choose to use that power will say a lot about them. The draw of self-interest is ever-present. The test of character comes when we are faced with the temptation to indulge it.
There are, of course, many situations where character, or lack thereof, is revealed. Suffice it to say that if we are looking for it, character, can generally be found in close proximity to courage and truthfulness.
So here’s the bottom line for me. As a leader, while personality will get you in the door, character will ensure you stay there…or not.
That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?
*Originally published in September 2012