“Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life.”
If you are anything like me, there are certain movies that resonate deeply with you. So much so, in fact, that particular scenes and lessons from these memorable films linger long after the closing credits roll. The movie Gladiator is one of these movies.
Released in 2000, Gladiator starring Russell Crowe won five Academy Awards. As a former military leader, it is easy to understand the appeal. After all, the film portrays the ultimate characterization of a selfless, courageous, and inspirational leader. It is the story of an extraordinary warrior who by the power of his positive example, fought to triumph good over evil and stood firm to the end in the face of overwhelming adversity. In essence, it is a story of all that is best in the human condition.
The hero of the movie was Maximus Decimus Meridius, a Roman Centurion. The element of the movie that resonates most profoundly with me is the scene before battle where Maximus repeats a particular two-word phrase to his fellow warriors, “Strength and honor.”
Not surprisingly, these words were the oath of the Centurion and represented the ideal to which every one of these warriors strove to adhere. Two words that communicated a great deal. Most notably, that the true measure of success in life isn’t measured by the position we attain, the rank we wear, or the fame and fortune we amass for ourselves. Rather, living a life characterized by strength and honor, be it on the battlefield, the boardroom, the classroom, or anywhere we find ourselves influencing others, is a reflection of how well we steward our opportunities to serve a cause bigger than ourselves.
To fully appreciate the ideals of “strength and honor,” it is necessary to understand what it meant to be a Roman Centurion. The Centurion was not your standard soldier or “legionnaire.” Rather, a Centurion was a leader in charge of 100 men. In his superb book, The Centurion Principles, author Colonel Jeff O’Leary describes a Centurion as a battle-hardened legionnaire who was promoted to the rank of Centurion based on at least sixteen years of combat service and valor at the point of the spear. He was able to carry ninety pounds of equipment at least twenty miles per day and train under the harshest of conditions.”
Centurions were required to equip themselves at their own expense and pay for their own food, clothing, bedding, boots, arms, armor, and pay dues to the burial club. A Centurion was a skilled engineer and builder, in addition to being the finest combat soldier. He held ultimate sway over the welfare of every person who served in his hundred-man century. To rise to Centurion was considered the highest privilege a legionnaire could attain.
The Centurion ate last, awoke first, and always led his troops from the front.
As you can see, there was no easy way to become a Centurion. It was not a role that could be purchased, appointed, or directed. It required complete and total dedication to a singular purpose. It demanded commitment, persistence, and above all, selflessness. Seasoned by harsh and often brutal experiences over a long period of time, earning the title centurion was a direct byproduct of consistently exercising the mental, emotional, and physical “strength” and unwavering dignity, integrity, and personal “honor” to lead a life of unwavering character.
Fast forward a couple thousand years to today. If you were to peruse the shelves of any bookstore you will find hundreds of books on leadership style, far fewer on leadership competencies, and fewer still that address leadership character. For some reason, our society seems to have lost sight of character. Perhaps this is because our educational system and organizations are so competency focused as competencies are easier to qualify or quantify. Or, perhaps we just don’t know what to think about character, because as to many it seems such an esoteric topic that’s nice to discuss but challenging to develop. Maybe we are simply reluctant to discuss the significance of character in politics, our workplaces, worship spaces, and communities because we believe we cannot assess character tangibly or objectively.
Regardless of the rationale as to why character doesn’t seem to dominate as much of our thinking a as it should, character remains a central, important element of leadership — particularly for the kind of cross-boundary leadership that is essential in today’s complex, global, interconnected organizations — which is why it cannot be ignored. The fact of the matter is, character influences every dimension of our lives. It fundamentally shapes how we engage the world around us, what we notice, what we reinforce, who and how we engage in conversation, what we value, what we choose to act on and how we decide…and the list goes on.
Yet for all the reasons society treats character more as an afterthought than as the most important measure of personal and professional excellence, trustworthiness, and qualification to lead, it doesn’t have to remain as such. I offer, for purposes of demystifying and simplifying the topic of character to its most fundamental form, character can be broken down into three primary elements:
- The tangible manifestation of our choices;
- The reflection of our willingness to accept responsibility for those choices; and
- The demonstration of commitment to change the habits inconsistent with being the kind of leader we strive to be and what those we influence deserve to see.
Character is the Manifestation of your Choices: In many regards, a person’s character is simply who they really are, inside and out. Abraham Lincoln once said, “Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” Your reputation is what others think of you, which may or may not be true, but your character is who you really are. In effect, your character is the real you in the sense that you cannot separate what you do from who you are.
Extended further, character is the sum of a person’s ethical and moral qualities, and it is demonstrated daily through the choices we make. A person of good character is someone who consistently acts morally and ethically upright. To be fair, none of us get it right all of the time. We are all a mixture of both good and bad. A leader of character, however, strives to take the moral high road and, when he or she recognizes they have fallen short, chooses to exercise the strength of character to intentionally get back on track.
Resolve to own your choices, consistently, honestly, deliberately. Don’t wait to make the required fix. Too much is at stake.
Character is a Reflection of your willingness to accept responsibility for your choices: The late Warren Bennis beautifully addressed the role of individual responsibility in becoming a leader of character when he said: “The leader never lies to himself, especially about himself, knows his flaws as well as his assets, and deals with them directly. You are your own raw material. When you know what you consist of and what you want to make of it, then you can invent yourself.”
To consistently operate with strength and honor in your personal and professional relationships, it is essential one exercise the self-awareness to examine habitual behaviors and consider whether there may not be better ways of leading than the ones that have worked, more or less, for you in the past. Sadly, one of the greatest reasons many leaders continue to fall short of their potential is their unwillingness to accept responsibility for the poor choices they’ve made. Don’t let this be you.
Accepting responsibility for our choices takes the blame off of other people and forces us to be accountable for what we say and do. Sadly, too many people make excuses for the way they are or for what they’ve done” “It’s my parents fault.” “The system let me down.” “My boss is unreasonable.” And the list goes on and on. The reality is, we limit our development as leaders by not having the humility, discipline and courage to assess ourselves and make appropriate adjustments when circumstances or situations find our attitudes and actions out of alignment with who we strive to be as a leader.
Be a leader who accepts ownership rather than defers or deflects blame. Make responsibility a hallmark of your leadership brand.
Character is a Demonstration of commitment to change the habits inconsistent with the leader you strive to be and what those we influence deserve to see: Early philosophers viewed character as something formed, subconsciously, through repetitive behavior that is either rewarded or by finding what works through experience. Character is forged by the choices we make and formed by the habits we perpetuate. The interesting thing about habits is that we are often unaware of them. There’s a famous saying that illustrates this point rather well – “Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny” (author unknown).
Ted Pollack, an expert in time management and behavioral psychology, says that training yourself in good habits requires stern self-discipline at first. But once those habits become second nature, that payoff is considerable: “Good habits save effort, ease routines, increase efficiency, and release power.” The kind of person you will be in five, ten, or twenty years from now will be determined by the habits you develop today.
Remember, you cultivate character one opportunity and interaction at a time. The sum of your habits, good or bad, is your unique contribution to society. Ensure you steward your legacy well.
Character is not something that you have or don’t have. Character is not a light switch that can be turned on and off. All of us have character, but not all of us make the ongoing development and refinement of our character a foremost priority. Yes, there are degrees and every situation presents a different experience and opportunity to learn and deepen character. But as Aristotle taught, character is a habit, the daily choice of right and wrong; it is a moral quality which is reinforced in good times and grows to maturity in tough times. Character is the essence of who we really are, inside out.
No one is perfect when it comes to character, and given that its development is a lifelong journey, we will rise to the occasion in some situations and disappoint ourselves and those around us in others. Much like the Roman Centurion turned Gladiator Maximus Decimus Meridius, leading our lives with strength and honor is a choice only we can make. Specifically, a choice to own our outcomes; accept responsibility for our attitudes and actions; and to develop the habits that reveal by word and deed we are a leader worth fighting for.
Centurion shield and broadsword, not required.