‘Undoing’ the compartmentalization of character

All of us at one time or another have been frustrated or become disillusioned at the ineptitude of leaders, especially when their actions have revealed such an obvious attitude of ‘what’s in it for me’ or self-preservation at the expense of others.  This frustration only increases when there is a perception that nothing can be done to address the lack of character shown by those in power who have the ability to affect our wellbeing.

The tabloids and ‘reality television’ have taken great satisfaction in exposing the disconnect between a person’s private and public world.  Unfortunately, this same dichotomy occurs daily in our workplaces.  This obviously doesn’t go unnoticed. It hurts reputations and damages brands, big and small, sometimes irreparably.

I acknowledge that a discussion on character or values may not be as riveting as the latest sales techniques, marketing strategies, or innovative product ideas. There is, however, a convergence of ideas surrounding ethics, morality, and character stemming back to early Greek thought, suggesting it is something we shouldn’t ignore.  Key figures such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, ultimately raised questions concerning the relationship between the ethic of virtue or the intellect and the spiritual.

Although not comprehensive, I have identified six contrasting perspectives leaders need to hold in careful tension as they contemplate the relationship between character in their lives and how it is expressed in their leadership:

  1. The notion of individual responsibility and responsibility to the wider community.
  2. A person’s experience of truth and the existence of an objective, universal morality that is shared by others.
  3. The presence of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.
  4. Pursuing an ethic of virtue that is attainable and yet not fully realized.
  5. Being virtuous and doing or demonstrating virtuous traits.
  6. What can be taught or learned and what must come, as Socrates says, from “divine dispensation” because we are not capable of achieving the ideal of virtue from a position that is quickly corrupted by self-interest. While we could argue the position that we innately know what is good and virtuous, what is also true is that there is much within the human condition that has the propensity for We don’t need to look far for evidence of this.

Like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 AD), believed that our intellect gave us the ability to choose virtue or vice, and that it was not possible for people to attain their goals without the gift of grace.[i]  Although there was no universal canon of virtues or consensus, Aquinas accepted the four cardinal virtues of justice, prudence, courage and temperance as forming “the basis of a dignified human existence” belonging to the essence and power of the soul.  He defined these as natural virtues, distinct from the supernatural virtues of “faith, hope and love” mentioned by St. Paul the Apostle (1 Corinthians 13: 13).  The former were to teach us how to live; the latter, “given by God in order to help the Christian surpass human nature and participate in the divine nature.”[ii]  This synergy presented by Aquinas between a Christian ethic of virtue and anthropology reveals his belief that our “mind is guided naturally by wisdom and supernaturally by faith.”[iii]

In many cultures, this synergy is not an easy thing to digest. The compartmentalizing nature of our culture and way of life conveniently separates the physical from the spiritual, our intellect from our emotions, our work life from our personal life, and our public life from our private life. However, character should permeate each of them.

What’s the bottom-line?

We know that a lack of character in one domain of our lives quickly infects everything we do, and before too long, no one is following us.  And why should they? Our character is not resilient or trustworthy. Those, we lead, are apprehensive about what will happen, as there is no predictability about how we might react, especially when our leadership is being challenged. Below are some questions for further reflection:

  • What would it look like if my life was totally congruent with my values?
  • How would I describe my personal brand?  Is it consistent with my organization’s brand, or are they in conflict?  How can I change this?
  • How do my values help me to sustain a high level of performance?


[i] Patrick Nullens and Ronald T. Michener, The Matrix of Christian Ethics: Integrating Philosophy and Moral Theology in a Postmodern Context (Colorado Springs, CO: Paternoster Publishing, 2010), 124.

[ii] Jean Porter, The Cambridge Companion to Christian Ethics, ed. Robin Gill (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 102-3.

[iii] Nullens and Michener, 125.

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