Amazing Character

Hazel and I recently completed a wonderful cruise on the Great Lakes going from Chicago, Illinois to Toronto, Canada. It was eleven days of beautiful scenery, interesting ports, way too much food, and most importantly, wonderful people. Because this was a very small cruise ship (total guests if full would be about 205 people), the opportunity to really get to know your fellow passengers was much greater than when you are on the large ocean liners. Because of this, Hazel and I were privileged to meet a very special gentleman.

On one of our first luncheons on the ship, we noticed a couple sitting alone at a table for six and we asked if we could join them. They were very gracious to invite us to sit down and we began introducing each other, sharing where we lived, and all the other small talk that goes along with meeting someone for the first time. It was not long before Hazel and I realized that Larry and Danielle Yano were going to very special friends on this cruise – especially since Larry was a retired Naval Officer and I am a retired Marine Officer. We were both were “Mustangs” (enlisted people who were able to take advantage of the opportunities in the military to increase our education, knowledge, and reputation to become officers). Over the course of the cruise, we ended up sitting with Larry and Danielle regularly and I was able to learn about the unique circumstances of Larry’s life. Before I share them with you, let me share what I learned about character for this very humble man.

Character, as it relates to an individual, is defined by my trusty old 1960 Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary with the following definitions:

  • Quality, position, rank or capacity; status. In this definition, the character of an individual can be the result of their position in life. For both Larry and I, the manner in which we conducted ourselves when we were enlisted personnel would have been different from the manner we conducted ourselves as officers. Not that we were not true to who we were as a person, but the responsibilities of the higher rank required us to always remember that the lives of our Marines or sailors were in our hands and they were depending on us to make the critical decisions that would keep them alive.
  • The aggregate of distinctive qualities belonging to an individual or race; the stamp of individuality impressed by nature, education, or habit. In this definition, we learn that the experiences we have in our lives, from birth until death, shape us. The question each person must ask themselves is simple. Will I allow my past to shape me in a positive manner or in a negative manner? This is truly one of the most important choices we make and will define our contributions to our families, friends, employers, community, and society in general. In today’s society, it seems everyone wants to be seen as a victim because “Mom was mean to me”, “Dad didn’t show me enough love”, “my teachers never understood my creativity” – phrases that when decoded mean that Mom grounded you when you did something wrong, Dad worked hard to put food on the table, clothes on your back and a roof over your head so he may have been a little tired when he got home and did not give you 100% of his attention, and the teacher insisted you follow directions like all the other students rather than just letting you get away with doing what you wanted to do instead of learning. You will learn as you read on the Larry had this important choice to make and he chose to overcome.
  • The estimate put upon a person or thing; reputation; repute. In this definition, your choice, as discussed in the prior point, begins to be defined not by you, but by the people with whom you come in contact in your life. Demonstrate integrity, honor, unselfishness, humility, good judgment, a can-do attitude and these will be the words people use to define you as a person. As I have mentioned in the past, what will be spoken at my funeral will not be important – nobody speaks badly of the dead around the grieving family and friends. But after the funeral, when people no longer are obligated to speak kindly of you, what they say at that point will be the legacy you leave. I work hard every day to try and be the kind of person that will be remembered with the words, “Len made a positive impact on my life.”
  • Moral vigor or firmness, especially as acquired through self-discipline. Again, this definition reminds us that we have choices to make every day. How we react when someone asks us to compromise our integrity and/or values will always be a defining moment in life. You may suffer dearly for standing firm on the values you feel make you a person of character, but it is better than being compromised and never being seen as trustworthy.
  • A description or detailed account of the qualities of a person. And this is where I want to share with you the person I meet on that ship while sailing in the Great Lakes (NOTE: I have asked Larry’s permission to tell this story.)

The first thing you cannot help but notice about Larry is that he is an American of Japanese descent (I deliberately worded it this way because you will find he is a true American treasure). As we met and talked over many meals, I learned that his parents were second-generation Americans and owned a thriving wholesale fruit and vegetable store on December 7, 1941. As a result of the bombing of our military bases in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, his parents, like many Americans of Japanese descent, were ordered to an internment camp in Arizona in early 1942. They lost everything they had (Larry told me that the man who just walked in and took over their business made over a million dollars before he died.) At the time, Larry was two years old. That’s right – Larry is a survivor of a very bad, fear induced decision made by politicians. Fortunately for Larry and his parents, the following year, as the war waged on, the Governor of Colorado needed people to pick crops that were coming into harvest. He made an offer to those interred since all the young men who usually did this work were off to war. If you had at least three members of your family willing to pick crops, the State of Colorado would help you gain a release from the camp to live and work in the fields of Colorado. Larry’s parents and his uncles could do this work and were able to gain a release from the horrible conditions of the internment camp in October of 1943. Larry’s parents stayed in Colorado after the war and continued to work but were never able to regain the losses they endured.

As Larry grow up, he was making bad decisions and getting into a lot of trouble so he realized he needed to make some major changes in his life if he was ever going to live up to his potential. So, at the age of seventeen, Larry dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Navy. After boot camp, Larry was sent to one of the early computer schools to learn mainframe computer operations and programming. He worked hard, increasing his education and knowledge, and eventually made the rank of Chief Petty Officer. He continued to grow and was eventually selected for the Limited Duty Officer program and commissioned as a Warrant Officer in the Navy. He served in combat operations in the waters of Vietnam and in various high-level positions while stationed stateside. He was actually part of the team that connected the first five super-computers together so that they could talk to each other. In other words, unlike a certain politician, Larry truly was there when the Internet began and was part of the team that created the foundation that still keeps this important tool at our fingertips today. After 23 years of faithful service, Larry retired from the Navy as a Lieutenant and worked in the civilian information technology field. Today, he is semi-retired (he still takes on small jobs setting up computers for companies) and enjoys traveling with Danielle.

I was humbled to meet Larry. He had every right to be angry with America – his family had been treated with absolutely no respect and had lost so much both materially and emotionally. But instead of using his past as an excuse to lead a life based on anger and resentment, he turned to the one thing that could help change this perspective. So, instead of being angry with America, he decided to serve America and show “her” the value he could provide as an American. He helped his country learn that every American has value and can serve this great country with distinction and honor if you will just put your prejudices aside and embrace the uniqueness that is the American experience. And he did it with integrity, honor, humility, determination, justice – in other words, he demonstrated the character that will allow everyone who has met him to say, “Knowing Larry made a positive impact on my life.”

If you want to be an exceptional leader, develop the kind of character that creates a positive influence in the life of those you have the honor of serving.


Len Bernat
Len Bernat
LEN is a leader groomed by 20 years of molding and shaping by some of the finest leaders in the United States Marine Corps. Their guidance helped Len realize his full potential as he moved from an enlisted Marine to becoming an Officer of Marines. Len became known for being the leader who could turn any lackluster organization into a strong, functional unit. Upon his retirement, Len worked in several positions before finally starting a second career in governmental procurement. His experience and leadership skills enabled him to be recognized as the 2011 Governmental Procurement Officer of the Year for the Governmental Procurement Association of Georgia and opened doors for him to teach at many of the association’s conferences. Len was also called to the ministry and was ordained at Ashford Memorial Methodist Church in November of 1999. Today, Len is the Pastor of Maxeys Christian Church in Maxeys, Georgia. Len has been married to his wife, Hazel, for 36 years and they have three daughters, three grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. Grab your copy of Len's new Book – Leadership Matters | Advice From A Career USMC Officer. Using his life experiences as examples, Len takes the eleven principles of leadership and the fourteen traits every leader should possess—which he learned during twenty years in the Marine Corps—and teaches the reader how he was molded and shaped by some of the best leaders the Corps had to offer.

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  1. I keep finding that if people like you and they feel they are like you, then you’re in a good place to start out as a leader. If they want to be like you, then you are the leader. I’m wondering if it really is that simple.

    • Chris – There is truth in what you are saying. If people like you, they will want to get to know more about you – this is where your character becomes important because your character, not your words, will define you. If they come to realize that you are of strong, moral character, they will trust you and want to emulate you. And in that moment, they will see you as a leader. Thanks for starting this important discussion.