Building Character

 “We can’t remake ourselves without suffering; for we are both the marble and the sculptor.”

–Alexis Carrel, Nobel Prize winner for Medicine

Understanding human nature and potential is essential for leadership, but discerning what human beings do with that potential is even more important. The way we use the advantages of our human nature and the unique genetic deposit given to each of us determines our character, the self-chosen stamp we put on our developing personality.

Ultimately, we are what we choose to be, and the harmful consequences of wrong choices are plain for all to see in a world struggling for answers about the human condition.

Suffering is an inescapable part of being human, essential to our development. Creativity and progress are often inspired by suffering, as can be seen in examples like Beethoven and Edith Stein.

And the suffering “Why?” frequently ushers in the creative “What if?” and new possibilities emerge, holding out the promise of redemption. In human experience, suffering presages redemption.

Redemption is the most enduring theme in literature, from Biblical stories like Exodus and the Prodigal Son to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Movies like Cinderella Man, Blood Diamond, and Grand Torino indicate that post-modern meaninglessness is unlikely to smother this primeval obsession.

History overflows with sagas of suffering and redemption: slave-holding America redeemed by the immolations of the Civil War, Poland restored through the sacrifices of Solidarity, and South Africa lifted up by the spirit of reconciliation espoused by Nelson Mandela.

Suffering and redemption underline that human nature has the potential for both good and evil, and personal fulfilment is determined by the choices we make as we negotiate the challenges of this life.

But what is good and what is evil? In a world where political correctness howls down any attempt to express in plain words what is clear to all reasonable people, how is a leader to confidently promote what is good for people, and oppose what is evil?

We all use the concepts of good and bad quite naturally – just try discussing economics or politics without recourse to them. Or imagine what a mess society would be without the necessary distinction between good and bad. Pretty much everything we do requires us to make judgments in this regard.

The philosophical errors that led to the current moral confusion in the western world are well documented and need not detain us here, and the reality is that we all know what is good for people and what is bad.

Classic philosophy and modern science agree that freedom, meaning, purpose, knowledge, honest relationships, good health, prosperity, and the virtues that provide the mental strength for the quest are good for human beings. By contrast, enslavement (to ideology, other people, drugs, etc.), meaninglessness, purposelessness, ignorance, dishonesty, dysfunctional relationships, illness, poverty, and the vices that corrode our potential are bad.

In any workplace, home, or community where the good things are absent, human well-being is to some degree compromised. Widespread human suffering underlines the need for virtuous character, the stuff of which leaders are made, if there is to be redemption.

It all comes down to attitude, a state of mind that develops from experience and education, formal and informal, and which determines how we regard other people and the world, and how we intend conducting ourselves toward them.

Good attitudes promote well-being, while bad attitudes cause harm. They either promote well-being in oneself, other people, and the world around us, or they cause harm. They are either constructive or destructive.

Self-chosen mind-sets like courage, honesty, self-control, respect, compassion, and industriousness promote well-being, personal, communal, and corporate, while their opposites – cowardice, dishonesty, self-indulgence, contempt, callousness, and laziness – cause harm.

It is important to distinguish between attitudes and emotions. Emotions are the feelings brought on by bodily reactions, like accelerated respiration and pulse, increased blood sugar and adrenalin, and papillary dilation or contraction, that urge us to act in certain ways. Emotions happen, while attitudes we can choose.

For example, I might feel desire (my emotion) for a family heirloom, and either be caring or selfish (my attitude) towards my sister, whose emotional need is greater. A woman may feel disgust and disappointment at the behaviour of her child, but choose to love him regardless and work for his redemption. A husband may be emotionally tempted to sleep with a beautiful colleague, but choose instead to love his wife by being faithful.

We have free will, the faculty of choice, and the intellect to help us make judgments as to right attitudes and behaviour. And it is in making these everyday choices that we forge our own character.

The many positive attitudes listed in Leaders and Misleaders, and in any number of books on emotional intelligence, all spring from the cardinal virtues of practical wisdom, courage, self-control, and justice, and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.

Personal integrity depends on these seven attitudes. Their opposites – foolishness, cowardice, self-indulgence, injustice, cynicism, despair, and hate, are all harmful to others, the world, and ourselves. It is not difficult to see what ails the western world.

Every choice we make in relation to how we conduct ourselves in life stamps our personality in a particular way, defining the sort of person we have chosen to be. Leading like you mean it demands constant attention to developing one’s own character and inspiring the growth of good character in others.

Leading like you mean it is about people, and therefore it is about personality and character, the building blocks of community and culture.


Andre van Heerden
Andre van Heerden
ANDRE heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership, Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere, while leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas. Subscribe to my Substack HERE.

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  1. The character is a quality of the person that says a lot about its values, the way in which it might act in certain circumstances and how it might drive other people, when it is put in a position of power. The character has a close relationship with integrity. If the character is “who we are”, integrity is “what we do.” The integrity connotes a deep commitment to doing the right thing for the right reason, regardless of the circumstances. The respect of which must enjoy leadership requires that the ethics of an individual is indisputable. So, character is what can make the difference between one who merely know the rules of the leadership and the one who knows to put them into practice in everyday life. It encloses the personal qualities that give strength and vigor to the actions of a person. It implies show oneself serenely firm in what one believes, but at the same time available to listen to any advice and suggestions and willing to change his mind if needed.

  2. My father was a carpenter by trade and he always said anything that we learned in life was a tool we now had to carry in our tool belt. With these tool I could fix things, I could demolish things and his hope would be that I would create things.

  3. I see all lives are forged in iron, constantly being hammered and bend over and over again and then reforged. From the forge, each of us has our own strengths. If you’re a sword, you’re not a shield. If you’re a shield, you’re not a hammer. If you use your natural strengths, you will be successful. If you don’t, you will break, and once again need to be sent back to the forge to be rebuilt.