Does Character Matter?

by Frederica Mathewes-Green

Leadership Breakfast, University of Delaware, 1998

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a regular commentator on NPR's "All Things Considered" and on Odyssey Television Network's "News Odyssey." She is a columnist for Christianity Today and a contributing editor for Books & Culture, Regeneration, Touchstone, Focus on the Family-Citizen, Divine Ascent, Eutopia and other publications.

While discussing topics for this talk, this one was suggested to me: Does Character Matter? Is character an important component of leadership? Can you be a leader without attention to personal integrity, or private morality?

Since that topic was raised some events have brought the question to national prominence. And the way polls read, a lot of Americans seem to think it doesn't matter. Competence is everything. Personal integrity is expendable.

Now, I don't want to dwell on this particular example, but rather want to look at much larger, more serious historical examples of exercising leadership without exercising character. Rather than examining the current microcosm, look at the macrocosm to draw the issue more starkly.

Does character matter? This begs another question: Matter to whom?

It may not matter to the leader in question. Character, integrity, high personal moral standards, conscience, are not essential to success. A person can lack all these things and still be very successful.

A person can acquire power, in fact history shows they can acquire enormous power, enough to oppress and kill others. Very efficiently and with forceful leadership. It is not required that someone be a person of character in order for them to be a leader.

I've been to three Holocaust museums--Dachau, Jerusalem, Washington. Among the many horrifying lessons to be learned from that brutality, one was especially bitter: they sure were efficient. Very professional example of leadership. No waste. Orderly. Tidy. Yes, you can be a "successful" leader without moral character.

Does character matter? Matter to whom? Maybe not to you, but it may matter to your victims.

Leadership without character is hell.

Powerful humans, unrestrained by conscience, create a hell on earth for other humans, for animals, for the ecological balance of the earth. History is written by the victors, and the victorious are by definition effective leaders. They may also be depraved.

But just to complicate things further: Certainly nearly all the "evil" leaders you can cite through history thought they were doing good. No doubt leaders of the Holocaust thought they were serving a great cause. They were willing to die for their cause, and many of them did. (The Allies' job was to give them that opportunity.)

Humans have a fearsome ability to rationalize. Great leaders have been inspired by great causes--then gradually begin to think that keeping themselves in power is the greatest cause of all. They think they are the cause. "What's good for me is what's good for the nation."

And its all too easy for people to think that what's good for me and the nation is so good, so necessary, that it doesn't matter if who gets hurt on the way to accomplish it.

Our untaught, self-seeking, rationalizing hearts love to nest in hell--it seems to us like paradise. The only thing that limits us is how much power we can accumulate.

The sad fact of history is that there aren't bad guys and good guys--the good guys can be just as bloodthirsty and vicious as the bad guys if they get a chance. That's why we have rotating tribal wars that go on for centuries, with each group seeking revenge for the cruelties the other group inflicted when it last held power.

That's what leadership without character is--accumulating power, using it efficiently, being stalwart leaders, and building hell.

Anyone is capable of this kind of self-delusion. Now here we enter the tricky part: can't I just look inside, consult my inner sense of right and wrong, and use that as my guide? Can't I just follow my heart, or my conscience?

The answer has to be a cautious, "Well, yes and no."

The line between good and evil doesn't run between one person and another, as I just said. It runs down the center of the human heart. Some things we find in our hearts are indeed good, and some are evil in a lace bonnet, disguised as good.

Evil whispering in your heart can do a very good vocal impression of good, and if you're at all inclined to want to believe it, you will. You can talk yourself into anything, and believe it is good. That's the scary part.

So how do we know what components go into becoming a person of character? If we see the awful dangers wrought by leadership without conscience, how can we develop a trustworthy conscience?

I use the word "develop" intentionally. Everyone is born with a rudimentary conscience, but it gets formed and affected by the culture we live in. This is how there can be cultures that are, for example, very courageous, and live in harmony with the earth, yet batter women and children. Men's consciences are early formed that beating women is acceptable. They don't do it in a sneaky, guilty way. They can dish out this abuse with a clear conscience, because that's how their consciences were formed.

This calls into question a major tenet of modern life, that the essential thing everyone needs is self-esteem. If only criminals had higher self-esteem, they would be emotionally secure enough to be good. But I'm saying that self esteem is no guarantor of good behavior--in fact, it can merely confirm a person in bad behavior.

Hitler had wonderful self-esteem. Saddam Hussein thinks very highly of himself. One study showed that school bullies characteristically have high self esteem, and think quite highly of themselves, thank you. Think so highly that they believe you are in comparison a worm and should give them your lunch money. So thinking well of yourself does not prevent you from doing harm to others. It may give you the impression that you have the right to harm others.

I'm recommending something more like the opposite of self-esteem--I recommending that you question yourself and your presuppositions. That you practice humility and modesty, and be ready to admit that you could be wrong. That you be especially wary of those ways that your culture has shaped your conscience.

The discouraging news is that all of us are short sighted. We are limited by the indoctrination we receive just by being members of this culture. We are more affected by peer pressure than we'd ever admit. We want to think that we're original thinkers, brave and true, but we've been inculturated by the hours of TV and commercials and entertainment we've absorbed. We can't have an objective view of what is good and just and true. The prejudices of any age are invisible. Like fish in a goldfish bowl, they can't see the water or the bowl, yet these subtly distort everything they see.

To return to the weary example of the Holocaust, it's still chilling to think of what a decent, gifted nation Germany was. They knew themselves to be the most decent and disciplined of citizens. They couldn't question what they were doing because, well, it was them doing it, and they knew they were fine folks.

The scariest thing about this is that they weren't bogeymen. They weren't overtly bloodthirsty types--they weren't that different from us. If we allow ourselves the foolish luxury of believing they were different from us in some core sense, different from you and me, we set ourselves up to slide naively into the same kind of catastrophe. We aren't going to make that same mistake, but will make another, because we're duped by the spirit of our age into thinking we're fine the way we are.

What do you think future generations will say of us--is there some outrage or bloodshed going on every day that we placidly ignore, and our grandchildren will say, "How could they have been such monsters? How could they have been so evil?" We think of ourselves as pretty-good people, but a future generation may think we were hideously cruel, for ignoring some great injustice that to them will seem horrifying, and to us seems business-as-usual. For this reason we have to always be questioning the authority of our age, and questioning ourselves, wondering where we fall short and where we need to change.

So if we can't live without character, and if we can't trust what we automatically find inside as a good guide, how can we know what principles to live by?

I think we have to look beyond current fashion, and seek out the values that are timeless, the elements of justice and moral behavior that have been upheld by the broadest range of humans across cultures, throughout time, and around the world. I'm saving that we need to use a multicultural touchstone--this time, not looking for diversity, but looking for consensus. What emerges over and over again, wherever humans are found, throughout history?

I remember learning as a child that there was one message that all religions taught alike: Do not do harm to others that you wouldn't want done to yourself. This isn't everything you need to build a conscience, but it's a starting point.

Jesus turned this around into a positive saying, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Now, I find that no matter how people feel about the church or organized religion, they recognize something in Jesus. When my husband and I were in college, before we were married, neither of us were Christians. He was assigned to read a Gospel for a philosophy class and chose Mark, because it is the shortest. I remember him reading and saying, "There's something about Jesus. He speaks with authority." Jesus has presence that anyone can recognize. He has authority.

So when Jesus said, not "don't do unto others," but "do unto others," he made it a good bit harder. It racheted up the requirement. You're not allowed to ignore others. You can't say, this sick baby is dying, this abandoned wife is starving, this disabled person is suffering, because they were evil people in their last life, and this is their karma; if I interfere with it to console them I only delay their progress, so I'll just leave them alone. Jesus commanded that we had to get involved, had to suffer with others, had to reach out, had to take risks.

In fact Jesus carried nearly everything to an extreme. Sometimes he did this explicitly, as when he'd say "You have heard it said, don't murder, but I say, don't even be angry." Or that you should not only refrain from adultery, but even refrain from having fantasies about people you're not married to. We're entering now into a realm that goes beyond superficial behavior, and reaches into the heart. Jesus wants to transform your heart, transform the whole person from the inside out.

Along the way he requires things that--to come full circle to our topic--may be great character-builders, but don't seem to contribute much to efficient leadership. Try this:

"Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you."

Frankly, this is very bad advice--if your only goal is being a successful leader. It's not in the management books. But being a big worldly success, with a corner office and a title on the door, is apparently not Jesus' aim. You can't be that impressive a leader, you know, if your community ends up by nailing you to a tree.

Jesus was not a sappy Stuart Smalley feel-good guy. If he was, they wouldn't have nailed him up. They crucified him because he was offensive. He offended them with the claim to have come to save us from our sins, save us from hell, to save us from the hell we make for ourselves and others, when we approve of ourselves, when we think we're being good, decent, upright leaders. He offended them by claiming to be God, which is a dandy thing to say if you're trying to offend people. It's hard to top.

A lot of people imagine Jesus as a tame, benign good-citizen who wants us all to be nice. If we haven't taken him seriously enough to be a little bit scandalized, even a little bit scared, we haven't taken him seriously enough.

Did Jesus teach that good leadership requires good character?

Jesus turned the sequence upside down. It seems that being effective--being competent and powerful and efficient, being an acknowledged leader--isn't as important to him as doing the right thing--the just, good, and noble thing, acting with character.

As Mother Teresa said, when people pointed out to her the futility of rescuing the dying from Calcutta's slums, God doesn't call us to be successful, he calls us to be faithful.

You can't be too impressive a leader if your community ends up by nailing you to a tree. But being faithful to what he knew was right was the higher goal for Jesus. And that is the path he calls us to, one that is, as I said, a little bit scary.

He calls us to die to self and live in his life. To take up our cross daily and follow him. He doesn't promise praise and accolades, the laurel wreaths leaders are used to receiving. He promises a pretty tough time. You don't get an extra bonus for phoning the 800 number today. You don't get steak knives. As Deitrich Bonhoeffer said, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."

And he acts as if this is a wonderful gift--good news. He acts as if there's even urgency about it, as if your window of opportunity to sign up for this journey is pretty narrow. He warns that most people will not respond. I can gather from this, that most people in this room will not respond.

"Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few." (Matthew 7:13-14)

For those of you who are not inclined to respond, this sounds like an entirely absurd proposition--that we should humble ourselves, repent, and follow a crucified carpenter. Leadership as the modern world defines and rewards it is a much safer proposition.

Those who do follow will find that their whole worldview is transformed. Like Mother Teresa, you will look for the path of faithfulness, of upright character, over the path of easy success. You will hunger for deeper and deeper transformation inside, so that it's not just your outside deeds that are superficially correct. You'll discover an ever increasing desire to be changed from deep within, and saved from the hell that we make for ourselves and each others by our daily, petty, stupid sins and selfishness.

This is not necessarily the path to success. It is the path to transformation.

C. S. Lewis recounts a parable by George MacDonald:

"Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of--throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself."

When you are transformed like this, you find that you are becoming an entirely different sort of leader. The light that spills out of you will illuminate those around you and change their lives. It is not a leadership of power, but one of service. It is subversive. It is unconquerable. And it is impossible to lose anything, because you've already given everything away.

I am not calling you today to be an efficient leader, or even a leader who exercises good character. I am calling you to be a saint. A little girl was asked what a saint is, and she thought of the windows in her church; she said, "A saint is someone who the light shines through."

I'll close with this description of a saint, written by the head of a monastery on Mt. Athos in Greece. Saints are those who:

"...are at peace within in such a way as to be peace for ...others. They pour out strength and comfort. In their presence you feel boundless peace and security. Near them everything is filled with light. Uncertainties vanish; you begin to love Christ, and to love life ...they have a treasure of inexpressible joy hidden in an earthen vessel, and this joy overflows and spreads all around them, filling their surroundings with its fragrance.... Their presence conveys something uncreated, tranquil, which renews you, calms your nerves, extinguishes your anger, enlightens your mind, and gives wings to your hopes ... this light which shines out helps you to find your own true self. It helps you to love your own life, leading you forward in the light which knows no evening ... Saints do not frighten others with their ascetic exploits, but bring them peace by sharing with them the love of God, in which saints live night and day." (Archimandrite Vasileios, an abbot on Mt. Athos, "Hymn of Entry," St. Vlad's Press, 1984)

May you respond to the call of Jesus Christ to be that kind of transformed soul. May you live in that love night and day.