The Giving Tree of Character

By Jason Bowns

Jason 1
Photo Credit: Attorney Oscar Michelin

We live in an age of visibility, where the public stage is bigger than ever before. There’s an upward push for more transparency, justified as an accountability mechanism. Secrets are inherently treated with suspicion and disdain; it suggests that something nefarious may be hidden.

British Lord Acton posited, “Everything secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity.” This suggests that to enter the public realm is also to abridge the right to personal privacy.

We expect that our leaders will have cultivated characters before entering public life and won’t make the kinds of mistakes we often see. We crave leaders who exhibit strong character, but exactly what does this mean? How can we measure whether our leaders have character?

Photo Credit: University of California-Irvine

President Lincoln illustrated the distinction between perception and reality when he poetically noted, “Perhaps a man’s character was like a tree and his reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” So how do we see the tree, rather than its shadow?

The answer to that is to find the tree and to know it, to test the strength of its bark, to assess the greenness of its leaves and to see how many birds sing in its branches. A person’s reputation may not reflect the reality. Our eyes may study a shadow down on the ground, when they should look upward, discerning for oneself.

Many persons of sound reputations have become fallen trees. Consider New York Governor Elliot Spitzer, Connecticut Governor John Rowland, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, U.S. Representative Michael Grimm, San Diego Mayor Bob Filner, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Massachusetts State Senator Dianne Wilkerson and even U.S. President Richard Nixon.

These people were known for their integrity. Many held multiple public offices or had been re-elected multiples times. They had solid reputations before they came into their public roles. Do their mistakes mean that they had poor characters all along?

Photo Credit: The Library of Congress
Photo Credit: The Library of Congress

American humanitarian Helen Keller said, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved.”

Many of those former public officials have sought to make amends for their poor choices. Nixon famously said during his interviews with David Frost, “As far as the handling of this matter is concerned, it was so botched up. I made so many bad judgments. The worst ones, mistakes of the heart, rather than the head. But let me say, a man in that top job, he’s got to have heart, but his head must always rule his heart.”

Character forms through failures and mistakes. Often, this vulnerable side of trial and error is hidden from that public reputation. While running for mayor of New York City, former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn chose to disclose her own prior struggles to overcome bulimia and alcoholism. U.S. President George W. Bush famously combated alcoholism himself before becoming a teetotaler. .

Former U.S. Senator Alan Simpson was arrested in his youth in incidents he later succinctly described as “I was just dumb and rebellious and stupid. And a different person.” He also noted, “The older your get, the more you realize…your own attitude is stupefying, and arrogant, and cocky, and a miserable way to live.”

Character manifests in what we do more than what we may say. As President Woodrow Wilson said, “If you will think about what you ought to do for other people, your character will take care of itself. Character is a by-product, and any man who devotes himself to its cultivation in his own case will become a selfish prig.”

In other words, focus on being the tree, rather than a shadow.


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