Why character matters as much as craft

I once had lunch with a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was more or less my dad’s age. I had great respect for his deep commitment to impartial reporting and found his immense filing cabinet of memory impressive. So it was very unfortunate when he said suddenly that he wanted to . . . me, using a verb that begins with “f.”  He then added that what his wife didn’t know couldn’t hurt her.

After that, his bylines no longer evoked the kind of admiration it used to.

Success as we know it – scientific discoveries, performance of political duties or running a profitable business – doesn’t seem to require any personal integrity or strength of character.

Examples abound. Albert Einstein made a written request to his first wife that she keep his laundry in order and stop talking when told (she was also never to use his desk). Steve Jobs – and I say this as a loyal Apple fan – could be “one of the world’s worst managers” and be “very, very mean to people at times,” according to his biographer Walter Isaacson.

We tend to forgive their egomania and overlook their personal transgressions, because we place so much more value on their craft than character. And as a friend of mine once said over the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Bill Clinton was not responsible to her as a husband.

Success is also visible, while strength of character is not, so we ignore what we can’t easily see.

Some even argue that success requires one not be bound by moral responsibilities. Politicians could not rise to high office without first excelling at the dark art of diplomacy. The financial industry continues to encourage traders to take out-of-control risks.

At a deeper level, there is no incentive for being a good person in the world.  So the quality of a basic decency – integrity or private morality or ethics, call it as you wish – becomes increasingly neglected, even though it is this quality that helps us decide what is right and what is wrong, as we weather life’s rough storms.

Superstars who have mastered their crafts are more than the sum of their accomplishments to us. They embody inspiration, the best of what we can be, admittedly so as a result of marketing.  They are role models, nonetheless, especially for youths.  So what they do in backstage matters. It matters in the same way that domestic violence taking place behind closed doors matters to us all.

Those who live in the public eye demand privacy; and privacy is sacred, especially as fast developing technologies blur and diminish the line between the public and the private. But that doesn’t mean that we mustn’t expect integrity from public figures.

The point where public good outweighs an individual’s right to privacy is clear than ever, even as the distinction between the public and the private continues to break down.

Fundamentally, I don’t believe that who we are as a person is influenced by whether we find ourselves at home or in the office. The individual who acts in private is ethically and in essence the same as the individual who acts in public. Any discrepancy is hypocrisy.

Character flaws in backstage are bound to manifest themselves in front stage (as my mom would say, a bucket that leaks inside the house does not stop leaking just because you take it outside of it). This is not to say that we should show up at work armed with our personal beliefs and impose them on our coworkers – like Paul Ryan did during the vice presidential debate when he said he didn’t see how anyone could separate their public and private lives, and that our faith informs everything we do.

Lack of sympathy and a compromised sense of right and wrong, prodded by hubris can impair judgment at home and in the office alike, like smearing Vaseline on the lens can impair vision anywhere we go.

The latest explosive sex scandal at BBC, involving a former high-profile TV personality, or the devastating Sandusky affair that brought Penn State under fire showcases the failure of executives and educators to protect vulnerable young people from sexual exploitation by their own people, because they were blinded by the need to protect the institutions’ reputation.

JP Morgan Chase’s loss of $6 billion this past spring was precisely due to overconfident, self-indulging, narcissistic behavior that downplayed risks.

Personal integrity matters just as much as professional success does, because it’s about who we are. The two are deeply interwoven and account for the whole individual. And we shouldn’t have to choose one over the other.  We should expect both.

In fact, character can strengthen and cultivate professional success. Research has shown that in the long-term, high school students most likely to succeed as adults are not those with high-flying test scores, but the ones with character strengths, such as optimism, sympathy and persistence.

About the journalist with the unfortunate proposition, I did not see him again.

© Katrin Park and Ex Nemo, 2013. Unauthorized use or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.

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