Spilled M&Ms© 5 – Delayed Character Revelation [FP]

“Ability may get you to the top, but it takes character to keep you there,” John Wooden (10 time National Champion UCLA basketball coach)

That’s not a normally perceived relationship between ability (Competence) and Character.  We tend to focus more closely on competence than on character, looking at the ‘What’ that was accomplished rather than focusing on the ‘How’ or the ‘Why.’

One reason is that the ‘What’s’ tend to be measurable if not tangible.  We can look back on the things someone accomplished, or Did.

The other reason is that the ‘How’ may not be visible and the internal ‘Why’ never revealed.  Character is much more ephemeral.  It is easier to hide, to camouflage, easier to disguise.

Character takes time to fully develop, and as parents and teachers we are (or should be) very conscious of our role in contributing to this developmental process in those under our responsibility.  Once becoming adults, we hope they (“like us”) become responsible to continue the molding and tweaking of character.

Discovering the already developed character in someone else is a different process.  We all tend to display our positive attributes selectively (as in the Games We Play or in trying to meet the expectations set by our clan and tribe).  But under adversity or over extended time when our guard is down, other stuff begins to come out.

When F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby he used an unusual and specific technique called Delayed Character Revelation.  The reader initially hears of the legendary Gatsby as his friends knew of him, by reputation, as he wished to be seen. But bit-by-bit, the real Gatsby was revealed – he first speaks in Chapter 3, his childhood is revealed only in Chapter 6, and his criminal activities in Chapter 7.  Steven Spielberg used a similar technique in the movie Jaws to delay the audience’s first glimpse of the shark.

It seems odd that selective (and delayed) character revelation, such a common human behavior, should end up being an unusual and specifically identified literary technique (The Great Gatsby is the only specific reference I found).  However, Delayed Character Revelation is, if you think about it, quite a common occurrence and device used in major literary works.  It is commonly called Character Development, as if something is being improved rather than revealed.  Oh, if it were only so, in real life.

I referred to this Delayed Character Revelation in a previous post as being an active process in how we select childhood friends; make friendships during our youth and throughout life; and how we come to know our spouses better in the early years of marriage.  It also plays a role in discovering the nature of the culture of the organization we work for.  It is so common, I think, that the principle of Delayed Character Revelation deserves recognition alongside the principle of “Character Trumps Competence.”  I’ll call it Fundamental Principle 12b:

Character, like values, has hidden components that only get revealed slowly and under duress.

Hidden character traits and hidden values are inexorably linked: when stress forces hidden Values to surface, hidden character surfaces also.

One of the reasons John Wooden was so successful is that he placed his primary focus on developing Practiced Behaviors based on Character.  “Our character is what we truly are, while our reputation is merely what others perceive us to be” (John Wooden).

Put another way, while we openly and freely promote and manage our reputation, who we want people to think we are, we guard elements of our character, who we really are, carefully and reveal them only slowly.

How closely aligned is your reputation and your character?

Working on this alignment brought success into John Wooden’s work environment and his teams.  What is it producing in yours?


About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
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