Day 1: Composition

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10 

CHARACTER PROTECTS 

YOUR TALENT 

 

Many people with talent make it into the limelight, but the ones who have neglected to develop 

strong character rarely stay there long. Absence of strong character eventually topples talent. Why? 

Because people cannot climb beyond the limitations of their character. Talented people are some- 

times tempted to take shortcuts. Character prevents that. Talented people may feel superior and ex- 

pect special privileges. Character helps them to know better. Talented people are praised for what 

others see them build. Character builds what’s inside them. Talented people have the potential to 

be difference makers. Character makes a difference for them. Talented people are often a gift to the 

world. Character protects that gift. 

 

DISCOVER 

 

Write out your own definition of “character.” 

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What has been your experience with taking shortcuts? How has taking shortcuts or refusing to take 

shortcuts impacted your reputation? 

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THE COMPONENTS OF CHARACTER 

 

People are like icebergs. There’s much more to them than meets the eye. When you look at an ice- 

berg, only about 15 percent is visible—that’s talent. The rest—their character—is below the surface, 

hidden. It’s what they think and never share with others. It’s what they do when no one is watching 

them. It’s how they react to terrible traffic and other everyday aggravations. It’s how they handle fail- 

ure—and success. The greater their talent is, the greater is their need for strong character “below 

the surface” to sustain them. If they are too “top heavy” with talent, then they are likely to get into 

trouble. 

 

Tim Elmore, who worked for me many years and is the founder and president of Growing Lead- 

ers, is the first person I heard compare character to an iceberg. When he speaks to college students, 

he often tells some little-known details about the infamous sinking of the Titanic: 

 

The huge and unsinkable ship received five iceberg warnings that fateful night of April 14, 1912, 

just before it went down. When the sixth message came in during the wee hours of the next 

morning, “Look out for icebergs,” the operator wired back, “Shut up! I’m busy.” Those were his 

last words over the wire before it all happened. Exactly thirty minutes later, the great vessel—the 

one whose captain said even God couldn’t sink this ship—was sinking . . . They underestimated 

the power of the iceberg and overestimated their own strength. What an accurate description of 

so many people today. 

 

No one can expect to succeed without strong character below the surface to protect his talent and 

sustain him during difficult times. Character holds us steady, no matter how rough the storm be- 

comes. Or to put it another way, as David McClendon did when we spent time together recently, “Character is the pedestal that determines how much weight a person can sustain. If your character 

is the size of a tooth pick, you can only sustain a postage stamp. If your character is as thick as a 

column, you can sustain a roof.” 

 

So what exactly comprises character? Ask a dozen people and you’ll get a dozen answers. I be- 

lieve it boils down to four elements: (1) self-discipline, (2) core values, (3) a sense of identity, and 

(4) integrity. Let’s consider each of them: 

 

1. Self-Discipline 

 

At the most basic level, self-discipline is the ability to do what is right even when you don’t feel 

like doing it. Outstanding leaders and achievers throughout history understood this. Greek philoso- 

pher Plato asserted, “The first and best victory is to conquer self.” 

 

The greatest victories are internal ones. Oswald Sanders, the author of the book on leadership 

that launched my personal journey as a leader, wrote that the future is with the disciplined. He said 

that without self-discipline, a leader’s other gifts—however great—will never realize their maximum 

potential. That’s true not only of leaders, but also of anyone who wants to reach his or her potential. 

Talent alone is never enough. A person must have talent plus character. The battle for self- 

discipline is won within. The notable mountain climber Sir Edmund Hillary observed, “It’s not the 

mountains we conquer, but ourselves.” 

 

One of the joys of my life is playing golf. I only wish my talent matched my passion! I have had 

the privilege of playing the East Lake course in Atlanta, home course of golf legend Bobby Jones, 

considered by some to be the greatest golfer who ever played the game. The clubhouse is filled with 

pictures of him playing and with many of his championship trophies. Yet many people don’t know 

that Jones’s most significant victory was over himself. 

 

Jones began playing golf at age five and won his first tournament at age six. By age twelve he was 

winning tournaments against adults. But Jones had a temper. His nickname was “Club Thrower.” 

An older gentleman called Grandpa Bart, who had retired from golf but worked in the pro shop, 

recognized Jones’s talent and his character issues. After Jones made it to the third round of the U.S. 

Amateur Championship, the older man advised, “Bobby, you are good enough to win that tour- 

nament, but you’ll never win until you can control that temper of yours. You miss a shot—you get 

upset—and then you lose.” Jones did master his temper and won his first U.S. Open when he was 

twenty-one. Grandpa Bart used to say, “Bobby was fourteen when he mastered the game of golf, but 

he was twenty-one when he mastered himself.” 

 

English theologian and orator Henry Parry Liddon observed, “What we do on some great occa- 

sion will probably depend on what we already are; and what we are will be the result of previous 

years of self-discipline.” The first step to strong character is conquering self. 

 

What part of your “self” do you need to conquer? (You may need to ask someone close to you to help 

you identify an area where you would benefit from self-discipline.) How will you develop self- 

discipline in this area of your life? 

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2. Core Values 

 

Our core values are the principles we live by every day. They define what we believe and how we 

live. Ideally we should write out our core values so that they can guide us. 

 

Write out your core values. 

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One person I most admire is John Wooden, the Hall of Fame former coach of UCLA’s basketball 

team. When he graduated from grade school at twelve years old, his father gave him a seven-point 

creed. From that time, Wooden has carried a written copy of that creed with him every day. Here is what it says: 

1. Be true to yourself. 

2. Help others. 

3. Make each day your masterpiece. 

4. Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible. 

5. Make friendship a fine art. 

6. Build a shelter against a rainy day. 

7. Pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings every day. 

I had read about the creed, and when I got to meet Coach Wooden, I asked him about it. Sitting 

in a restaurant at breakfast, he pulled a copy out of his pocket and showed it to me. Of course, 

since he has it memorized, he doesn’t need to carry a copy with him, but it has been his lifelong 

practice. Most important, he has always carried it in his heart and sought to live it out every day. 

 

Swiss philosopher Henri Frederic Amiel stated, “The man who has no inner life is the slave of his 

surroundings.” Core values give order and structure to an individual’s inner life, and when that 

inner life is in order, a person can navigate almost anything the world throws at him. 

 

3. A Sense of Identity 

 

When it comes to character, each of us must answer the critical question, “Who am I?” 

 

That answer often provides the motivation to practice self-discipline. It is fundamental for the iden- 

tification of core values. And it helps to establish emotional security. Our sense of security—or lack 

of it—often drives what we do. 

 

American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne recognized this truth: “No man can for any considerable 

time wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to 

which is the true one.” 

 

How do you identify yourself? Where does your personal value come from? What is your motivation 

as it relates to money and power? 

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If you live with a chip on your shoulder, believe deep down you have no intrinsic value, or see 

yourself as a victim, then you will have a distorted view of yourself and your surroundings. That, in 

turn, will impact your character. No matter how hard you try, you cannot consistently behave in a 

way that is inconsistent with how you see yourself. Thus, a strong and accurate sense of identity is 

essential. To paraphrase author Ruth Barton, people are set up to fail if they envision what they 

want to do before they figure out what kind of person they should be. 

 

4. Integrity 

 

The final component in strong character is integrity, which is an alignment of values, thoughts, feel- 

ings, and actions. People who possess the consistency that comes with strong integrity can be very 

compelling. In his book American Scandal, Pat Williams tells the story of Mohandas Gandhi’s trip to 

England to speak before Parliament. The British government had opposed Indian independence, 

and Gandhi, one of its most vocal proponents, had often been threatened, arrested, and jailed as a 

result. Gandhi spoke eloquently and passionately for nearly two hours, after which the packed hall 

gave him a standing ovation. 

 

Afterward, a reporter asked Gandhi’s assistant, Mahadev Desai, how the Indian statesman had 

been able to deliver such a speech without any notes. 

 

“You don’t understand Gandhi,” Desai responded. “You see, what he thinks is what he feels. 

What he feels is what he says. What he says is what he does. What Gandhi feels, what he thinks, 

what he says, and what he does are all the same. He does not need notes.” 

 

When values, thoughts, feelings, and actions are in alignment, a person becomes focused and 

his character is strengthened. Visually it could be represented by this: 

 

However, when these components aren’t aligned, a person experiences confusion and internal 

conflict, which look more like this: 

 

Developing talent without developing character is a dead end. It won’t take people where they 

want to go. The lives of people who are long on talent but short on character always get out of bal- 

ance. 

 

A joint study conducted by Korn/Ferry International and the UCLA Graduate School of Manage- 

ment asked 1,300 senior executives to identify the top trait needed to enhance a business execu- 

tive’s effectiveness. Coming in first was integrity. In second place was concern for results, with re- 

sponsibility third. What’s true for the boardroom is also true in the classroom, living room, or gym. 

If you want your talent to take you far, you need to protect that talent with integrity. 

 

CHARACTER COMMUNICATES 

 

The choice to develop strong character may not be the most important one to make the most of 

your talent. But it is certainly the most important to make sure you don’t make the least of your tal- 

ent. You can’t really underestimate its impact. Entrepreneur Roger Babson, who founded Babson 

College and Webber International University, asserted, “A character standard is far more important 

than even a gold standard. The success of all economic systems is still dependent upon both right- 

eous leaders and righteous people. In the last analysis, our national future depends upon our na- 

tional character—that is, whether it is spiritually or materially minded.” 

 

As I hope I’ve already made clear, character creates a foundation upon which the structure of your 

talent and your life can build. If there are cracks in that foundation, you cannot build much. That’s 

why you must first develop within before you can achieve much without. But once you build strong 

character, it does more than provide a platform for your personal success and the maximization of 

your talent. It also impacts others and allows you to build with them. It does that through what it 

communicates to people: 

 

1. Character Communicates Consistency 

 

Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead stated, “What people say, what people do, and what people 

say they do are entirely different things.” That is true of people who live without character, without 

integrity. Such people communicate confusion to others. They can say anything they like, but their 

actions determine the message we receive. 

 

How do you ensure that you will follow through on the commitments you make verbally? 

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It was philosopher-poet Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “What you do thunders so loudly in my 

ears I cannot hear what you say.” Amazingly there are people who actually promote this incon- 

sistency. Designer Ralph Lauren was quoted as saying, “The crux of a person’s identity . . . resides 

in the trappings, not in the person himself . . . One needn’t be well read, so long as one surrounds 

himself with books. One needn’t play the piano, so long as one has a piano. In short, one can be 

whoever one wants to be. Or—more accurately— one can seem to be whoever one wants to be.”¹ 

While one may be able to make an impression with “trappings,” the real person always comes 

through in the end. Impressions are like shadows—they disappear when a strong enough light is 

shone on them. Character is the genuine article—and the more you shine light on it, the more of its 

details you can see. Character shows that who you are and who you appear to be are one and the 

same, and that, according to Greek philosopher Socrates, is the first key to greatness. 

2. Character Communicates Choices 

 

Earlier in this chapter, I mentioned that Bobby Jones needed to overcome a terrible temper to suc- 

ceed at golf. Not only did Jones do that, but he actually became a model of sportsmanship and 

character. Both could be seen in his play. During the final play off of a U.S. Open tournament, 

Jones’s ball ended up in the rough just off the fairway. As he set up to play his shot, he accidentally 

caused his ball to move. He immediately turned to the marshals and announced the foul. The mar- 

shals discussed the situation among themselves. They hadn’t seen the ball move. Neither did any- 

one in the gallery. They left it up to Jones whether to take the penalty strokes, which he did. 

 

Later when a marshal commended Jones on his high level of integrity, Jones replied, “Do you 

commend a bank robber for not robbing a bank? No you don’t. This is how the game of golf should 

be played at all times.” Jones lost the match that day—by one stroke. But he didn’t lose his integrity. 

His character was so well known that the United States Golf Association’s sportsmanship award 

came to be named the Bob Jones Award. 

 

² It’s an interesting paradox. Our character creates our choices, yet our choices create our char- 

acter. Author and speaker Margaret Jensen observed, “Character is the sum total of all our everyday 

choices. Our character today is a result of our choices yesterday. Our character tomorrow will be a 

result of our choices today. To change your character, change your choices. Day by day, what you 

think, what you choose, and what you do is who you become.” Once you get a handle on the char- 

acter of a person, you can understand his choices and even predict what they will be. 

 

What choice—large or small—have you made that reflects poorly on you? What were the circum- 

stances surrounding this choice? How can you make better choices in the future? 

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3. Character Communicates Influence 

 

Today, many people try to demand respect. They believe that influence should be granted to them 

simply because they have position, wealth, or recognition. However, respect and influence must be 

earned over time, and they are built and sustained by character. First and foremost, influence is 

based on character. U.S. Army General J. Lawton Collins asserted, “No matter how brilliant a man 

may be, he will never engender confidence in his subordinates and associates if he lacks simple 

honesty and moral courage.” 

 

I’ve taught leadership for three decades, and I’ve written many books on it. During that time, I’ve 

tried to help people develop skills that will benefit them as leaders. However, all the skills in the 

world won’t assist someone whose character is hopelessly flawed. Experienced leaders understand 

this. Author Stephen Covey writes, 

 

If I try to use human influence strategies and tactics of how to get other people to do what I 

want, to work better, to be more motivated to like me and each other—while my character is 

fundamentally flawed, marked by duplicity or insincerity—then, in the long run, I cannot be suc- 

cessful. My duplicity will breed distrust, and everything I do—even using so called good human 

relations techniques—will be perceived as manipulative. 

 

It simply makes no difference how good the rhetoric is or even how good the intentions are; if 

there is little or no trust, there is no foundation for permanent success.³ 

 

Character cannot be inherited. It cannot be bought. It is impossible to weigh, and it cannot be 

physically touched. It can be built, but only slowly. And without it, one cannot lead others. 

 

4. Character Communicates Longevity 

 

If you want to know how long it will take to get to the top, consult a calendar. If you want to know 

how long it can take to fall to the bottom, try a stopwatch. Character determines which will happen. 

Dreams become shattered, possibilities are lost, organizations crumble, and people are hurt when a 

person doesn’t have character protecting his talent. Character provides the opportunity for longevity 

in any career, any relationship, and any worthwhile goal. 

 

Author and pastor J. R. Miller wrote, “The only thing that walks back from the tomb with the 

mourners and refuses to be buried is the character of a man. This is true. What a man is, survives 

him. It can never be buried.” If you want your talent to last, and if you want to sleep well at night, 

depend upon good character. Character protects your talent, and it also guards you from regret. 

TALENT + CHARACTER = A TALENT-PLUS PERSON 

PUTTING THE TALENT-PLUS FORMULA INTO ACTION 

 

Never forget that talent is a gift—either you have it or you don’t—but character is a choice. If you want it, you must develop it. Here’s how to become a talent-plus person in the area of character: 

 

1. Don’t Give Up or Give In to Adversity 

 

It takes character to weather life’s storms. At the same time, adversity develops character. 

 

Author and activist Helen Keller, who could not hear or see, remarked, “Character cannot be devel- 

oped in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, 

vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” 

 

Anyone who does what he must only when he is in the mood or when it is convenient isn’t going 

to develop his talent or become successful. The core foundation of character is doing what you 

don’t want to do to get what you want. It is paying a higher price than you wanted to for something 

worthwhile. It is standing up for your principles when you know someone is going to try to knock 

you down. Every time you face adversity and come through it with your core values affirmed and 

your integrity intact, your character becomes stronger. 

 

What challenge or adversity in your life is presenting an opportunity for you to develop your char- 

acter? How will you respond?  ______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ 

German philosopher-poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe observed, “Talent can be cultivated in 

tranquility; character only in the rushing stream of life.” The irony is that if you have never experi- 

enced the resistance of the rushing stream, then whatever talent you have cultivated in tranquility 

may not survive. If you want your talent to take you far, then don’t quit under duress. Don’t give up 

in the midst of a storm. Don’t bail out in the middle of conflict. Wait until the trouble is behind you 

before assessing whether it’s time to change course or stop. Do that, and you may have additional 

opportunities to develop your talent. 

 

2. Do the Right Thing 

 

Doing the right thing doesn’t come naturally to any of us. As America’s first president, George 

Washington, said, “Few men have virtue enough to withstand the highest bidder.” 

 

Yet that is what we must do to develop the kind of character that will sustain us. 

 

It’s not easy to do the right thing when the wrong thing is expedient. Molière commented, “Men 

are alike in their promises. It is only in their deeds that they differ. The difference in their deeds is 

simple: People of character do what is right regardless of the situation.” It’s not easy to do the right 

thing when it will cost you. It’s not easy to do the right thing when no one but you will know. But 

it’s in those moments that a person’s character becomes strong. Civil rights leader Martin Luther 

King Jr. asserted, 

Cowardice asks the question: Is it safe? 

Consensus asks the question: Is it popular? 

Character asks: Is it right? 

That is the bottom line. Are you going to do what’s right? 

 

One way that I’ve tried to control my natural bent to do wrong is to ask myself some questions 

(adapted from questions written by business ethicist Dr. Laura Nash⁴ ): 

1. Am I hiding something? 

2. Am I hurting anyone? 

3. How does it look from the other person’s point of view? 

4. Have I discussed this face-to-face? 

5. What would I tell my child to do? 

If you do the right thing—and keep doing it—even if it doesn’t help you move ahead with your 

talent in the short term, it will protect you and serve you well in the long term. 

 

Character builds—and it builds you. Or as Dr. Dale Bronner, a board member of my nonprofit or- 

ganization, EQUIP, puts it, “Honesty is not something you do; honesty is who you are.” 

 

3. Take Control of Your Life 

 

I have observed that the people with the weakest character tend to place the blame on their circum- 

stances. They often claim that poor upbringing, financial difficulties, the unkindness of others, or other circumstances have made them victims. It’s true that in life we must face many things outside 

our control. But know this: while your circumstances are beyond your control, your character is not. 

Your character is always your choice. 

 

People can no sooner blame their character on their circumstances than they can blame their 

looks on a mirror. Developing character is your personal responsibility. It cannot be given to you; 

you must earn it. Commit yourself to its development because it will protect your talent. Every time 

you make a character-based decision, you take another step toward becoming a talent-plus person. 

The process begins with deciding to make good character your goal and to stop making excuses. 

French writer François La Rochefoucauld asserted, “Almost all our faults are more pardonable than 

the methods we think up to hide them.” The process continues with the determination to manage 

that decision every day. 

 

You have God-given talent; develop it. You have opportunity before you; pursue it. You have a fu- 

ture that is bright; look forward to it. But above all else, you have the potential to become a person 

of character; follow through with it. Character, more than anything else, will make you a talent-plus 

person. It will protect everything in your life that you hold dear. 

 

DEVELOP 

 

Write down the incidents, circumstances, choices, and habits that have helped to create your 

character until now. Try to list everything you can think of. How many of the things on the list 

are beyond your control, and how many are the result of actions you took or choices you made? If 

many of the things you list are due to circumstances and other things beyond your control, then 

you need to take greater control of your life. Start by making a choice every day that will strength- 

en your character. (Note: these kinds of choices usually involve doing things you would rather 

not do.) 

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