Stregth of Character and the Measure of Greatness
One of Blackacre’s central themes is leadership, achievement and greatness and how can we as a society cultivate these qualities in ourselves and our children. The recent passing of Nelson Mandela affords yet another opportunity to explore these topics and the issue of human greatness.
Spending 27 years in a South African prison, Mandela not only freed an entire nation form the grip of apartheid, but upon his release he assumed leadership of the very country that imprisoned him. Just as remarkable, rather than seek vengeance against those who trespassed against him, Mandela, forgave his oppressors. He sought to do that which others before him refused to do, unite rather than divide South Africans.
In this country, a leader who connects us rather than separates us is sorely needed. Also needed is the development of policies designed to develop new leadership and strategies aimed at inculcating character and values in youth who seem lost. Hence, the topics of leadership, character, greatness and human potential are always timely.
So how did Mandela do it? How did he survive almost three decades behind bars for advocating freedom and equality for all people? How is it that the experience did not embitter him, warp and corrode his essence? What precisely is the strength of character that propelled Mandela and others like him to focus not on revenge, but to instead change the world?
One of my favorite books is “No Matter What 9 Steps to Living the Life You Love”, by Lisa Nichols. The book identifies nine character muscles and how to strengthen and enhance them. The character muscles include: 1) the bounce back muscle, 2) the understanding muscle, 3) the faith in myself muscle, 4) the take action muscle, 5) the know like I know muscle, 6) the honesty muscle, 7) the say yes muscle, 8) the forgiveness muscle and 9) the highest choice muscle. This analysis supplies a sound framework for examining the issue of character and how to strengthen same.
Develop these muscles and you will indeed create a stalwart core. However, the subtle nuances, degrees and shades of greatness make articulating the measures and metrics thereof a more difficult task.
Real greatness may be measured not by large victories, but by small ones, not by group activities but by individual accomplishments. Greatness may not be what is achieved but what is endeavored.
The shedding of a tear rather than emotional implacability, holding up one’s end even as others drop theirs, the creation of works of great beauty by the sightless, the running of a race by those without legs, standing when others have fallen or the simple act of survival might well be acts of greatness. The single mother who raises her children into responsible adults or the father, who stays in the home to ensure that his family is cared for and protected, when it would be far easier to leave also bear the mark of greatness.
What is known is that true greatness always rises to the occasion. Calm in the face of a storm, greatness is benevolence, humility, wisdom and resolve. It takes no courage to abandon one’s posts or to kill someone because of their sexual preference, the color of their skin or the clothes they wear. Rather, greatness is forgiving, as Mandela forgave those who imprisoned him, as Lincoln forgave those who opposed him. Equally material, forgiving oneself is a fundamental requisite of greatness.
Never quick to anger, greatness is neither loud nor flashy; neither proud nor boastful. It has no desire to be the center of attention and requires no cluster, no following and no band of sycophants. It need not be noticed or appreciated. Greatness can stand on its own two feet. Greatness can walk alone.
Hence, greatness is not the search for power or glory although it may result in both. The same is true of accolades and recognition, approval and acceptance. Winning an Oscar or the Super Bowl are not doubt important personal and professional achievements. But, they do not make the recipient a good, kind or even deserving person. In fact, they may prove just the opposite.
In addition, the accumulation of material possessions bears no relation to greatness. What matters most is what one gives, what one contributes, what one offers the world?
Still, there will always be haters and detractors, regardless of the good that is done. Greatness is therefore the courage to love, even if that love is unrequited, unappreciated, ignored or worse abused. Those who achieve greatness rest secure in the knowledge that the power of love lies in the giving, not its receipt.
Fortunately, perfection is not required. Nor is it preferred. Bad things happen to good people all the time. Even the most deserving know only too well failure, defeat and embarrassment. Their motives, character, veracity and sanity are oft times questioned. Consequently even the Saints fall from grace. Ulysses S Grant for example was a sot who was expelled from West Point. He nevertheless led the Union Army to victory in the Civil War and became the 18th President of the United States.
The lesson here is that greatness is measured not by what happens to you, but how you deal with it. It is the very act of overcoming one’s shortcomings, one’s sorry history that leads to greatness. As the book “No Matter What” notes, “everything that happens to you had to happen just the way it did to make you the person you are.” Blackacre would slightly amend this passage to read “everything that happens to you good or bad, had to happen just the way it did in order to prepare you to do that which must be done, to accomplish that which you and only you are destined to accomplish.” Failing badly but rising nevertheless is a hallmark of greatness.
In conclusion, the measure of greatness is more that a determination to do something significant, something meaningful. It is the unshakable belief in a purpose far greater than oneself. It is the irrefutable conviction in the righteousness of that purpose and the unflinching faith in one’s ability to fulfill said purpose.
Strength of character is the steadfast determination, the ineffable will, and the indisputable moral grit to face one’s destiny without complaint, to persevere no matter what; to endure whatever one must and to do whatever it takes to achieve a higher purpose. Finally, greatness is the ethical and moral bearing necessary to do this and more in a manner that brings honor and dignity to the cause and all associated with it.
Possessed by Mandela, exhibited by Mother Theresa, demonstrated by Lincoln and practiced by Gandhi, this is what so many feebly if not hopelessly aspire to yet woefully lack. As the German writer and politician Wolfgang von Goethe observed “for a man to achieve all that is required of him, he must regard himself as greater than he is.” Thus, daring to be great is both the price and the measure of greatness.
Leo Barron Hicks, Founder and President, Blackacre Policy Forum.