The Content of our Character: Lincoln, MLK, Oprah, and Bart

I still read newspapers – the old-fashioned, paper kind. I had pulled out the front page of Monday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution on to read this morning because there was an article entitled “King’s Classmates Recall Young Leader.” King’s four years at Morehouse helped shape him, and he is quoted as writing in the student paper, “We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”

I suppose it’s not surprising, given that we’re all still in the throes of resolutions to be better versions of ourselves, but I have seen “character” everywhere I’ve looked since 2018 began. And as a person who believes that leadership is grounded in character, I’m probably more alert to the word than most.

I had my first big “character encounter” on Saturday, January 6th. I love Saturday mornings, because Saturday is newspaper heaven day – the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Atlanta Journal all arrive in our driveway before daybreak. I usually begin with the WSJ review section, I found, on page four of that section, an article by someone I’d never heard of – Christopher Miller, a professor of philosophy at Wake Forest. He is the author of a new book entitled The Character Gap – How Good Are We? He began the article, We Can Encourage Our Better Angels, with an idea I so agree with – there are twin poles of character – virtue and vice – that exist within us all. Our character isn’t carved in stone. Lincoln, who famously challenged us to summon the “better angels of our nature,” knew that we are complicated creatures.

In suggesting ways we might improve, Miller begins with probably my all-time favorite research study. I first came across this study in 2008 when I read a short piece in Harvard Business Review entitled How Honest People Cheat by the amazing Dan Ariely. Ariely and his team have studied how people just like you and me cheat. In this study, they took groups of about 35 and gave them 20 very tough math problems. Some groups were allowed to “grade their own papers,” and in those groups participants averaged six right. When researchers collected the tests and graded them, participants got fewer than four right. Ouch!

The fact that cheating is so ubiquitous is discouraging, but what STOPPED the cheating can be instructive to all of us. It’s instructive as well to everyone who leads an organization. Reminding people of their values – by having them sign an honor code or read the Ten Commandments before taking the test – eliminated cheating. Miller calls these Moral Reminders, and they are powerful in keeping our better angels front and center.

Miller also said that we should look to role models to help encourage our better selves – they “reshape our imagination, serve as great sources of wisdom and advice, and perhaps most important, inspire us to change our lives and become better people.” I didn’t watch the Golden Globes, but as soon as I woke up on January 8th and heard the news of Oprah’s speech, I knew the world had experienced a powerful role model in action. The quality of the words, and the intent behind them, brought tears.

On Sunday, the day before the Martin Luther King holiday, Bob and I arrived at our Sunday School class to discover that the expected teacher had the flu. I was disappointed. But Bart McMillan had agreed the day before to be an emergency stand-in, and I heard one of the most powerful presentations I have ever head anywhere. Bart said that because of the upcoming King birthday, he had spent the evening before reading King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which was delivered during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963.

Bart said that he’d never read the speech before. King begins with a reference to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the proclamation that had – on paper, at least – freed slaves one hundred years before, on January 1, 1863. So Bart looked up the Emancipation Proclamation. Then he decided to re-read the Declaration of Independence and the preamble to the Constitution, and on Sunday morning he read excerpts to us from those four powerful documents.

From the Declaration of Independence, in the second paragraph, Bart read, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

All listening knew that those words did not at the time apply to slaves and did not apply to women, but you also can’t hear those words without stirring the better version of yourself, and realizing that those words have been a moral touchstone we are still living into.

Bart also read to us the Preamble of the Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Wonderful words, but Bart reminded us that the Constitution, when written, applied to only some of us. In determining apportionment for the House of Representatives, population for the state was to be determined by “adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”

Bart read to us most of the Emancipation Proclamation, which Lincoln once described as the most important and morally righteous thing he would ever do. Although no slave was truly freed, the impact was far reaching. According to government archives:  “Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not immediately free a single slave, it captured the hearts and imagination of millions of African Americans, and fundamentally transformed the character of the war from a war for the Union into a war for freedom. Moreover, the proclamation announced the acceptance of black men into the Union army and navy, enabling the liberated to become liberators. By the end of the war, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought for the Union and freedom.” The proclamation is a “Moral Reminder” to this day.

The most rousing Moral Reminder, though, was King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered that hot August day forty-five years ago, Bart read it in full. I know our class membership is politically diverse in opinion, but King’s words speak to all and bring tears to all. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood… I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

We know by now that King was, like us, prone to human frailty. But he was also one of the most important moral leaders to ever live. He made us all better. He spoke to the best in us.

We are all noble and not so noble. We are all easily swayed. We need moral reminders, leaders and role models like Lincoln and King, and milieu’s that bring out our best. We need to remember that in every moment, we are responsible for the “content of our character.”

My favorite character-development story is supposedly an old Cherokee legend, and I’m sure you’ve heard it. I heard it this way, from Dr. Betty Siegel, maybe 15 years ago, when she had just heard it at a conference.

A small boy went to his grandfather and said, “Grandfather, it feels like there are wolves inside me. One is full of hatred, and envy, and arrogance, and greed. One, though, seems full of truth, and love, and kindness, and courage. Which one, Grandfather, is going to win?”

And his grandfather answered, “The one you feed.”

I’m hoping my personal focus on the content of MY character doesn’t wane with the winter chill. What can I do to encourage my “better angels” and feed the good wolves? What do you do?