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Four advance clues about character

I run a leadership programme. One of the key aims is to help leaders, current and future, develop a deep understanding of strategy. I have been a strategy advisor for much of my life, and love the subject deeply. Nonetheless, I always end the strategy module with the following quotation from US General Norman Schwarzkopf:

“Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy.”

Over time, reluctantly, I have come to accept the primacy of character in leadership, and in human life in general. Cleverness, knowledge, expertise – all are nothing in the absence of character.

Character is so important to all of us when we assess people in which to invest. Whether we are choosing a life partner, a co-investor, a boss, a key employee, a friend: we all need to know whether the person we are picking will turn out to be honest, reliable, and decent. It is vital; no one wants to be saddled with a deceitful, dishonest, unreliable person for key roles in life.

And yet it is so difficult to tell in advance whether a person is of good character. These days, pretty much everyone seems able to spin a tale, play the part, pretend to be good. Many are masking severe character defects, but in many cases we will only find out too late, once vows or contracts have been exchanged.

So is there any way of being able to gauge character in advance? Are there any clues that reveal, without believing what the person we are eyeing says, whether he or she is somewhat saintly or seriously sinful? Today, let me share a few such clues with you, based on a lifetime of assessing people and their character.

First: pay a lot of attention to how people behave with those who can’t do anything useful for them. Manipulative folks are typically sweetness itself with people from whom they wish to gain something; but they are sour and vinegary towards those who can’t benefit them. So watch what your potential life or business partner does with receptionists, waiters, watchmen and other ordinary folk. Are they even noticed, let alone appreciated? Compare this with the style adopted with senior folk. If your person of interest “kisses up and kicks down,” this is probably someone who’ll kick you away once he or she no longer needs you.

Second, look at how your person of interest behaves in regard to charity. Does helping others even occur to this person? And is it just a thought or an actual action? Is money – or more importantly, time – ever actually donated to those from whom no reward can be obtained? Most critically, is every act of charity trumpeted and talked about, or just done quietly and without fanfare or publicity? That itself speaks volumes about character.

Thirdly, look out for this: the person who’s ALWAYS on time for meetings with people of higher station in life; and inevitably late when it’s underlings who are waiting.

Lastly: how does this person behave when spending other people’s money, compared to his or her own? Is your target free and fulsome on company expense accounts or with taxpayers’ money – but a total scrooge with her own? Does he order the best food and drinks when someone else is paying, but come over all frugal and prudent when it’s coming out of his own pocket? Watch this one; it’s very revealing.

If you’re able to spend some time with someone before you commit to them – in love, investment, employment or friendship – try looking for my four clues about character. They may spare you much grief down the road.

Finally, watch out for the person who reads this column today and starts suddenly demonstrating all four traits from tomorrow…

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  • Nelson Mukuna

    I tell you Sunny, people don’t always want to see these things because the deem them a waste of time or are too blinded by the log in their eyes. It is better to walk fast and cover a satisfactory distance than to walk far with the wrong person.

  • Yori B

    Reminds me I once went on a date with what seemed a handsome gentleman – up until the time he insulted a waiter. He dropped me at my doorstep with the great hope that he would see me again. Decades later he must still be wondering what hit him. And this one former colleague that once transited my city on a duty trip. He then snatched a bill I paid at dinner and I figured he would include that in his trip expenses claim. He somehow lasted three more years before he was fired..for fraud I bet!

  • Vincent Oduor

    Well put Sunny.

  • Steve

    Most Kenyan politicians will fail this tests over and over! Dump the electorate after winning in polls, use of public funds etc

  • Christine Muindu

    I like this article on character. It’s true and very relevant.

  • With the current wave of fraud in Kenya, this is exactly what is ailing us.