Character: The Coin of the Realm

“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”
Marcus Aurelius

     There is a famous story of a nobleman, Sir Philip Sidney, who, fighting for his beloved England in the sixteenth century, was mortally wounded on the battlefield. Though he was desperately thirsty from loss of blood, he chose to do the unexpected and gave away his water flask to a dying young soldier. His final words, “Thy necessity is yet greater than mine,” serve as a stark contrast to how the majority of people of power, privilege, and position of his era would have likely acted in that moment, had they found themselves facing the same choice.

     Examples of leaders like Sir Philip Sydney provide us with living, breathing definitions of character. And although we use this word frequently, we rarely take the time to fully unpack and understand it, despite its almost unquantifiable significance to us as human beings.


    The word character derives from a Greek word that means “to mark,” which originates from the centuries-old practice of engraving the likeness of important figures on metal coins. Be it emperors, kings, or heroes, the appearance of a distinctive, difficult-to-forge caricature on silver or some other form of precious metal was designed to build trust and facilitate mutually beneficial transactions between people.  

     Character continues to do the same for us today.

     In simplest terms, your character is how you choose to walk in the world. It’s the inward values that determine outward actions. It’s what defines you as a person, both inside and out. Although there is no consensus on a definition of character or agreement on the best way to develop character, I find the following description written years ago by an anonymous author summarizes it best: Everything begins in our mind as a thought. Our thoughts become our words. What we choose to think and say influence our actions. Our actions become our habits. Our habits constitute our character and our character is what ultimately shapes our legacy. Character then, is the sum of the choices we make in life, for better or worse.”    

     Study after study continues to validate the premium we place on character. In research involving twenty-five thousand leaders rated by more than two hundred thousand evaluators, character was identified as the quintessential quality that distinguishes great performers from the rest of the pack. Similarly, an independent study conducted by the Corporate Leadership Council found that team members identified character as the most desirable attribute for both coworkers and supervisors alike. 

     As important as character is for us we must recognize becoming and staying a leader with character is not a static phenomenon. Character evolves and grows stronger (for better or worse) on an ongoing basis. You cannot expect to read a leadership book, go to a training seminar or sit through a Sunday sermon and suddenly be transformed into a leader with character.  Becoming someone others believe in, want to follow and ideally, want to emulate, is a life-long pursuit. It’s a process of personal development and refinement that leads you to make excellence the hallmark of your life.

     So what can you do to invest in your character development? Consider starting by asking yourself these three questions:

  1. Evaluate your life. Are you living by your guidelines? An important step in strengthening your character is taking an inventory of your past behaviors/choices and more importantly, your current behaviors and choices. Are you thinking and acting in line with your values—your deeply held beliefs that describe the person you strive to be? If you answer yes, then commit to staying the course. But if you answer no, then you need to ask yourself some hard questions about why you’re making the choices you are and determining what you can begin doing differently to get you back on track.
  2. Do your actions match your intentions? Sociologists tell us that even the most introverted person in the world will influence at least 10,000 people in their lifetime. No matter who you are, where you work, or what title, position, rank, or role you possess, you will leave your mark, for good or bad, on scores of people. It’s easy to lose sight of the significant impact you have on others and as a result, you may forget to pause from time-to-time to assess if your “talk” is consistently matching your “walk.” Do your actions and intentions align? If not, why not?     
  3. Ask yourself, what needs to change…and then move out! After acknowledging where you may be making choices that lead you to act inconsistently with the person you strive to be, then commit to doing something about it. For example, do you desire to be more honest with others? Are you ready to let go of manipulating others to get what you want from them? Whatever changes you plan to make, write them down. Ponder them. Then resolve to do something about them…one choice at a time. 

     Character is not a light switch of sorts that we simply turn on or off. It takes work to become the person we want to be and others deserve to see. Fortunately, every day we encounter situations that present a different experience and opportunity to learn and deepen character.  The question is, what will you choose to do with these opportunities?

Coin of the Realm -

John E. Michel is a widely recognized expert in culture, strategy & individual and organizational change. An accomplished unconventional leader and proven status quo buster, he has successfully led several multi-billion dollar transformation efforts and his award-winning work has been featured in a wide variety of articles and journals, including the Harvard Business Review. John enjoys helping people learn to walk differently in the world so they can become the best version of themselves possible. You are encouraged to learn more about John at his website,