“One can easily judge the character of a person by the way they treat people who can do nothing for them.” – Source Unknown
As a pastor and also film producer, I’ve had the opportunity to lead and develop a wide array of people and personalities in my going on close to twenty years of experience in the work force. Recently I was asked, “What separates people who make it from those who don’t?”
Hmmm….the temptation is to start rambling off an unending list of reasons why some fail to achieve success and why others don’t. Lack of knowledge, lack of resources, missed opportunities, and a million other reasons could be cited. But what is behind all of these reasons? What really dictates someone’s success?
To begin with, it might be necessary to define success. By success, I don’t mean “becoming famous” or “making lots of money”, though these things may follow someone’s success. For me, success is much more holistic and all-encompassing. I define success as “discovering and living your full potential”, something I believe is God-given and rooted in our identity in him. As the Bible says, “There is a way to prosper that is not of God.” Certainly, there are those who gain wealth without character, but I find that they are never satisfied and often find themselves completely unfulfilled at the end of their life. So what separates the two?
Recently I was speaking with a business owner of a mid-sized finance firm who was dealing with a disgruntled employee. The owner had poured countless hours over the last year into personally training one individual only for the employee to be frustrated that he wasn’t allowed to “do more”. As I understand, technically the employee had the certification to perform the tasks, but the owner felt that this protégé needed a little more time shadowing him before he could fully release the employee on his own. “He has more financial knowledge than any of my employees,” the owner confided in me, “But there are a couple areas of customer management and social maturity that I would like to see him grow in first. Knowledge isn’t everything in this business!”
From the employee’s standpoint, he feels ready, but the employer isn’t sold. So what causes the disconnect?
I’ve seen this same scenario with literally hundreds of leaders. The mentor pours out his knowledge and, with much zeal, the mentee absorbs it all. Often though, frustration sets in. Why? Because knowledge was gained, but character was not. The employee or protégé may possess the ability (knowledge), but lack the capacity (character).
Take a water balloon for instance. The amount of water that can be retained is limited by the strength of the skin of the balloon. Fill the balloon too much, and the skin bursts. The same is true for the relationship between knowledge and character. Our depth of character determines our ability to hold and master the increase of knowledge. Sure you can turn on the faucet full-force, but you’re going to end up with a mess if you’re character isn’t strong enough to contain and utilize all of the information.
As a young pastor, I too experienced this same phenomenon. I remember attending a session led by one of my mentors along with a dozen other men. After hearing one middle-aged gentleman open up about his personal struggles and conclude with an elementary question about the topic, with a big smile I chimed in with the right text book answer. (I was only 22 at the time.) When the session concluded my mentor pulled me aside, I assumed to congratulate me on my understanding of the subject matter. Instead I received a compassionate explanation on how my answer was right, but poorly delivered and wrongly timed (and most likely offensive to the man more than twice my age I was schooling). I was devastated at first by my mentor’s words, but in hindsight, it was a major turning point in my personal development and practical understanding of emotional intelligence.
In the book of Romans, we learn that “endurance produces character” . This should be distinguished from “experience building character”. Experiences can’t teach you anything. Many people go through trying times and learn nothing, but others seem to become stronger. Why? The reason is endurance! Endurance is the ability to persevere in the face of a challenge. It is how we strengthen our character. You can only learn so much through knowledge, eventually it must become experiential.
So what then is character? It’s many things, which is why some have trouble developing it. It isn’t just a task to complete, but rather a thing to embody. I love this quote from Abraham Lincoln, “Reputation is the shadow, character is the tree.” Character is about how you treat people, whether or not you complain, how you fill your time, it’s about your moral makeup, your compassion and feelings for other people, your values, it’s about whether or not you can be trusted; character is about your heart!
For Honest Abe, the definition of our character is found in our reputation, what he called “the shadow.” Proverbs 22:1 says, “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.” Unfortunately, in zeal and youthfulness, it’s easy to overlook the importance of character in pursuit of the value of success. In reality, true success is found in the embodiment of true character; they’re inseparable.
To the mentees, trainees, and protégés of the world I say this – don’t just grow in knowledge, but take the time to also grow in character. Develop a reputation that is defined by honesty, compassion, morality, integrity, and love. As the Apostle Paul says, “knowledge puffs up while love builds up.” Bottom line, you’re never “ready” for the next opportunity, but you can prepare. Gaining opportunities or becoming elevated in life, prior to preparing your heart, can cause irreversible damage on those around you and ultimately within your own person. So before you get frustrated and start talking bad about your mentor or boss who is holding you back, keep in mind, they may very well be doing you a tremendous favor. As you prepare your mind, don’t forget to take time to prepare your heart!
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