Getting To Character

Getting To Character


Leonard Zwelling

David Brooks has written an insightful column in The New York Times (AUG 30) about Jim Mattis, the former Secretary of Defense under Donald Trump. General Mattis is a U.S. Marine and adheres to the behavior so characteristic of Marines–sacrifice, devotion to duty and country, and a bit of stoicism. How else could so fine an American work for so awful an American as Donald Trump for so long?

Apparently General Mattis has a book coming out about his life called Call Sign Chaos which he wrote with Bing West. Brooks discusses important aspects of the book. They are worthy of consideration when thinking about leadership and what character traits are integral parts of good leaders.

Brooks discusses Mattis’ loyalty and how his loyalty to those he commands engenders loyalty for him in them.

Mattis loved being with the troops on the battlefield—far more than he enjoyed sitting behind a desk in the Pentagon. He understood those he commanded. He had done what they were doing.

He is a voracious reader, consuming classical texts about the regions in the world where his troops were doing battle. He loves the Marines and thus, the Marines love him back. This love creates reliability. People know they can depend on you as commander and you can then depend upon them. He also puts himself second to the institution in which he is operating. This is becoming ever more rare as narcissistic leaders seek to preserve themselves more than they are dedicated to what and who they are leading.

Brooks uses an extended quote from another book, James Davison Hunter’s, The Death of Character:

Good character “requires the conviction of truth made sacred…reinforced by habits institutionalized within a moral community. Character, therefore, resists expedience; it defies hasty acquisition.”

Finally, Brooks notes that Mattis barely mentions Trump in his book although the general has not commented about his time in the Trump Administration. Brooks wishes he would—before the 2020 election season blasts off.

I have been thinking about many of these things for years. I wondered what I did wrong and what I did right as a leader. Even now I reflect back on things I did that suggested I had good character traits and others I did which suggested the opposite. No one is perfect. Any leader who claims to have never made an error is kidding himself.

But more than that, I wonder if this elusive thing called character can be assessed at the time when a leader is being sought. What do you look for when you are looking for a leader?

First, you better know what the character of your institution really is. Not what you think it is, what it really is. In other words, you’ve got to ask all of those people who will be getting a new leader, what they are looking for in that leader. What would inspire them? What would increase trust?

Second, once you know what you’re looking for, you better assess the candidates for those character traits. I feel surely in the past that those in Austin responsible for picking leaders of the health care institutions in the UT System have done a poor job of this. Turnover has not been uncommon in Houston.

It has been uncommon at MD Anderson. There have only been five MD Anderson presidents since its inception. Have they all reflected the core values of MD Anderson while they were in office? Some. Some less so. I will let you judge.

I think it is these issues of character that are so important to convey to those seeking new leaders. Anyone can read a cv and see what a candidate has published or lectures he gave or committees he sat on or awards he garnered. What I would want to know in a possible new president or dean or chief administrator is about his or her character. That’s what I focus on when asked to give feedback about candidates.

I am going to go out on a limb and posit that the American people are about to go into the character assessment mode in preparation for voting in November of 2020. President Trump has lots of faults and says lots of silly things. He is an inarticulate poor thinker who seems to establish no loyalty among those he leads. He certainly bashes them on the way out the door.

General Mattis, as David Brooks points out, is the man Trump wishes he was. Trump can never be that man. His character was misshapen along the way and he can never recover. Let’s hope the Democrats can work to unearth the true character of their potential nominees and choose the anti-Trump. Someone like General Mattis would be a good pick.

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