The most significant indicator of people’s character comes through their actions over time. Despite what people say about the lessons they have learned (see Howard Hughes), and how they have changed over the years, you will inevitably notice the same actions and decisions repeating in the course of their life. In these decisions they reveal their character. You must take notice of any salient forms of behavior— disappearing when there is too much stress, not completing an important piece of work, turning suddenly belligerent when challenged, or, conversely, suddenly rising to the occasion when given responsibility. With this fixed in your mind, you do some research into their past. You look at other actions you have observed that fit into this pattern, now in retrospect. You pay close attention to what they do in the present. You see their actions not as isolated incidents but as parts of a compulsive pattern. If you ignore the pattern it is your own fault
You must always keep in mind the primary corollary of this law: people never do something just once. They might try to excuse themselves, to say they lost their heads in the moment, but you can be sure they will repeat whatever foolishness they did on another occasion, compelled by their character and habits. In fact, they will often repeat actions when it is completely against their self-interest, revealing the compulsive nature of their weaknesses.
Cassius Severus was an infamous lawyer-orator who flourished in the time of the Roman Emperor Augustus. He first gained attention with his fiery speeches that attacked high-ranking Romans for their extravagant lifestyles. He gained a following. His style was bombastic but full of humor that pleased the public. Encouraged by the attention he received, he began to insult other officials, always raising the tone of his attacks. The authorities warned him to stop. The novelty wore off and the crowds grew thinner, but this only made Severus try harder.
Finally the authorities had had enough—in AD 7 they ordered his books to be burned and him to be banished to the island of Crete. To the dismay of the Roman authorities, on Crete he simply continued his obnoxious campaign, sending copies to Rome of his latest diatribes. They warned him yet again. He not only ignored this, but he began to harangue and insult local Cretan officials, who wanted him put to death. In AD 24 the Senate wisely banished him to the unpopulated rock of Serifos in the middle of the Aegean Sea. There he would spend the last eight years of his life, and we can imagine him still concocting more insulting speeches that no one would hear.
It is hard for us to believe that people cannot control tendencies that are so self-destructive, and we want to give them the benefit of the doubt, as the Romans did. But we must remember the wise words in the Bible: “Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool that repeats his folly.”
You can see eloquent signs of people’s character in how they handle everyday affairs. If they are late in finishing simple assignments, they will be late with larger projects. If they become irritated by little inconveniences, they will tend to crumble under larger ones. If they are forgetful on small matters and inattentive to details, they will be so on more important ones. Look at how they treat employees in everyday settings and notice if there are discrepancies between the persona they present and their attitude toward underlings
In 1969 Jeb Magruder came to San Clemente for a job interview in the Nixon administration. The man giving the interview was Bob Haldeman, chief of staff. Haldeman was very earnest, completely devoted to the Nixon cause, and impressed Magruder with his honesty, sharpness, and intelligence. But as they left the interview to get in a golf cart for a tour of San Clemente, Haldeman suddenly became frantic—there were no carts available. He railed at those in charge of the carts, and his manner was insulting and harsh. He was almost hysterical. Magruder should have seen this incident as a sign that Haldeman was not what he appeared, that he had control issues and a vicious streak, but charmed by the aura of power at San Clemente and wanting the job, he chose to ignore this, much to his later dismay.
In everyday life people can often do well at disguising their character flaws, but in times of stress or crisis these flaws can suddenly become very apparent. People under stress lose their normal selfcontrol. They reveal their insecurities about their reputation, their fear of failure and lack of inner resilience. On the other hand, some people rise to the occasion and reveal strength under fire. There’s no way to tell until the heat is on, but you must pay extra attention to such moments.
Similarly, how people handle power and responsibility will tell you a lot about them. As Lincoln said, “If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” On the way to gaining power, people will tend to play the courtier, to seem deferential, to follow the party line, to do what it takes to make it to the top. Once at the top, there are fewer restraints and they will often reveal something about themselves you had not noticed before. Some people stay true to the values they had before attaining a high position—they remain respectful and empathetic. On the other hand, far more people suddenly feel entitled to treat others differently now that they have the power.
That is what happened to Lyndon Johnson once he attained a position of ultimate security in the Senate, as Senate majority leader. Tired of the years he had to spend playing the perfect courtier, he now relished the power he had to upset or humiliate those who had crossed him in the past. Now he would go up to such a senator and make a point of talking only to his assistant. Or he would get up and leave the floor when a senator he did not like was giving an important speech, making other senators follow him. In general there are always signs of these character traits in the past if you look closely enough (Johnson had revealed such nasty signs in the earliest parts of his political career), but, more important, you need to take notice of what people reveal once they are in power. So often we think that power has changed people, when in fact it simply reveals more of who they are.
People’s choice of spouse or partner says a lot about them. Some look for a partner they can dominate and control, perhaps someone younger, less intelligent or successful. Some choose a partner they can rescue from a bad situation, playing the savior role, another form of control. Yet others look for someone to fill the mommy or daddy role. They want more pampering. These choices are rarely intellectual; they reflect people’s earliest years and attachment schemas. They are sometimes surprising, as when people select someone who seems very different and outwardly incompatible, but there is always an internal logic to such choices. For instance, a person has a tremendous fear of being abandoned by the one they love, reflecting anxieties from infancy, and so they select a person who is noticeably inferior in looks or intelligence, knowing that person will cling to them no matter what.
Another realm to examine is how people behave in moments away from work. In a game or sport they might reveal a competitive nature that they cannot turn off. They have a fear of being overtaken in anything, even when they are driving. They must be ahead, out in front. This can be channeled functionally into their work, but in off hours it reveals deep layers of insecurities. Look at how people lose in games. Can they do so graciously? Their body language will say a lot on that front. Do they try whatever they can to circumvent the rules or bend them? Are they looking to escape and relax from work or to assert themselves even in such moments?
In general, people can be divided into introverts and extroverts, and this will play a large role in the character they develop. Extroverts are largely governed by external criteria. The question that dominates them is “What do others think of me?” They will tend to like what other people like, and the groups they belong to frequently determine the opinions they hold. They are open to suggestion and new ideas, but only if they are popular in the culture or asserted by some authority they respect. Extroverts value external things—good clothes, great meals, concrete enjoyment shared with others. They are in search of new and novel sensations and have a nose for trends. They are not only comfortable with noise and bustle but actively search it out. If they are bold, they love physical adventure. If they are not so bold, they love creature comforts. In any event, they crave stimulation and attention from others.
Introverts are more sensitive and easily exhausted by too much outward activity. They like to conserve their energy, to spend time alone or with one or two close friends. As opposed to extroverts, who are fascinated by facts and statistics for their own sake, introverts are interested in their own opinions and feelings. They love to theorize and come up with their own ideas. If they produce something, they do not like to promote it; they find the effort distasteful. What they make should sell itself. They like to keep a part of their life separate from others, to have secrets. Their opinions do not come from what others think or from any authority but from their inner criteria, or at least they think so. The bigger the crowd, the more lost and lonely they feel. They can seem awkward and mistrustful, uncomfortable with attention. They also tend to be more pessimistic and worried than the average extrovert. Their boldness will be expressed by the novel ideas they come up with and their creativity.
You might notice tendencies in both directions in individuals or yourself, but in general people trend in one or the other direction. It is important to gauge this in others for a simple reason: introverts and extroverts do not naturally understand each other. To the extrovert, the introvert has no fun, is stubborn, even antisocial. To the introvert, the extrovert is shallow, flighty, and overly concerned with what people think. Being one or the other is generally something genetic and will make two people see the same thing in a totally different light. Once you understand you are dealing with someone of the other variety than yourself, you must reassess their character and not foist your own preferences on them. Also, sometimes introverts and extroverts can work well together, particularly if people have a mix of both qualities and they complement each other, but more often than not they do not get along and are prone to constant misunderstandings. Keep in mind that there are generally more extroverts than introverts in the world.
Finally, it is critical that you measure the relative strength of people’s character. Think of it in this way: such strength comes from deep within the core of the person. It could stem from a mixture of certain factors—genetics, secure parenting, good mentors along the way, and constant improvement (see the final section of this chapter). Whatever the cause, this strength is not something displayed on the outside in the form of bluster or aggression but manifests itself in overall resilience and adaptability. Strong character has a tensile quality like a good piece of metal—it can give and bend but still retains its overall shape and never breaks
The strength emanates from a feeling of personal security and selfworth. This allows such people to take criticism and learn from their experiences. This means they do not give up so easily, since they want to learn how to get better. They are rigorously persistent. People of strong character are open to new ideas and ways of doing things without compromising the basic principles they adhere to. In adversity they can retain their presence of mind. They can handle chaos and the unpredictable without succumbing to anxiety. They keep their word. They have patience, can organize a lot of material, and complete what they start. Not continually insecure about their status, they can also subsume their personal interests to the good of the group, knowing that what works best for the team will in the end make their life easier and better.
People of weak character begin from the opposite position. They are easily overwhelmed by circumstances, making them hard to rely upon. They are slippery and evasive. Worst of all, they cannot be taught because learning from others implies criticism. This means you will continually hit a wall in dealing with them. They may appear to listen to your instructions, but they will simply revert to what they think is best.
We are all a mix of strong and weak qualities, but some people clearly veer in one or the other direction. As much as you can, you want to work and associate with strong characters and avoid weak ones. This has been the basis for almost all of Warren Buffett’s investment decisions. He looks beyond the numbers to the CEOs he will be dealing with, and what he wants to gauge above all else is their resilience, their dependability, and their self-reliance. If only we used such measurements in those we hired, the partners we take in, and even the politicians we choose.
Although in intimate relationships there are certainly other factors that will guide our choices, strength of character should also be considered. This was largely what led Franklin Roosevelt to choose Eleanor as his wife. As a handsome young man of wealth, he could have chosen many other more beautiful young women, but he admired Eleanor’s openness to new experiences and her remarkable determination. Looking far into the future, he could see the value of her character mattering more than anything else. And it ended up being a very wise choice.
In gauging strength or weakness, look at how people handle stressful moments and responsibility. Look at their patterns: what have they actually completed or accomplished? You can also test people. For instance, a good-natured joke at their expense can be quite revealing. Do they respond graciously to this, not so easily caught up in their insecurities, or do their eyes flash resentment or even anger? To gauge their trustworthiness as a team player, give them strategic information or share with them some rumor—do they quickly pass along the information to others? Are they quick to take one of your ideas and package it as their own? Criticize them in a direct manner. Do they take this to heart and try to learn and improve, or do they show overt signs of resentment? Give them an open-ended assignment with less direction than usual and monitor how they organize their thoughts and their time. Challenge them with a difficult assignment or some novel way of doing something, and see how they respond, how they handle their anxiety.
Remember: weak character will neutralize all of the other possible good qualities a person might possess. For instance, people of high intelligence but weak character may come up with good ideas and even do a job well, but they will crumble under pressure, or they will not take to kindly to criticism, or they will think first and foremost of their own agenda, or their arrogance and annoying qualities will cause others around them to quit, harming the general environment. There are hidden costs to working with them or hiring them. Someone less charming and intelligent but of strong character will prove more reliable and productive over the long run. People of real strength are as rare as gold, and if you find them, you should respond as if you had a discovered a treasure.