character essays & Advice





- Commentaries & Opinion

- Six Pillars of Character

                                      Michael Josephson







- Character Boot Camp

The bad economic news just keeps rolling in.

What could I say to 700 bankers, investors, and lawyers deeply involved in the commercial real-estate market?

I started with a simple point: External economic forces beyond our control can diminish, even decimate, every form of financial asset we have, but the most important asset we possess – integrity – can only be destroyed by our own choices. Those who sacrifice integrity to save their fortunes
will eventually lose both.

I showed them a cartoon of a boss discussing an issue with executives in his office. The caption reads: “This might not be ethical. Is that a problem for anybody?”

My point was that ethics is not simply a factor to consider; it’s a ground rule. People who treasure their integrity summon the strength to do the right thing even when it costs more than they want to pay.

Another cartoon depicted a conference table. The head honcho points to a woman with an armful of blindfolds and announces: “Miss Jensen will now hand out the moral blinders.”

The message: Try as we might, we can’t avoid ethical responsibilities by covering our eyes. Our obligation to be honest, fair, and responsible doesn’t go away just because we refuse to acknowledge it.

Speaking of the turmoil before the American Revolution, Thomas Paine said, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Tough times always try our souls, but they also test our character.

The next year or so will be like a character boot camp for all of us where our moral backbone will be either strengthened or broken.

While we can’t know when, it’s absolutely certain this dark period will end. And when it does, only those who protected and preserved their integrity will emerge with the credibility to restore everything they lost.

- What I Want My Daughter to Get Out of Sports

Several years ago, when my daughter Carissa was about to enter her first gymnastics competition, I wrote her a letter expressing my hopes and goals for her athletic experience. Here’s a revised version:

My dearest Carissa,

I know you’ve worked hard to prepare yourself to compete, and I know how much you want to win. That’s a good goal. You’ll always get the best out of yourself when you strive for victory.

But winning is not the only goal or even the most important one. What’s most important is to have fun and learn. I want you to love the sport so much that you find pleasure in the effort itself and in the friendship of your teammates and competitors.

I want you to know that no matter who takes home the medals, you will do well if you do your best. And you will be a winner if you keep getting better. I want you to pursue excellence with all your heart, not to please me, your mom, or anyone else but to experience the joy of accomplishment.

If you wobble, keep going. If you fall, get up and continue. No matter what happens, keep your head high. Don’t give up or give in. If things don’t go your way, don’t cry, whine, or make excuses.

Always conduct yourself in a way that brings honor to your team, your coaches, your family and, above all, yourself. I want you to be a model of good sportsmanship, treating the sport, its rules, your teammates, competitors, and judges with respect.

But most of all, I want you to know how proud of you I am.

- Authentic Apologies
“I’m sorry.”

These are powerful words. Authentic apologies can work like a healing ointment on old wounds, dissolve bitter grudges, and repair damaged relationships. They encourage both parties to let go of toxic emotions like anger and guilt and provide a fresh foundation of mutual respect.

But authentic apologies involve much more than words expressing sorrow; they require accountability, remorse, and repentance.

An accountable apology involves a sincere acknowledgment that the apologizer did something wrong. “I’m sorry your feelings were hurt” is a fake apology because it accepts no personal responsibility. A better apology is “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.” An even better one reveals an understanding of the wrongdoing from the point of view of the person injured and asks for forgiveness. “I’m sorry I called you a bad mother. I was speaking out of anger, and I ask you to forgive me.” Given the natural human tendency to interpret our own words and actions in a manner most favorable to us, it takes great self-awareness to be accountable.

An authentic apology also conveys remorse. It’s easier to forgive persons who have hurt us if we believe they have suffered some pain themselves in the form of regret, sorrow, or shame. Self-inflicted guilt is a form of penance or reparation that clears the road to forgiveness.

Accountability and remorse must also be joined by repentance – recognizing something we did was wrong coupled with a credible commitment to not do it again. Without such a commitment, an apology is hollow. Thus, repetitive apologies for the same conduct are meaningless and often offensive. “I’m sorry” is not a Get Out of Jail Free card that lets people off the hook who repeatedly break promises, get drunk, or say cruel things.

It takes character to both give and accept an authentic apology.

- Choose Caring Over Judging

Every time my wife and I leave a Lakers game we’re confronted by half dozen beggars with outreached cups. Usually we try to avoid eye contact and pass quickly – annoyed rather than moved. I’ve got lots of justifications for this callous indifference:

“It’s a scam.”
“Surely, they have other options to begging.”
“They’ll probably use the money for drugs or alcohol.”
“How can I give to one and not to all?”
“If I give tonight, will I have to give every night?”
“If I give money, I’ll just encourage more people to be beggars.”

When all is said and done, it’s a rather shameful exhibition of my ungenerous nature. Regardless of their character or hidden motives, these individuals are much less fortunate than I am. Why am I so unwilling to help? A dollar or two would be meaningful; $5 or $10 would be momentous.

The truth is, if every night I gave each one a dollar or even five, it wouldn’t affect my lifestyle one bit. I spend more than that on snacks and parking. If I made it a point to carry a bunch of ones and fives, I could, without fanfare, provide a little bit of peace or pleasure to people who need it much more than me.

As I write this, I am resolved to choose caring over judging. Yet there is a lurking self-doubt: Will I really follow through or just find more reasons not to help? Perhaps some of you are also willing to commit to kindness. If so, we can provide moral support for each other. Let me know what you think.

After all, our character is revealed not by our best intentions but by our consistent actions.

- The Paradoxical Commandments
In 1968, when Kent M. Keith was a 19-year-old sophomore at Harvard, he wrote the Paradoxical Commandments as part of a booklet for student leaders. He describes the Commandments as guidelines for finding personal meaning in the face of adversity:

1.People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway.

2.If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Do good anyway.

3.If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.

4.The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.

The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.

People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs. Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.

People need help but may attack you if you help them. Help people anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you may get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.

The essence of these Commandments is that each of us must choose to do what we think we should do, even when we think we have good reasons not to. They remind us that we are capable of rising above common practices that demean our nature and our culture.

We can rationalize distorting the Golden Rule as “Do unto others as they have done onto you” or "Do onto others before they do onto you” but, in the terminology of the ’60s, we then become part of the problem rather than the solution.

- What I've Learned: The Perspective From 13-Year-Olds

A few years ago I got a note from Sam Rangel, an eighth-grade teacher in Corona, California. He distributed some of my commentaries on "What I’ve Learned" to his students and asked them to write down what they'd learned over the past year or in their lives. Here's the world of growing wisdom from the 13-year-old perspective:

I've learned that work comes first; fool around later.

I've learned that being popular isn’t everything.

I've learned that being pretty on the inside is better than being pretty on the outside.

I've learned that not everything in life is fair.

I've learned that all people want is someone to listen to them.

I've learned that girls seem to fight with their friends a lot, but almost never with their enemies.

I've learned that it takes a long time to make a friendship and a fraction of a second to destroy it.

I've learned that your imagination is as important as your knowledge.

I've learned that to say no to someone is not wrong.

I've learned that by following others, you aren’t following yourself.

I've learned that the harder it is to do something, the stronger it makes us.

I've learned that I am responsible for me.

I've learned to give everybody a second chance.

I've learned that teenagers will do dumb things.

I've learned that if you respect your elders, they will respect you too.

I've learned that words do hurt people more than sticks and stones.

I've learned that when I come to a fork in the road, ask for help.

I've learned that the easy way is not the best way.

- Ethics Is More Than Good Business

Ethics is a popular topic at corporate meetings today because management correctly sees the benefits. Good things tend to happen to companies that consistently do the right thing, and bad things tend to happen to those that even occasionally do the wrong thing. Being ethical is playing the odds.

Ethical companies have a competitive edge because people prefer to deal with firms they trust. They also benefit from high credibility; being believed is an enormous asset. In addition, ethical companies attract and retain employees better because they have higher morale. And finally, good ethics generates a good reputation, good will, and loyalty.

So it’s true: Good ethics is good business.

Most companies try to motivate employees to be ethical by stressing how doing so will benefit the corporation. The problem is, this amoral rationale is grounded in self-interest rather than morality. It has nothing to do with ethics.

Doing the right thing to get something in return is an investment, not a demonstration of character. Ethics based on self-interest is situational; ethics based on moral convictions is reliable. It’s the difference between acting ethically and being ethical.

Trying to motivate people to do the right thing by stressing benefits rather than values and virtue turns decision making into a cold cost-benefit analysis rather than a reflection of what’s right.

But if a company encourages employees to make decisions based on the supposed advantages, why should anyone put the firm’s interests above his own? In the absence of authentic moral conviction, why should employees refrain from unethical or illegal conduct if they think it will save their job or enhance their compensation? Clearly, what’s good for an enterprise is not always good for its employees.

My point is, it’s foolish and fruitless to expect most employees to sacrifice their financial well-being for the good of the company. On the other hand, many will do so in the name of honor, as a matter of conscience, and to earn the esteem and admiration of family and friends.

Corporations have a much better chance of deterring improper conduct by appealing to conscience and principle rather than risks and rewards.

- Is It Really Just About Winning?

Long ago, I entered law school wanting to do good. I left more concerned with doing well.

In an atmosphere dominated by raging competitive instincts, persuasive rationalizations, and real economic pressures, cynicism drowned out idealism. My notion of the legal system as a grand forum for the pursuit of truth and justice was reduced to the idea that, in the end, it was just
an adversarial game with a less noble purpose: win!

But it’s not just lawyers who are vulnerable to mission drift.

The idealistic drive of people who enter politics to pursue their personal version of the public good can be crushed or converted by real politics. It’s not easy to solve complicated problems in a world dominated by clashing convictions, limited resources, outsized egos, and consuming personal ambitions. And so the acquisition and retention of power, initially the means to an end, becomes the end itself — the measure of success is winning.

If you’re involved in youth sports, you too may be the victim of mission drift.

Is youth sports really a recreational and educational activity designed to allow children to have fun and develop valuable life skills, or is it just an early field of combat teaching the lesson that, in the end, it’s just about winning?

These questions are probed in a challenging online assessment designed by Josephson Institute to identify the core beliefs and values of the parents who support their children’s involvement in sports and the coaches and other adults who administer the programs.

Visit Josephson Institute's Center for Sports Ethics to see how you measure up.

I suspect some of you will find a gap between your ideals and the reality you create or condone.

- From Washington to The West Wing

I collect vintage postcards commemorating Lincoln and Washington, and I spent many hours this Presidents' Day weekend thinking about American politics as I mounted my cards in picture frames and read stories about a recent poll of historians that identified this dynamic duo as our two best presidents ever.

I also spent too many hours watching the last episodes of the old TV series The West Wing. I got into the show just three months ago after I learned how to download all seven seasons onto my iPhone.

Using a cast of brilliant, neurotic, obsessive, and humanly flawed characters -- not unlike the great American heroes from the Revolutionary War to today -- each show conveys the enormous moral complexity of pursuing public policy in a political system where ethics and expediency continually clash. The relentless scheming and strategizing prove the observation: "Laws are like sausages; it's better not to see them being made."

What an irony that my immersion in highly idealized visions of Lincoln and Washington, and highly pragmatic versions of modern American leaders, comes in the midst of my distaste for the giant sausage that President Obama is about to sign into law.

I'm disgusted at both the unwillingness of the Democrats to limit the stimulus bill to programs that are truly likely to create jobs and ease credit and the decision of all but a few Republicans to vote on purely partisan lines, looking for some future political advantage.

But then I realized that Lincoln's efforts to reunite the country and free slaves were no less filled with compromises and inconsistencies.

I'm not willing to surrender my idealism or lower my expectations, but I can't underestimate the challenges inherent in making this democracy work. And I know I shouldn't under-appreciate the men and women in the trenches who are trying to make things better.

- The Presidents' Day Uncelebration

If you're not going to school or work today, it's because it's a national holiday. The country used to celebrate the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln separately, but in 1971 Richard Nixon and Congress created a perpetual three-day weekend by merging the two holidays into a brand new one called "Presidents' Day," to honor all U.S. Presidents.

The end result is that we equate the lives and leadership of two of the greatest men in our history with those of a diverse parade of men ranging from extraordinary to mediocre and noble to dishonorable. What's more, we reduce this and other days set aside to honor crucial people and historical events to no more than a day off. I doubt whether you'll be reading many articles or seeing TV specials reminding us of the magnificent character of Washington or Lincoln.

I fear that the failure of our government, our schools and our media to empathically remind us about our roots in a way that nurtures both pride and gratitude, fosters an unhealthy, self-absorbed entitlement mentality. Sure, we'll gladly take the day off for Presidents' Day, Memorial Day and Veterans Day, and shoot off fireworks on July 4th. But we're too busy or blase to pause to reconnect with our heritage and experience real appreciation for our heroes and their sacrifices.

Despite the initial surge of patriotism following September 11, I fear we are becoming an ungrateful people, unwilling to appreciate what we have and why we have it. And we wonder why our kids don't appreciate what they have and what we do for them.

If we keep treating our most important values as meaningless relics, that's exactly what they'll become.

- Final Words
If you knew you were dying, what would your final words be?

I was at a luncheon where more than a dozen highly accomplished people were given two minutes each to answer that question. They were prominent scientists (including a Nobel Prize winner), successful business executives, and noted academics, doctors, lawyers, journalists, and one astronaut. Despite their imposing resumes, not one person made a single reference to their work or vast accomplishments.

It proved the truth of the insight underlying Harold Kushner's statement: "I never met anyone on their deathbed who said I wish I'd spent more time at the office." Our work may be a vital part of our lives, but in the end what matters is people and relationships.

All of the speakers addressed their last words to loved ones — a life partner, child, sibling, or special friend. The words were from the heart, and it was a touching experience, but what struck me most was realizing how unlikely it is that any of us will actually have the opportunity to deliver final words. Death is not likely to be that predictable or efficient.

Actually, the way we live our lives — the choices we make, our everyday words and actions — will likely be the final messages we send to our loved ones. So, if there's something you should say — expressing your love or gratitude, or maybe expressing regrets for things you did or failed to do about rifts in a relationship — whatever it is: say it now and say it from your heart.

- Becoming a Dad
Abraham Lincoln is a very special hero of mine, so his birthday, February 12, has always been noteworthy. But 33 years ago, that day took on a life-changing meaning. It was the day I became a father for the first time. My son Justin was born, changing forever my perspective and priorities.

Coming from a large family (nine brothers and sisters), I thought I knew what parenting involved, but until I watched my own child’s birth and held his tiny head in my hand, I had no idea how exhilarating and intimidating fatherhood could be.

It was a different and deeper kind of love than I had ever experienced. I found joy simply by touching him, watching him, even changing his diapers.

Worry and responsibility took on new meanings. I worried all the time — and still do — about his health and happiness. And I internalized a sense of responsibility to keep him safe and help him develop the skills and attributes he would need to become a happy and productive person.

Because I wanted him to be proud of me, I started thinking more about how I was living my life and what it would take to be worthy of this precious gift. In fact, it was becoming a father that started me on the journey that led to the establishment of the Joseph & Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics, named after my own parents.

I have been blessed with four more magnificent children — all daughters — and I can honestly say that no accomplishment I’ve achieved or honor I’ve received has been as important as the title “Dad.”

Justin, thanks for that profound gift. I hope to be worthy of it. Happy birthday, Son.

- A Tribute to Lincoln
I wish we still celebrated Lincoln’s birthday. I’m an Abraham Lincoln groupie. By sheer good fortune, my son Justin was born on his birthday, my daughter Abrielle was named after him, and one of our dogs is named Lincoln. My favorite place in Washington D.C. is the Lincoln Memorial where I stand in awe of the magnificent eloquence of this self-educated, self-made man.

His ability to empathize and his genuine caring for others is constantly revealed in his letters and speeches. And though he felt the pain of others as deeply as any man could, fate and duty made him commander in chief during our nation’s bloodiest war.

Although we know him as an effective leader, in his own time he was more often ridiculed than revered, sometimes belittled as an unrefined bumpkin. Personally he was prone to self-doubt and depression.

I have no illusion that he was a perfect man. His flaws and his awareness of them make him all the more admirable in my eyes.

He frequently struggled between his keen sense of political pragmatism and his compelling idealism. Despite occasional compromises and mistakes, he is indisputably and justifiably one of the most esteemed men in history, leaving a legacy of honor, integrity, courage, compassion, and wisdom.

Lincoln understood the difference between real character and reputation, describing character as a tree and reputation as its shadow. His face is carved on Mount Rushmore and adorns both our penny and five-dollar bill.

But it’s Lincoln’s "tree," his character, that stands so tall and strong and honors our nation.

- I Owe It to My Family
An angry woman once approached me after a speech to tell me off. It's easy for me to talk about her responsibility to speak out and object to waste or wrongdoing, she said, but she's a single mother and her highest duty was to keep her job. If that meant occasionally looking the other way, so be it. I had no business trying to make her feel guilty for putting her family first.

As the father of five, her criticism hit hard and it took a while for me to sort it through, but I think we have to be very careful about using our families as an excuse for making choices that diminish our integrity. Financial security is surely important, but so is the moral example we set for our children and the foundation we give them to build their own lives on.

Suppose you're faced with a difficult choice at work where you think you'll be fired if you do what is right. Which is the better gift to your family:
compromising your principles and sending the message that you can't always afford to be ethical, or demonstrating confidence that we can always afford ethics, that whatever happens we can make it, that in this family character really does matter and that no job is worth dishonor?

Sometimes the dues we pay to maintain integrity are pretty high, but the ultimate cost of moral compromise is so much higher. In fact, the more an act of honor costs, the more it's worth. And every example of moral courage contributes to a lasting legacy our children can and will be proud of all their lives. Don't give that up for the short-term benefits of security.

- Trust Must Be Earned and Protected
In every organization I work with, people talk freely and frequently about the importance of trust as a crucial business asset. No one seems to doubt how important it is to business or personal relationships, and everyone seems aware of the tremendous costs of distrust.

Yet despite enlightened rhetoric about trust, many people in business regularly engage in conduct that undermines it and damages credibility.

It’s really simple: To be trusted, one has to be perceived as being trustworthy. That means being scrupulously honest even on little things, and especially when one may have to pay a high price. Trustworthiness is more than telling the truth. It requires conveying the truth. Deception through clever wording or half-truths is essentially dishonest.

Individuals and companies that care about building and retaining trust don’t rely on legalistic loopholes or take refuge in the fact that "you never asked." People worthy of our trust are forthright and candid as well as truthful. They tell us what they know we want to know, even if it’s not in
their self-interest. Thus, being trustworthy involves a complex trio of concepts: truthfulness, nondeception, and candor, all aspects of honesty.

It also requires integrity, promise-keeping, and loyalty. We trust people who put principles above profit and have the courage of their convictions. We don’t trust those who look for and find exceptions and special circumstances that justify dishonesty.

Trust isn’t attained by wishing and wanting. It must be earned by actions. And after it has been earned, it must be continually protected. Remember, even a little lie can raise the question: "What else have you lied to me about?"

- The Scorpion and Human Nature
Terry and his dad Glen were walking along the shore and came upon a scorpion struggling in the tide, trying to get back to the sand. Glen tried to scoop the creature up, but the scorpion stung him and fell back into the tide. Glen tried again and was stung again.

Terry said, "Dad, leave him alone! He’s not worth saving."

But Glen tried one more time. This time he was successful and threw it onto the sand.

Terry said, "Why waste time on an ornery critter who’s too stupid to know it’s being helped?"

Glen answered, "Son, the scorpion stings by instinct. It’s his nature. I chose to help him because that’s my nature."

Glen was teaching his son a profound moral lesson about being human. Like other species, we’re born with an instinct for survival and a disposition towards selfishness. Yet, blessed by a sense of compassion and the power to reason, we also have an instinct to think and act beyond our self-interest.

Human nature is complex. It’s as much in our nature to be kind, loving and generous as it is to be cruel, selfish and dishonest. We can nurture or ignore our nobler instincts.

Some people act like scorpions. Trapped by negative instincts and response patterns, they think it’s their nature and hide behind the belief, "That’s the way I am."

No one is born with good or bad character. We’re born with the capacity to have either, to choose our ultimate nature. When we choose to be good, we are good.

- Being Right or Being Kind

Watching parents struggle to keep their young children quiet on a recent plane trip reminded me of how stressful traveling was a few years ago when my kids were really young.

My wife Anne and I would do everything we could to keep our kids from annoying other passengers, but no matter how hard we tried, one would always scream or kick the seat in front of her.

Inevitably, a few passengers would add to our anxiety and embarrassment by displaying disdain and discomfort through withering comments, loud sighs, or accusatory looks. Their message was clear: We were inept or inconsiderate parents.

I couldn’t blame them because our children did make their trip unpleasant. Still, I wished they had been more understanding.

In contrast, I so admired and appreciated the occasional man or woman who would go out of his or her way to ease the tension or lighten the burden with a supportive smile, a kind comment, or an offer to help.

Sometimes we don’t seem aware of the choices we have and our power to make things better or worse.

I once read of a man on a subway with two young children who were being loud and unruly. The man seemed to ignore their behavior, so a fed-up passenger confronted him: "Sir, don’t you see how your children are disturbing everyone? How can you be so thoughtless?"

The man sobbed, "I’m so sorry. Their mom just died and I’ve been thinking of how we will live without her." In an instant, the critic’s self-righteousness turned to self-condemnation.

Why is it that so many of us have to be hit over the head before we turn on our caring and empathy buttons?

The next time you have the choice between being right and being kind, choose kindness.

- Everyone Needs a "Me" File
During a dinner with friends I mentioned an e-mail I'd received from a 13-year-old thanking me for the way my commentaries had influenced his life. I was clearly proud of the note and my friend Sally Kinnamon said I should save this and other affirming mementos and put them in a "Me" file.

At first I thought she was being sarcastic, but she assured me she was quite serious. Sally came upon the idea while training in-home nurses who often work in isolated conditions with little or no affirmative feedback.

She gave each nurse an empty folder labeled "Me" and instructed them to put every form of grateful or complimentary feedback into the file, including cards, notes, letters and positive performance reviews. She said that this folder should be taken out and read whenever any of them felt unappreciated or questioned the value of their work.

Sally acknowledged that while most of the nurses were initially reluctant, fearing it was too self-indulgent, egotistical or just plain silly, she explained it's not a bragging file to show others how good we are. Rather, it's a private collection evidencing the large and small triumphs that give us psychic gratification and reconnect us with the best reasons we do what we do. Eventually, she said, most of the nurses came to use and draw great comfort and encouragement from their "Me" files.

What a terrific idea. You ought to start a "Me" file for yourself and put in it anything that validates what you do at work or home.

The next step, of course, is to be sure you're spending time doing the kinds of things that will fill your "Me" file.

- Not Everyone in Need Has a Brick
A successful man known for his philanthropy was driving his new car through a poor part of town. He’d driven the route hundreds of times before on his way home.

A young boy tried to flag him down. The man was in a hurry and didn’t want to get involved, so he pretended he didn’t see the child. A traffic signal ahead turned red, though, and as he slowed for it, he heard a loud crash. The boy had thrown a brick at his car, denting the trunk.

The man burst out of the car and grabbed him. “You juvenile delinquent!" he screamed. "You’ll pay for this or go to jail!”

“I’m sorry, mister,” the boy cried. “My mom’s lying on the floor in our apartment. I think she’s dying. Our phone’s been cut off and I’ve been trying for ten minutes to get someone to stop. I didn’t know what else to do! Take me to jail, but please, call a doctor for my mom first.”

The man was filled with shame. “I’m a doctor. Where is she" The grateful boy took him to his apartment, and the doctor administered CPR and called an ambulance.

“Will she live?” the boy sobbed.

“Yes, son, she will,” the doctor said.

“Then it’s worth going to jail. I’m so sorry I ruined your new car. You can take me in now.”

“You’re not going anywhere,” the doctor said. “It was my fault you had to throw a brick to get my attention.”

The doctor made sure the boy was taken care of, and as he drove home he resolved not to fix the dent. He would keep it as a reminder that not everyone in need has a brick to throw.

- A Coach Who Just Gave a Good Kid a Chance
Did you hear the sports story that came out of Greece a few years ago? No, it wasn't from the country that spawned the Olympics, though it has an Olympic quality. The story came out of Greece, New York, and it was about Jason McElwain, a 17-year-old autistic kid, and Jim Johnson, a high school basketball coach.

Jason, who didn't speak until he was five and always struggled with learning challenges, was short for a basketball player, only five foot six. In fact, he never made the team. He was the team manager, who kept stats and handed out water bottles.

But Coach Johnson liked Jason's enthusiasm for the game and his unselfish dedication to the team. So he decided to let him suit up for the last home game of the season. If the score permitted, he might even let him play a few minutes.

Word got around and a group of students came to the game with signs bearing his nickname, "J-Mac," and cutouts of his face placed on popsicle sticks.

When Jason was put into the game with four minutes left, they cheered wildly, hoping that he might even score a basket. In Hollywood, he would have done just that, and his teammates would have carried him off on their shoulders. But in the real world of Greece, New York, Jason took a shot and missed by about six feet. His supporters groaned and the coach worried that he may have set this young man up for embarrassment.

But J-Mac took another shot, and another, and another. In fact, he took 10 shots, sank a school record six three-pointers, and scored 20 points in his four minutes of glory.

And, yes, he was carried off on the shoulders of his teammates. And it was the career high point in the life of a coach who just gave a good kid a chance.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.


- Six Pillars of Character SM


Trustworthiness   Respect    Responsibility

      Fairness          Caring       Citizenship


Trustworthiness. Respect. Responsibility. Fairness. Caring. Citizenship. The Six Pillars of Character are ethical values to guide our choices. The standards of conduct that arise out of those values constitute the ground rules of ethics, and therefore of ethical decision-making.

There is nothing sacrosanct about the number six. We might reasonably have eight or 10, or more. But most universal virtues fold easily into these six. The number is not unwieldy and the Six Pillars of Character can provide a common lexicon. Why is a common lexicon necessary? So that people can see what unites our diverse and fractured society. So we can communicate more easily about core values. So we can understand ethical decisions better, our own and those of others.

The Six Pillars act as a multi-level filter through which to process decisions. So, being trustworthy is not enough — we must also be caring. Adhering to the letter of the law is not enough — we must accept responsibility for our action or inaction.

The Pillars can help us detect situations where we focus so hard on upholding one moral principle that we sacrifice another — where, intent on holding others accountable, we ignore the duty to be compassionate; where, intent on getting a job done, we ignore how.

In short, the Six Pillars can dramatically improve the ethical quality of our decisions, and thus our character and lives.


Be honest • Don’t deceive, cheat or steal • Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do • Have the courage to do the right thing • Build a good reputation • Be loyal — stand by your family, friends and country

When others trust us, they give us greater leeway because they feel we don’t need monitoring to assure that we’ll meet our obligations. They believe in us and hold us in higher esteem. That’s satisfying. At the same time, we must constantly live up to the expectations of others and refrain from even small lies or self-serving behavior that can quickly destroy our relationships.

Simply refraining from deception is not enough. Trustworthiness is the most complicated of the six core ethical values and concerns a variety of qualities like honesty, integrity, reliability and loyalty.

There is no more fundamental ethical value than honesty. We associate honesty with people of honor, and we admire and rely on those who are honest. But honesty is a broader concept than many may realize. It involves both communications and conduct.

Honesty in communications is expressing the truth as best we know it and not conveying it in a way likely to mislead or deceive. There are three dimensions:

Truthfulness. Truthfulness is presenting the facts to the best of our knowledge. Intent is the crucial distinction between truthfulness and truth itself. Being wrong is not the same thing as lying, although honest mistakes can still damage trust insofar as they may show sloppy judgment.

Sincerity. Sincerity is genuineness, being without trickery or duplicity. It precludes all acts, including half-truths, out-of-context statements, and even silence, that are intended to create beliefs or leave impressions that are untrue or misleading.

Candor. In relationships involving legitimate expectations of trust, honesty may also require candor, forthrightness and frankness, imposing the obligation to volunteer information that another person needs to know.

Honesty in conduct is playing by the rules, without stealing, cheating, fraud, subterfuge and other trickery. Cheating is a particularly foul form of dishonesty because one not only seeks to deceive but to take advantage of those who are not cheating. It’s a two-far: a violation of both trust and fairness.

Not all lies are unethical, even though all lies are dishonest. Huh? That’s right, honesty is not an inviolate principle. Occasionally, dishonesty is ethically justifiable, as when the police lie in undercover operations or when one lies to criminals or terrorists to save lives. But don’t kid yourself: occasions for ethically sanctioned lying are rare and require serving a very high purpose indeed, such as saving a life — not hitting a management-pleasing sales target or winning a game or avoiding a confrontation.

The word integrity comes from the same Latin root as "integer," or whole number. Like a whole number, a person of integrity is undivided and complete. This means that the ethical person acts according to her beliefs, not according to expediency. She is also consistent. There is no difference in the way she makes decisions from situation to situation, her principles don’t vary at work or at home, in public or alone.

Because she must know who she is and what she values, the person of integrity takes time for self-reflection, so that the events, crises and seeming necessities of the day do not determine the course of her moral life. She stays in control. She may be courteous, even charming, but she is never duplicitous. She never demeans herself with obsequious behavior toward those she thinks might do her some good. She is trusted because you know who she is: what you see is what you get.

People without integrity are called "hypocrites" or "two-faced."

Reliability (Promise-Keeping)
When we make promises or other commitments that create a legitimate basis for another person to rely upon us, we undertake special moral duties. We accept the responsibility of making all reasonable efforts to fulfill our commitments. Because promise-keeping is such an important aspect of trustworthiness, it is important to:

Avoid bad-faith excuses. Interpret your promises fairly and honestly. Don’t try to rationalize noncompliance.

Avoid unwise commitments. Before making a promise consider carefully whether you are willing and likely to keep it. Think about unknown or future events that could make it difficult, undesirable or impossible. Sometimes, all we can promise is to do our best.

Avoid unclear commitments. Be sure that, when you make a promise, the other person understands what you are committing to do.

Some relationships — husband-wife, employer-employee, citizen-country — create an expectation of allegiance, fidelity and devotion. Loyalty is a responsibility to promote the interests of certain people, organizations or affiliations. This duty goes beyond the normal obligation we all share to care for others.

Limitations to loyalty. Loyalty is a tricky thing. Friends, employers, co-workers and others may demand that we rank their interests above ethical considerations. But no one has the right to ask another to sacrifice ethical principles in the name of a special relationship. Indeed, one forfeits a claim of loyalty when he or she asks so high a price for maintaining the relationship.

Prioritizing loyalties. So many individuals and groups make loyalty claims on us that we must rank our loyalty obligations in some rational fashion. For example, it’s perfectly reasonable, and ethical, to look out for the interests of our children, parents and spouses even if we have to subordinate our obligations to other children, neighbors or co-workers in doing so.

Safeguarding confidential information. Loyalty requires us to keep some information confidential. When keeping a secret breaks the law or threatens others, however, we may have a responsibility to "blow the whistle."

Avoiding conflicting interests. Employees and public servants have a duty to make all professional decisions on merit, unimpeded by conflicting personal interests. They owe ultimate loyalty to the public.


Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule • Be tolerant of differences • Use good manners, not bad language • Be considerate of the feelings of others • Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone • Deal peacefully with anger, insults and disagreements

People are not things, and everyone has a right to be treated with dignity. We certainly have no ethical duty to hold all people in high esteem, but we should treat everyone with respect, regardless of who they are and what they have done. We have a responsibility to be the best we can be in all situations, even when dealing with unpleasant people.

The Golden Rule — do unto others as you would have them do unto you — nicely illustrates the Pillar of respect. Respect prohibits violence, humiliation, manipulation and exploitation. It reflects notions such as civility, courtesy, decency, dignity, autonomy, tolerance and acceptance.

Civility, Courtesy and Decency
A respectful person is an attentive listener, although his patience with the boorish need not be endless (respect works both ways). Nevertheless, the respectful person treats others with consideration, and doesn’t resort to intimidation, coercion or violence except in extraordinary and limited situations to defend others, teach discipline, maintain order or achieve social justice. Punishment is used in moderation and only to advance important social goals and purposes.

Dignity and Autonomy
People need to make informed decisions about their own lives. Don’t withhold the information they need to do so. Allow all individuals, including maturing children, to have a say in the decisions that affect them.

Tolerance and Acceptance
Accept individual differences and beliefs without prejudice. Judge others only on their character, abilities and conduct.


Do what you are supposed to do • Persevere: keep on trying! • Always do your best • Use self-control • Be self-disciplined • Think before you act — consider the consequences • Be accountable for your choices

Life is full of choices. Being responsible means being in charge of our choices and, thus, our lives. It means being accountable for what we do and who we are. It also means recognizing that our actions matter and we are morally on the hook for the consequences. Our capacity to reason and our freedom to choose make us morally autonomous and, therefore, answerable for whether we honor or degrade the ethical principles that give life meaning and purpose.

Ethical people show responsibility by being accountable, pursuing excellence and exercising self-restraint. They exhibit the ability to respond to expectations.

An accountable person is not a victim and doesn’t shift blame or claim credit for the work of others. He considers the likely consequences of his behavior and associations. He recognizes the common complicity in the triumph of evil when nothing is done to stop it. He leads by example.

Pursuit of Excellence
The pursuit of excellence has an ethical dimension when others rely upon our knowledge, ability or willingness to perform tasks safely and effectively.

Diligence. It is hardly unethical to make mistakes or to be less than "excellent," but there is a moral obligation to do one’s best, to be diligent, reliable, careful, prepared and informed.

Perseverance. Responsible people finish what they start, overcoming rather than surrendering to obstacles. They avoid excuses such as, "That’s just the way I am," or "It’s not my job," or "It was legal."

Continuous Improvement. Responsible people always look for ways to do their work better.

Responsible people exercise self-control, restraining passions and appetites (such as lust, hatred, gluttony, greed and fear) for the sake of longer-term vision and better judgment. They delay gratification if necessary and never feel it’s necessary to "win at any cost." They realize they are as they choose to be, every day.


Play by the rules • Take turns and share • Be open-minded; listen to others • Don’t take advantage of others • Don’t blame others carelessly


What is fairness? Most would agree it involves issues of equality, impartiality, proportionality, openness and due process. Most would agree that it is unfair to handle similar matters inconsistently. Most would agree that it is unfair to impose punishment that is not commensurate with the offense. The basic concept seems simple, even intuitive, yet applying it in daily life can be surprisingly difficult. Fairness is another tricky concept, probably more subject to legitimate debate and interpretation than any other ethical value. Disagreeing parties tend to maintain that there is only one fair position (their own, naturally). But essentially fairness implies adherence to a balanced standard of justice without relevance to one’s own feelings or inclinations.

Process is crucial in settling disputes, both to reach the fairest results and to minimize complaints. A fair person scrupulously employs open and impartial processes for gathering and evaluating information necessary to make decisions. Fair people do not wait for the truth to come to them; they seek out relevant information and conflicting perspectives before making important judgments.

Decisions should be made without favoritism or prejudice.

An individual, company or society should correct mistakes, promptly and voluntarily. It is improper to take advantage of the weakness or ignorance of others.


Be kind • Be compassionate and show you care • Express gratitude • Forgive others • Help people in need

If you existed alone in the universe, there would be no need for ethics and your heart could be a cold, hard stone. Caring is the heart of ethics, and ethical decision-making. It is scarcely possible to be truly ethical and yet unconcerned with the welfare of others. That is because ethics is ultimately about good relations with other people.

It is easier to love "humanity" than to love people. People who consider themselves ethical and yet lack a caring attitude toward individuals tend to treat others as instruments of their will. They rarely feel an obligation to be honest, loyal, fair or respectful except insofar as it is prudent for them to do so, a disposition which itself hints at duplicity and a lack of integrity. A person who really cares feels an emotional response to both the pain and pleasure of others.

Of course, sometimes we must hurt those we truly care for, and some decisions, while quite ethical, do cause pain. But one should consciously cause no more harm than is reasonably necessary to perform one’s duties.

The highest form of caring is the honest expression of benevolence, or altruism. This is not to be confused with strategic charity. Gifts to charities to advance personal interests are a fraud. That is, they aren’t gifts at all. They’re investments or tax write-offs.


Do your share to make your school and community better • Cooperate • Get involved in community affairs • Stay informed; vote • Be a good neighbor • Obey laws and rules • Respect authority


Citizenship includes civic virtues and duties that prescribe how we ought to behave as part of a community. The good citizen knows the laws and obeys them, yes, but that’s not all. She volunteers and stays informed on the issues of the day, the better to execute her duties and privileges as a member of a self-governing democratic society. She does more than her "fair" share to make society work, now and for future generations. Such a commitment to the public sphere can have many expressions, such as conserving resources, recycling, using public transportation and cleaning up litter. The good citizen gives more than she takes.


CHARACTER COUNTS! and Six Pillars of Character are service marks of the CHARACTER COUNTS! Coalition, a project of the Joseph son Institute of Ethics, a nonsectarian, nonpartisan organization.

Courtesy: Michael Josephson