If you spend any time dealing with Heartstyles (and we hope
you will) you'll notice we're quick to remind people that we're
not here to profile personalities. Instead, our mission is to develop
But what do we mean by that?
The two-sentence answer
Our character is the
sum of our best intentions and deepest values. When we strengthen our
character, we're better able to select behaviours that reflect those intentions
and values - even in stressful situations.
Of course, there's far more to say about character development
than that. An awful lot. In fact, our founders Mara and Stephen Klemich, have
written a book on the subject: Above
The Line, Living and Leading with Heart.
Of course, we don't have room to discuss all their ideas here,
but we can get a good grasp on character by taking a closer look at the last
part of that definition: "stressful situations"...
It's not who you are, it's what's happening for you
Developing character isn't about having better intentions or
more noble values. It's about tapping into those things more often. After all, our intentions and values tend to be broadly
similar. To quote Above the Line:
universally value humility and love, and all the inner and outer benefits they
bring, not one of us is always driven by them."
Well, what are we driven by then? Often the answer is
stress, be it the stress of the present or stresses in our past. Let's deal
with the present first.
One of those days
You're walking down the street when - smack! - someone, nose
in their phone, bumps into you. As an isolated incident, it doesn't take too much
strength of character to brush it off. You may even be able to empathise:
"He's probably drowning in urgent emails. Who isn't?"
The thing is, life's not a string of isolated events. We
experience it as an unfolding story, carrying our feelings and thoughts from
one chapter to the next. So consider this scenario:
You've had four hours' sleep thanks to your teething toddler.
Though exhausted, you're on track to make the morning meeting - just as well
given it's an important one. Then some idiot barges into you, spilling coffee
down your front. Now on top of being tired, annoyed and a little nervous, you're
also a mess.
How does this play out? Chances are your ability to
emphasise has evaporated. Maybe you even give him a piece of your mind (and not
the nicest piece either!). Would that
make you a 'bad' person? No. To borrow a line from the book: "It's a very
normal reaction but not the most
Character is having the emotional intelligence to understand
what you're feeling and why in a given scenario. But more than that, it's using
that perspective to pick effective behaviours. If you can see a trivial little
accident for what it really is, you're far less likely to let it derail a
moment of actual significance. As a result, you get to the meeting composure
But as we've said, it's not just the present that shapes
behaviour. What about the past?
Coping: The opposite of character
You've probably heard the expression 'when all you have is a
hammer, everything starts to look like a nail'. It's a gem of wisdom that
points to an unfortunate truth: we tend to fit our problems to the tools at our
disposal - whether they're the right ones or not. Why? It's less effort (and
less scary) than taking a good hard look at the problem, chucking aside that
trusty hammer and saying "it's time I learnt to use something else".
When it comes to behaviours, that hammer - the tool we cling
to even when it's wrong - is our coping mechanisms. As we move through life we
all face moments of discomfort and pain. Our instinct for self-preservation
means we formulate strategies to avoid such discomfort in the future. And that's
a problem - because preservation and growth just don't go together. As Stephen
and Mara say:
experiences can become a trap that we live in - they can become stories that we
tell ourselves to cope with life."
Character is the way out of that trap. We may have learnt
that if life is hard on you, you have to be hard on others. So that guy bumping
into you? Chew his ear off, then do the same in the meeting room to anyone who
gets in your way.
Depending on who we are and the stories we've told
ourselves, our coping tactics will seem normal. But as we know, that doesn't
make them effective. With strength of character you have the ability to deal
with what's in front of you, rather than what's behind you. But it means stepping
out of your comfort zone...
Hitting the emotional gym
So how do you actually strengthen character? The same way
you build physical strength. To quote the book again:
development is just like going to the gym. The key is consistency and coaching.
Physical strength isn't built in a day and neither is character. And in both
cases it's helpful to have someone by your side..."
Just as you'd arrive at the gym with a goal in mind (and a
good idea of what you'd need to do to achieve it) when it comes to building
character you need to know where you need to place your attention.
Perhaps you overuse sarcasm to deal with uncomfortable
conversations? Perhaps that stops you being sincere and authentic at crucial
moments? In that case 'hitting the gym' might start with the simple goal of
resisting that urge in at least three conversations a day...
Whatever the case may be, moving forward is about having the
self-knowledge to know what needs work, and the support to get it done. Above
the Line and the Heartstyles programmes are designed to provide both of those