Character Counts

October 16, 2006

Character is what is generally missing from the world today. Actions do not have consequences. We emulate those who are famous, make lots of money, and live completely immoral lives. Character is what is missing from our heroes of today. In previous generations, it was character that counted.

That is what makes this book so special. Os Guinness has edited a brief but fascinating book about why character counts. Character Counts: Leadership Qualities in Washington, Wilberforce, Lincoln, and Solzhenitsyn (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999) gives us some brief essays about the leadership qualities of these four men and why character was one that was indispensable. Each of the four leaders are given two essays about the nature of character in their lives which made them incredible leaders in their own times and in their own ways.

Guinness begins with a helpful introductory chapter where he traces the downfall of good leadership in connection with the loss of character. He writes,

“The essential qualities of a great leader, President Eisenhower said, ‘are vision, integrity, courage, understanding, the power of articulation, and profundity of character.’ We might add other virtues–decisiveness and a sense of providence, for example. But over against all who would omit character from the list, the Christian would respond with an overwhelming conclusion: Character is essential and central to good leadership” (p. 11).

He offers some explanations for the loss of character in leadership today and then at the end of his chapter he offers a solution to the decay of character today: study those leaders of the past who had character. He writes,

“Sterling character is evident in these pages. But there is far more than character here, just as there is far more than teaching. Biography should be a staple in the diet of both disciples and citizens, for great lives do more than teach. They stir, challenge, rebuke, amuse, and inspire at levels of which we are hardly aware. As such, these lives and their reflections show us a leadership to which we can each aspire and a standard by which to hold our present leaders accountable” (p. 22).

What then follows is two essays on each of the four leaders. George Washington, William Wilberforce, Abraham Lincoln, and Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn are all studied and allowed to speak demonstrating how character makes incredible leaders.

Washington gets two essays. First, Alonzo L. McDonald gives us “A Leader for the Multitude” and Paul F. Boller, Jr. gives us “To Bigotry No Sanction.” The first essay serves as a brief biography of the life of Washington. His life was shaped in such a way that he would become a tremendous leader. Yet, there are many men who in their time serve as leaders but are lost in the flow of history to be relegated to the unimportant. Not so Washington. It was his strength of character that made him an ideal leader. Men like Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton may have been better educated and better orators and writers, yet it was Washington who serves as the beginning of a new nation.

The second essay focuses on Washington’s supreme contribution, that of religious toleration and not just toleration but acceptance. Washington, a deist, held as a high hope that America would be a nation that allowed those from all nations and religions safe haven in a country that was open to all. In a speech that is now made famous, he spoke to the Jews of Newport by writing of this religious liberty. He said,

“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy, a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoke of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support” (p. 59).

In word and in deed, Washington deserves major credit for establishing the ideals of religious liberty and freedom of conscience for Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and for Deists, freethinkers, and others, all within the American tradition.

William Wilberforce is presented next with the first essay by J. Douglas Holladay on “A Life of Significance.” The second essay by John Pollock is “A Man Who Changed His Times.” Wilberforce is best known for eliminating slave trade in Britain. Holladay offers us a brief look at the life of Wilberforce and gives us seven principles which illuminate why Wilberforce lead a life of significance and how we can live a life of significance today. First, Wilberforce’s life was animated by a deeply held, personal faith in Jesus Christ. Second, Wilberforce had a deep sense of calling that grew into the conviction that he was toe exercise his spiritual purpose in the realm of his secular responsibility. Third, Wilberforce was committed to the strategic importance of a band of like-minded friends devoted to working together in chosen ventures. Fourth, Wilberforce believed deeply in the power of ideas and moral beliefs to change culture through a campaign of sustained public persuasion. Fifth, Wilberforce was willing to pay a steep cost for his courageous public stands and was remarkably persistent in pursuing his life task. Sixth, Wilberforce’s labors and faith were grounded in a genuine humanity rather than a blind fanaticism. Seventh, Wilberforce forged strategic partnerships for the common good irrespective of differences over methods, ideology, or religious beliefs.

“In sum, the life and work of William Wilberforce directly counters the cynical pessimism of our day that an individual is powerless to effect real change” p. 75.

The second essay by Pollock focuses specifically on his work to abolish the slave trade. It is an incredible story of trial, hardship, and heart ache. It would take Wilberforce and his companions 20 years to end the slave trade and the abolition of slavery itself nearly thirty more years. But Wilberforce pressed on against incredible odds. We was opposed by the royal family, most of the cabinet and many of England’s great heroes including Admiral Lord Nelson. Yet his perseverance saw the end of the slave trade on February 23, 1807. The character of this man can be seen at the end of Samuel Romilly’s speech where he contrasted Napoleon to Wilberforce.

“Before Romilly could finish, the house rose as one man and turned toward Wilberforce with parliamentary cheers, “Hear Hear! Hear Hear!” Then somebody gave a most unparliamentary “Hurrah!” and the House erupted in hurrahs. Wilberforce was scarcely aware of it. He sat, head bowed, tears streaming down his face. The bill was carried by 283 votes to 16. The odious slave trade was ended” (p. 84). It was his character that allowed him to rise as one man and with a circle of friends see great change sweep across the British empire. To this day he is a hero, as one said, “the Washington of humanity” (p. 90).

It was the great man Lincoln who would see the abolition of slavery in the United States. Alonzo L. McDonald begins by looking at the life and times of Lincoln in “The Spiritual Growth of a Public Man.” Lincoln, who was a simple man, would become the most spiritual leader of the US. His desire to keep the Union together in the face of a massive Civil War is incredible. He knew that without a unified country, abolishing the evils of slavery would not happen. He was a master of knowing the path to take in an uncertain world. He saw himself as a representative of God to do the good of the Lord in the face of incredible odds, death, destruction, pain and suffering.

Elton Trueblood gives us the second essay called, “Theologian of American Anguish.” Trueblood traces the spiritual development and growth of Lincoln and how his character and spirituality made him the president it did. Lincoln, after his meeting with Eliza Gurney offered his understanding of himself as an instrument of God.

“We are indeed going through a great trial–a fiery trial. In the very responsible position in which I happen to be placed, being a humble instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father, as I am, and as we all are, to work out his great purposes, I have desired that all my works and acts may be according to his will, and that it might be so, I have sought his aid–but if after endeavoring to do my best in the light which he affords me, I find my efforts fail, I must believe that for some purpose unknown to me, He wills it otherwise. If I had ha my way, this war would never have been commenced; if I had been allowed my way this war would have been ended before this, but we find it still continues; and we must believe that He permits it for some wise purpose of His own, mysterious and unknown to us; and though with our limited understandings we may not be able to comprehend it, yet we cannot but believe, that He who made the world still governs it” (p. 119).

They include Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address. Both show the character of this fine leader.

Finally, the life of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is treated in two essays. One is a biographical look at the famous Russian literary genius by Alonzo L. McDonald, “The Writer Underground.” The second is a selection from Solzhenitsyn’s book “The Oak and the Calf.” This second essay treats the situation that Solzhenitsyn went through in the Gulag in Russia and how he felt it was absolutey necessary that he shared how the Russians treated their people to a Western world that chose to give a deaf ear to the cries of the oppressed peoples.

McDonald provides for us a poem written by Solzhenitsyn when he publicly proclaimed his faith in 1972:

How easy it is to live with You, O Lord.
How easy to believe in You.
When my spirit is overwhelmed within me,
When even the keenest see no further than the night,
And know not what to do tomorrow,
You bestow on me the certitude
That You exist and are mindful of me,
That all the paths of righteousness are not barred.
As I ascend in to the hill of earthly glory,
I turn back and gaze, astonished, on the road
That led me here beyond despair,
Where I too may reflect Your radiance upon mankind.
All that I may reflect, You shall accord me,
And appoint others where I shall fail.

The life of these four men are wonderful examples at how character is so important in the life of a leader. The back of the book gives the call for all to read this book.

“Concerned citizens and all who are eager to raise the level of character in this generation and the next will draw inspiration from these readable essays. Character Counts reveals that adversity, apart from its power to overwhelm, has the potential to reveal true moral character and create life-changing leaders.”

I hope this helpful and enlightening book will be the reading of all of those who care to see character-driven leaders raised up in our lifetime.