In his interview with BigThink, Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria quotes Lincoln on the relationship between character—moral character—and power. There are many celebrated quotes about character, and Nohria references another one of them, too: that “character is what one exhibits in a crisis.” Lincoln makes the key cauldron of moral character not crisis, but power. By this measure, it is leaders, from Wall Street to Washington, who stand to show us best what character means.
But there are many celebrated quotes on the subject of character. Why are Lincoln’s words so memorable? They are as relevant to leadership and character today as anything said by any current politician—or aspiring politician. And as relevant for former and fallen politicians, too, especially this last week. Character is not on the back burner in 2011—not at business schools, not on Wall Street, and not in Washington. The best intentions still exist. In the Obama Administration, character is front and center. It is rarely put into words, however.
Why We Love Lincoln’s Language
Dean Nohria points out that:
Lincoln was once asked, what is a measure of a person’s character? And he says, you know, “My experience is that most people think that the true measure of a person’s character is how they respond to adversity. “I have found,” Lincoln said, “that the real test of a person’s character is to give them power. And I have been surprised how often I have been disappointed by people’s character when they have been given power.”
Lincoln also said this:
“Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”
Perhaps politicians are no longer able to speak like this because we no longer trust them. Or perhaps politicians so rarely speak like this because the subject of moral character is neither butter nor guns; we presume we all have a moral compass, and that we use it—or we don’t. But Lincoln’s line pares rhetoric to say something extremely simple—and true. The tree metaphor works because trees and shadows are simple, and because they are parts of nature. We all understand a tree. It is far harder to parse the meaning of character and reputation.
Character Is Something We Know When We See It
Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s line about pornography (“I know it when I see it”) applies as well to moral character; if you require a definition, you’ve conceded your ignorance. Lincoln’s metaphor and Stewart’s joke resonate not only because they are short but also because they are clear even if the ideas underlying them are not. (And, in Stewart’s case, because they are funny.) Great lines retain resonance less because of who said them than by virtue of their ambition.