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What Skills Do I Need in the Policy World?
Lawrence W. Reed, President, Foundation for Economic Education
What’s the most important element in forming a successful career? Well, here’s one that is so important that without it, you ain’t goin’ anywhere. Some might call it integrity, others might call it character. I use the two terms interchangeably here. No matter which one you prefer, I recommend that you bulk up on it; if you do, you’ll be amazed at how most if not all of the other elements of a successful career will eventually fall into place. On frequent occasions, it will more than compensate for mistakes and shortcomings in other areas.
From an employer’s perspective, Warren Buffett makes the point plainly: “In looking for someone to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence and energy. But the most important is integrity, because if they don’t have that, the other two qualities, intelligence and energy, are going to kill you.”
Integrity is more important than all the good grades or degrees you’ve earned, more important than all the management courses you could possibly take, and more important than all the knowledge that you could absorb on any subject. It’s something over which every responsible, thinking adult has total personal control, and yet millions of people every year sacrifice it for very little. It will not only define and shape your future, but it will also put both a concrete floor under it and an iron ceiling over it. It’s what others will more likely remember you for than your looks, your talents, your smarts, or your rhetoric. If you lose it, it will taint everything else you accomplish.
Your character is nothing more and nothing less than the sum of your choices. You can’t choose your height or race or other physical traits, but you fine-tune your character every time you decide right from wrong and what you personally are going to do about it. Your character is further defined by how you choose to interact with others and the standards of speech and conduct you practice. Character is often listed as a key leadership quality. I actually think character and leadership are one and the same. If you’ve got character, others will look upon you as a leader.
When a person spurns his conscience and fails to do what he knows is right, he subtracts from his character. When he evades his responsibilities, succumbs to temptation, foists his problems and burdens on others, acts as though the world owes him a living, or fails to exert self-discipline, he subtracts from his character. When he attempts to reform the world without reforming himself first, he subtracts from his character.
A free society flourishes when people aspire to be models of honor, honesty, and propriety at whatever the cost in material wealth, social status, or popularity. America’s founders knew that and wrote about it a lot. Thomas Jefferson’s advice was to “Give up money, give up fame, give up science, give up the earth itself and all it contains” before compromising your integrity. He further admonished:
And never suppose, that in any possible situation, or under any circumstances, it is best for you to do a dishonorable thing, however slightly so it may appear to you. Whenever you are to do a thing, though it can never be known but to yourself, ask yourself how you would act were all the world looking at you, and act accordingly.
Encourage all your virtuous dispositions, and exercise them whenever an opportunity arises; being assured that they will gain strength by exercise, as a limb of the body does, and that exercise will make them habitual. From the practice of the purest virtue, you may be assured you will derive the most sublime comforts in every moment of life, and in the moment of death. If ever you find yourself environed with difficulties and perplexing circumstance s, out of which you are at a loss how to extricate yourself, do what is right, and be assured that that will extricate you the best out of the worst situations. Though you cannot see, when you take one step, what will be the next, yet follow truth, justice, and plain dealing, and never fear their leading you out of the labyrinth, in the easiest manner possible. The knot which you thought a Gordian one, will untie itself before you.
Nothing is so mistaken as the supposition that a person is to extricate himself from a difficulty by intrigue, by chicanery, by dissimulation, by trimming, by an untruth, by an injustice. This increases the difficulties tenfold; and those who pursue these methods get themselves so involved at length that they can turn no way but their infamy becomes more exposed.
Though I haven’t explicitly defined integrity (or character) by the qualities that compose it, I think you had a pretty good idea what those qualities were before you ever saw this essay. That’s because you’ve got a conscience. Most people do, but the problem is, we don’t always listen to it. We’re tempted to push it away when it seems to be an obstacle to a quick and selfish advance. You know you’ve got a conscience when an inner voice bothers you when you cut corners on matters of integrity. “Success without honor is an unseasoned dish,” says legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno. “It will satisfy your hunger, but it won’t taste good.”
Honesty, humility, introspection, patience, fair-dealing, courage, self-discipline, respect for others—these are surely among the core traits of a life of integrity. For that reason, they are the keys to a successful career, a fruitful life, and a clear conscience.
Many years ago, I came across a few sentences by an unknown author, called “What the World Needs.” I’ve since added some related thoughts of my own:
The world needs more men and women who do not have a price at which they can be bought; who do not borrow from integrity to pay for expediency; who have their priorities straight and in proper order; whose handshake is an ironclad contract; who are not afraid of taking risks to advance what is right; and who are as honest in small matters as they are in large ones.
The world needs more men and women whose ambitions are big enough to include others; who know how to win with grace and lose with dignity; who do not believe that shrewdness and cunning and ruthlessness are the three keys to success; who still have friends they made twenty years ago; who put principle and consistency above politics or personal advancement; and who are not afraid to go against the grain of popular opinion.
The world needs more men and women who do not forsake what is right just to get consensus because it makes them look good; who know how important it is to lead by example, not by barking orders; who would not have you do something they would not do themselves; who work to turn even the most adverse circumstances into opportunities to learn and improve; and who love even those who have done some injustice or unfairness to them. The world, in other words, needs more men and women of character.
You and your parents have expended enormous time, energy, and expense in your education with the hope that it will further your career. You can go far with all those facts and figures you’ve learned, or you can flush them away. The deciding factor will be your integrity.
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education and the founder and president emeritus of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Reed holds a B.A. in economics from Grove City College (1975), an M.A. in history from Slippery Rock State University (1978), and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Public Administration from Central Michigan University. He taught economics at Northwood University in Midland, Mich., from 1977 to 1984 and chaired the department of economics from 1982 to 1984. There he founded the annual, highly-acclaimed “Freedom Seminar.” In 1982, he was a major party candidate in the general election for the U.S. House of Representatives from Michigan’s 4th district. Reed has traveled to 69 countries on six continents and published over a thousand articles in his lifelong effort to spread the ideas of freedom.This entry was posted in Resources. Bookmark the permalink. ← 4- Why Writing Well Is Key 2- The Role of the Think Tank →