The Eagle and the Knapsack

The Eagle and the Knapsack

The Power of Character
The Power of Character
This selection is reprinted from Josephson Institute’s The Power of Character, which includes diverse essays from a variety of accomplished and interesting people.
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Rushworth M. KidderRushworth M. Kidder is the founder and president of the Institute for Global Ethics in Camden, Maine, and a former senior columnist and editor at the Christian Science Monitor. A prolific author, his writings include Heartland Ethics, How Good People Make Tough Choices: Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living, and Shared Values for a Troubled World: Conversations with Men and Women of Conscience. An English professor for ten years at Wichita State University, Kidder has won numerous awards including the Explicator Literary Foundation Award for his book on the poetry of e.e. cummings. His Monitor essays have also appeared in the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ collections of the best in newspaper writing. He is a trustee of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and of Principia College.

The Eagle and the Knapsack
By Rushworth M. Kidder

Character, we’ve been told, is what you are in the dark, when no one’s looking.

The test of character, by this definition, lies in how you behave when public approval and overt reward are stripped away. When you can get away with anything – because nothing’s at stake except your own conscience – what do you do?

No question about it: Character does get tested that way. But in the hurly-burly of today’s world, such moments are few. Far more common are tests of character that happen when everyone’s watching – and when the rewards are significant. Character is indeed private and personal. But it’s also public and social.

That at least was how it played out for Floyd, who shared his own experience in one of our seminars several years ago. Floyd (not his real name) was a senior executive at a leading advertising agency. One of his top clients was preparing a line of lightweight knapsacks for the Christmas season and wanted to launch it with a major TV ad campaign. So Floyd’s creative staff, after days of huddling, came up with an idea everyone thought was a winner. Here sits the knapsack on a rock in the wilderness with snowcapped peaks in the background. Down swoops an eagle, grasps the knapsack in its talons, and carries it away. The imagery is terrific: lightness, strength, beauty, flight, and the great outdoors all rolled into one.

Terrific concept, says the client. So Floyd contacts an animal trainer in California to prepare an eagle. He nails down a Rocky Mountain site for the shoot. And he lines up the details – writers, producers, cameras, lighting, travel, housing, and all the rest.  It will take a day on location to shoot the footage, which he budgets in the six-figure range. The client signs off and promises to send a representative along for the trip.

Several weeks later the trainer calls with good news: The eagle knows how to pick up the knapsack. Floyd arranges the date, sends the team off, and turns his attention to other matters. A few days later, he gets the videotape – a glorious sequence, with the bird soaring in, grabbing the knapsack, and flying away. The client loves it.

But one afternoon, just as Floyd is preparing to schedule advertising space on national television, two of his staff slip into his office, shut the door behind them, and ask if they can talk.

They were on location in Colorado, they tell him, and it was time to film the eagle. Everything was set. The cameras were rolling. The bird swooped down on command and grabbed the knapsack – and couldn’t lift it. The crew tried the sequence again. Same thing. Then it dawned on the trainer that the bird, trained at sea level, couldn’t get enough air under its wings at ten thousand feet. So with time running out, and the client’s representative watching, the crew members tied some almost-invisible monofilament fishing line to the knapsack. Then two of them, holding the line and standing just out of camera range, gave it a jerk just as the eagle grabbed the knapsack – and up it went. The client’s representative, new to advertising production, registered no complaint, perhaps because she mistakenly thought such practices were standard. Back in the studio, they used the computer to erase the faint images of the hair-thin line. Result: A visually flawless commercial, which only a handful of people would ever know was partly fabricated.

Floyd listened, astonished and dismayed. All kinds of things ran through his head. On the one hand, he knew the public doesn’t always expect TV ads to be true to life. After all, how many housewives, cleaning their kitchen floors, have had a white-robed genie suddenly spin through the window and offer them a better bottle of wax? Yet nothing else in this ad announced it as a fabrication. Given its realistic appearance, wouldn’t the viewer reasonably expect it to reflect a real situation? After all, what about the recent outcry in the press when a foreign carmaker made an apparently realistic ad to promote its products and was later found to have rigged the filming? Yet this was different, Floyd reasoned. There was no attempt to deceive. The eagle could indeed pick up the knapsack – at sea level. It just couldn’t do it at ten thousand feet.

Floyd knew that, in today’s video culture, audiences are seasoned viewers of special effects. Some viewers would write off the entire ad as a studio creation, despite the fact that it really had been filmed on location. They wouldn’t care about the fishing line.

Floyd also knew he could reshoot at a lower altitude for another day’s costs, which his company would have to swallow, and with serious consequences for the client’s schedule, which was already running perilously close to the Christmas deadlines. Miss those deadlines, and the new product could be dead in the water.

He knew, too, that he could paste the word “simulation” onto the screen in the current ad, but the client, having paid for the real thing, would be pretty upset with that solution.

Finally, he knew he had a stark choice before him. He could tell the client. Or he could let the ad run as it was.

His colleagues were waiting for him to make the call.

The two components of character

In fact, what his colleagues were waiting to see was an expression of character. In that context, they were not thinking of character in its commonplace meaning (almost synonymous with personality): a set of individual attributes or qualities by which someone is known. They were thinking of character in its moral sense, the capacity to express integrity, virtue, goodness. They were waiting to see how Floyd’s outward behavior – phoning the media buyers or phoning the client to break the bad news – would manifest an inner set of moral values.

Character, then, has two components: values and behavior. We reserve our highest sense of the word character for actions where the values and the behavior come together seamlessly. Individuals who lack character, we say, are those who can’t bring themselves to do what’s right – either because they lack moral courage or because their values are so flaccid and impoverished that any action based on them is also morally anemic. Individuals of character, in contrast, are those who walk their talk, keep their promises, do what’s right. There’s no daylight visible between the standards they profess and the ways they act. The one perfectly reflects the other.

Is there, then, a set of shared moral values upon which most people construct their character? That’s a question I asked in interviewing 24 individuals from 16 countries for my book Shared Values for a Troubled World: Conversations with Men and Women of Conscience. They represented a wide variety of cultural, political, and religious backgrounds, and each was a moral exemplar within his or her culture. Among other things, I asked them, “If you could construct a global code of ethics for the 21st century, what would be on it?” Out of their answers came a set of eight values so widely shared and so cross-cultural that they seemed truly global: love, truth, freedom, fairness, unity, tolerance, responsibility, and respect for life.

More recently, a report from the Institute for Global Ethics detailed the results of an October 1996 survey the institute conducted at the annual meeting of the State of the World Forum in San Francisco. The 272 survey participants represented 40 countries and more than 50 different faith communities. Despite their differences, they came together strongly around a shared set of moral values that elevated truth, compassion, and responsibility to the top ranks. Nor did the survey find any differences in values correlated to such characteristics as nationality, sex, religion, age, or social status.  The participants’ values were apparently uninfluenced by such demographic characteristics.

In the institute’s seminars, which have brought together more than 5,000 people in small teams that discuss and determine their shared values, five values almost always stand out: honesty, compassion, fairness, responsibility, and respect. These values, in fact, square well with those of various codes already in existence: the Rotary Four-Way Test; the Boy Scout Law; the Six Pillars of Character developed by the CHARACTER COUNTS! Coalition and Josephson Institute; the ten rules identified by American philosopher Bernard Gert in his book The Moral Rules: A New Foundation for Morality;  the “five basic commands to human beings” adumbrated by German philosopher Hans Kung in Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic; the seven “terminal values” identified by Milton Rokeach and Sandra Ball-Rokeach in their groundbreaking values research; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and the hundreds of corporate, professional, governmental, and educational codes of values.

What is the bottom line? A minimalist set of core shared values seems to be part and parcel of the human experience – not because we are Buddhists or Moslems, Jews or Christians, left-wing or right-wing, rich or poor, male or female, but because we are human.

That set of shared values is half of what we mean when we talk about character. If these core values are missing in any serious way – if someone is, say, compassionate and fair but an inveterate liar – we’re hard pressed to describe him or her as someone of character. And if the moral boundary within which these values operate is so wizened and narrow as to apply to only a few other people – if individuals are compassionate only toward members of their own family, tribe, or race but treat everyone else with cold disdain or venomous hatred – there, too, we say that something is lacking in character. Character, then, roots itself in the core moral values.

But it doesn’t stop there. True character arises in the practice of sound values. Now and then we encounter individuals with a finely turned moral conscience but a wholesale incapacity to act on their beliefs. Perhaps they feel above the world, dismissing it with contempt, and refusing to act for its betterment. Perhaps they shrink into timidity every time they are called upon to take a stand. Perhaps they are consumed with desire for wealth, fame, or power – the three great drivers of unethical behavior – and cannot bring themselves to make any sacrifice, however small, for the sake of integrity.

Whatever the reason, a failure to align action with values – even when the values are splendid – leads to the perception that character is lacking. Usually, it seems, the fault lies in a lack of moral courage. My 1926 Webster’s defines “courage” as “mental or moral strength enabling one to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear or difficulty firmly and resolutely.” To illustrate, it quotes General William T. Sherman, who defined “true courage” as “a perfect sensibility of the measure of danger and a mental willingness to endure it.” If you don’t know there’s danger – if you’re sleepwalking on the ridgepole – you can’t be said to have courage. Nor do you have it if you sense the danger and aren’t willing to endure it. Sherman, of course, was talking about physical courage. Its moral counterpart arises when the measure of danger comes from taking the moral high ground.

Character? Think of it as the product of core values and moral courage.

The support for values and courage

What about Floyd’s character? That’s what his colleagues were asking. Would he bull on forward with the ad, trusting that it wouldn’t make waves but willing to justify it if something broke? Or would he disappoint one of his lead clients – and cost the firm a bundle – by sticking to standards that many viewers might see as needlessly narrow?

It was not, Floyd recalled, an easy decision – not so much because of the cost as because of the deadline. In the end, however, he called the client, pulled the video, and offered to reshoot. The client was so disappointed that it opted for a wholly different ad campaign, abandoning the eagle entirely.

“You never saw that ad,” Floyd reported to the seminar, “because it never ran.”

Run a check on Floyd’s values, and you’ll find them very much like most people’s. Truth was there, telling him to be honest and upfront about the experience. Responsibility was there, telling him that if his firm made a mistake they had to make it good, regardless of cost. Respect was there, telling him that his audiences deserved better than to be deceived, even modestly. Fairness was there, telling him that he had to make no special deals with one client that he was unwilling to make with every client, present or future. And compassion was there, telling him that his two colleagues deserved to be honored for speaking up – and to see proof that they were right in expressing moral qualms.

But all that could have been in place, and still Floyd could have lacked the courage to act. What helped him, he told the seminar, was the company’s own moral standards. His firm, he felt, had a long tradition of ethical behavior. When he found himself staring down the barrel of this decision, he knew he had to do what would be in the best long-term interests of his firm. He knew he risked a lot of money. He knew he could lose a client. But that, for him, was less important than the possible loss of the firm’s reputation for ethical business. And he knew, deep down, that many of his fellow executives would back him up. He knew that the culture of the firm was such that ethics would ultimately be rewarded – however much they all had to tighten their belts and admit mistakes in the meantime.

What made the difference here? It’s easy to take the narrow view and say, “Floyd’s character, because he had the guts to make the tough moral call.” And that’s certainly true. But there’s more. At least three other things mattered:

  • Floyd was the kind of person you could talk to about moral issues. Otherwise his colleagues would never have approached him with their concerns.
  • He was surrounded by people who recognized a moral qualm when they saw one and were willing to be publicly worried about it.
  • His corporate culture supported ethics, and that culture had been well enough articulated that Floyd could feel its presence when he most needed it.

Too often the study of moral character misses these last three vital points. Yes, character is what you are in the dark. But it’s more. It has a social as well as a personal aspect. First, it’s what you let others know you to be – the way you communicate to others an openness to ethical concern, a willingness to engage tough moral issues, an invitation to openly challenge your actions by your values.

Second, character doesn’t exist in a personal vacuum. Show me the person of solid character who doesn’t have a single ethical colleague, and I’ll show you a person who is either so inspired as to be a saint or so out of touch with reality as to be delusional. Like coals in a fireplace, we keep our sense of character warm by contact with each other. Set any one of us alone on the moral hearth, and we’ll pretty quickly turn to a cold, dark cinder.

Third, character benefits mightily from an organizational culture. The most open and moral thinker, with the finest of friends, can get beaten into submission by a crass and immoral culture – unless (and this is more likely) he or she bails out altogether and finds another workplace. Conversely, those willing to learn more about their own characters – and we’re all learning how best to square our values with our actions – will find it far easier to be ethical if, at every turn, the institution applauds and rewards such behavior.

If there’s a lesson here, it’s that organizations as well as individuals need to think about character as never before. Why? Because, as we move into the 21st century, the moral intensity is rising. Increasingly our new technologies are leveraging our ethics so that single unethical decisions can now have worldwide consequences in ways impossible to imagine just a few years ago. Yet when a Chernobyl melts down, a Barings Bank goes belly up, a Challenger explodes, an Exxon Valdez goes aground – or when an ad gets made in a potentially deceptive manner – the fault lies not with new technologies. It lies with a collapse of character, a failure in ethical decision-making by the actors who drive the technologies.

If character matters, it is not because a few impassioned thinkers know it’s important. It is because we won’t survive the 21st century without it.

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