Opinion: Character and Leadership

Charles Jeanes
By Charles Jeanes
September 7th, 2022

Character Makes History. What makes Character in Leaders?

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
— Abraham Lincoln

“Character is Destiny.” — Heraclitus, 5th Century BCE

“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done – because he wants to do it.”
                            —         Dwight D. Eisenhower


I was recently interviewed for a radio program on co-op radio in Nelson, about my passion for History as a subject, and asked why was I so interested in the past.

Part of my reply was that I am profoundly interested in character, in human personhood and individual identity, and that I read a lot of novels for the express purpose of exploring character. For the same reason, I find the study of historical people fascinating.

It is clear that the character of a person with power over other people is of colossal importance in why that person can lead others, and how such people are the makers of history while their followers are most-often unnamed in the history books.

The force of character of leaders is a formative force in making history. The ambition and the ability of Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar, Charlemagne or Jinghiz Khan, Napoleon Bonaparte or Mao Zedong, shaped the centuries that came after them in ways no one can dispute.

The “faceless people” of History

The effect of other people – the masses who follow, who die and kill in wars ordered by their leaders, who were never leaders and whose acts were insignificant to history, is much harder to gauge. Consider this:

“But the effect of her being[ my editorial emphasis ] on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

This is the final sentence in a novel (Middlemarch) by George Eliot, and offers a perspective on unnamed individuals in history who also “make a difference” to the course of human lives. In this observation by Eliot, I take her to mean that Dorothea, to whom this refers, has such a character that it has an effect on all around her and thereby contributes to “the good of the world”.

{Note: I understand that by her word “being,” Eliot meant something like character. But perhaps she meant not character, but soul. A very old book, Genesis 2:7 in the Bible, writes that the first human “became a living” – and here the translation of Hebrew nephesh is disputed —  “being or creature or soul.” It is possible Eliot intended much more than character when she wrote “being.” That is a more mystical meaning than I would take from the text.}

A working definition

Most of my readers will get their definition of character by googling, and here is what you would find on page one of your search.

Definitions from Oxford Languages

noun: character; plural noun: characters.

the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.

“running away was not in keeping with her character”

Britannica Dictionary definition of CHARACTER. 1. [count] : the way someone thinks, feels, and behaves : someone’s personality — usually singular. He rarely shows his true character—that of a kind and sensitive person. This is a side of her character that few people have seen.

This is a denotative meaning of character. It also has a connotative aspect, an implicit value judgement that would slant the word in a positive direction. To say a person has character is a positive judgement on that person.

Here is a link to a site with a decidedly opinionated view of “character” that might amuse readers by its bias.      


A book I have found of great value in discussing character is James Hillman’s Force of Character. It is the sequel to the equally-wonderful The Soul’s Code.



Descriptions of a character

Who are you? is no easy question to answer if one is authentic and seriously honest. And knowing oneself is a philosophical obligation not all of us wish to assume despite the advice of Socrates that this is a cornerstone of a good life.

Why are you the person you are? is a question we in 2022 most likely try to answer with some understanding of the research of psychologists and neuroscientists, those experts on human mind and behaviour we turn to for explanations.

“Personality inventories,” to try and regularize human character into typologies, abound. Carl Jung put his stamp of approval on the Myers-Briggs character measurement. Online, one finds a plethora of questionnaires puporting to help us discover our traits. But it has become abundantly clear that the majority of such instruments are thinly-veiled ways for social-media owners to harvest information about us that can be monetized and the data sold to people we cannot know but who wish to sell goods and services to us. This is not self-knowledge, this is self-commodification.

Personally, I value the long-standing friendships, few as they are, of people whose knowledge of me is profound. I know myself better for knowing people I love who know and value me. The loss of such people is a deep and grievous wound.

I have absolutely no patience with people who believe their past can be dismissed by a facile formula such as “that was then, this is now” or “I am not the person you think you know from my past; I have moved on and evolved and your knowledge of my history is not of value.” (These are posts I have seen on social media.)

I reserve the right to decide whether a person has truly left behind the pattern I have seen in their behaviour over years of their life. They cannot wish it away.


Anyone who has been responsible for a child, for the health and well-being of another human being, has felt the awesome weight that comes with being a formative influence, a  shaping force of teaching and example, upon the character of a young human.

What is clear from any reading one might do on character, is, there is a much larger force working on a person and shaping their character than the person’s own choices: culture makes character, and we receive the culture we are born to from other people.

We come into being mysteriously – some say with a soul burdened by past-life experience, others that we arrive with not much in the way of already-formed traits – and once here, in physical matter, a living being upon the mortal plane, our character starts to walk along a path, growing its own shape.

Evolutionary pyschology adds profound new depths to the understanding of character by delving into the effects of our species’ past existence, the forces acting upon the hominids such as homo erectus from whom homo sapiens emerged, and what those depths of time have left upon us as traits in our behaviours. https://www.britannica.com/topic/hominin

Aggression, desires, jealousy, drives, sociability, and inhibitions are just a few of the traits deep inside the human genome. No one knows the exact balance between the power of our genetic inheritance and the force of our culture in shaping the character of a single indivdual. A great deal of human history reveals the activity of incandescent “model humans”, giants of spiritual and moral teaching and behavioural codes, in relationship to the masses of people they wish to form according to an ideal. Think Buddha, Confucius, LaoTzu, Jesus, Mohammed. Religions have attempted to improve us. Religions have been instruments of the few to rule the many. Culture, of which religion is part, is equivocal in its effects for good or ill upon the general mass of humanity.

One can be certain of this general observation: “culture and nurture” do not always rise above nature and evolution in the weighing of determinants for how each human acts in its individual life. Just as true: the notion of the “better angels of our nature” in a constant war with our baser, violent, “lower selves”, is not a useful simplification.

Humans have provided vast amounts of history and prehistory to fuel the debate over our ultimate virtue or our lack of it. We are divine; we are demonic: the record of many peoples across time and space are the evidence of complicated human being.


Born into a society, a culture, a circumstance, we are not free to be just anyone. The ideology and philosophy of “ secular liberal humanism” might push one to declare such freedom, but serious reflection serves to awaken one to the inarguable limitations on our liberty. A person born to affluence in a Western democracy today, has a remarkably different notion of freedom of choice from people in other times and places. We Canadians believe we choose our leaders democratically.

[for a scholarly study of American culture and personhood, see




We live in a capitalist society, with liberal democracy as the political form for our governance and free-market economic foundations for our material subsistence.

I have written in other columns how capitalism has shaped our culture. And if it shapes our culture it certainly shapes our characters. Is that good? Well, it is inescapable while capitalist values dominate. Here is how one academic summarizes the capitalist challenge.

The development of each person involves the fostering of human, social, economic, and political bonds, as exemplified by practices of gift exchange, mutual help, and reciprocal giving. Thecrisis of capitalist democracyopens the way for the creation of a gift society that perfects and elevates our shared social body to a higher actuality in excess of the

sum of its parts.

Adrian Pabst is a very perceptive scholar in academic asking the right questions about the several crises of the West and its social order. His essays are available online.

Here he tries to assert a direction for the West at odds with capitalist norms:

“the pursuit of ethos and excellence, in particular the formation of character [is] a more primary purpose of education and culture than the sole focus on social mobility so beloved of liberals.”         https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/

Character and our leaders

And here I fumble and strive to maintain a sense of knowing what is and is not. Is leadership over very large populations by very few individuals ultimately subject to an explanation? Why can leaders take us to war? How do they push an entire culture in a direction they choose for their followers?

There is a vast literature on leadership, governance, politics, and their theories. I am not qualified to pronounce on the quality of much of this writing since I have not made it a serious study myself. An example of “scientific” study of leadership might begin with these very recent pieces.   https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-dominant-leaders-go-wrong/      and       https://sites.psu.edu/leadership/2021/04/29/why-do-people-prefer-to-follow-a-leader/  These are not difficult reads, but have references that will lead one deeper into the topic.

It is painfully obvious in the age of Trump, Johnson, bin Salman, Xi, Putin, Duterte, Marcos, Bolsonaro, and Lukashenko, that leadership is not a subject of small import. And  if we cannot understand why such men have such potent force to make history, we have little opportunity to redirect the paths they will lead us down.

Do such men rise because their character is somehow very much in harmony with the character of the populations they lead? Do they sense the Zeitgeist and flow with it – or as Bismarck said, sense when God is passing and hang onto His coat-tails?

As one sees from the last paragraph, trying to understand leadership often involves one with somewhat mysterious qualities such as a god of history or a ghost of the times …

Can followers learn to do without leaders? The idea is gaining ground…     https://charleseisenstein.org/essays/from-nonviolence-to-service/


I can say this, learned from my reading: there have been “world-historical” leaders – Hegel’s phrase – who never doubted they were unique and special, with a Destiny already laid out by Providence. Alexander was the son of Amun-Zeus in his understanding.  Jinghis Khan served Wan Tengri, the force of heaven. Napoleon believed in a god of Destiny, and that he served it by his megalomanic  schemes. Hitler absolutely believed in his unique power and role in History, which he spoke about as if it were a deity.

Conquerors often had peculiar notions of direct relationship with gods or a deified History. Emperors from Akkad and Egypt through Rome and China have believed in their status as vicars of Heavenly powers. Their people seem to have been willing to act as if they too believed. Religion has a bad odour for many people just because priesthoods have served such leaders’ goals.

A democratic social order professes not to let leaders get out of control of followers. Yet historical evidence from recent times does not offer comfort that electorates choose well among their options, nor that the options they are given will be “what the people want.”

Just how is it that we feel the choices are all bad sometimes? Has “a system” become more potent than ourselves, the people who built it? Are we servants and not masters of an “overworld”? Is there truly a deep state, a conspiracy of Illuminati, who treat us as puppets? If aliens are watching us, does it matter? Not in my mind. There are so many things we can do, why speculate on the ones we cannot touch?


I have never found a short analysis of why leadership works on followers and takes them from independent decision-making to straightforward conformity with directives. It is for me a depressing aspect of our species, this surrender of own-mind to One-mind.

But there is cause for some optimism, for the power to control one’s character and to exercise independence from leaders of low quality, lies within each of us. Yes, I am aware I have argued for the severe limitations on our ultimate freedom to form our character. But in this age, for Canadians in the middle class, that independence is relatively capacious.

Striving to be an optimist is a trial for me, I admit. I am helped by an essay like this one: https://thehub.ca/2022-08-04/is-canada-losing-itself-author-lydia-perovic-on-her-adopted-countrys-political-and-cultural-decline/

The divisiveness in our social order and our polity over things like the meaning of “Freedom!” during a pandemic, do give me pause when I survey my country. But I will assert some confidence that Canadians still have it within us to do better in the matter of choosing leaders and the directions they will take us.


Appendix:  Further reading


Leadership studies, unfortunately, often turn toward business and corporate interests in leadership rather than political leaders. Here are some exemplars of studies, with a mix of leadership from politics and business. These might serve as a beginning for research into Character and Leaders.









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