definition of character

What is the Definition of Character?

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Let’s explore a concise definition of character, and talk about why this is foundational to all true leadership.

“We teach what we know, but we reproduce who we are.” This sobering John Maxwell quote forces me to reflect on what I am deep down on the inside. That’s the real me regardless of my public persona.

There’s a word for what a person is deep down on the inside: character.

We use this word in various ways. For example, we say someone has no character, suggesting that they’re not nice or that they have no moral underpinnings. In this sense, character refers to a person’s virtues, their good side.

But the fact is that everyone has character, whether it is good or bad, and our character is on display, whether we know it or not.

Our character is on display, whether we know it or not. - Whaid Rose Share on X

That being the case, having a working definition of character is critically important, which is the goal of this article.

Narcissism v. Moral Virtues

In The Road to Character, David Brooks, New York Times op-ed columnist and PBS host, explains how the narcissistic bent of today’s culture is eclipsing moral virtues and the ability to build character, and how that gets in the way of true personal fulfillment.

Brooks begins by contrasting what he calls “Adam I,” whose sole desire is success in the world, with “Adam II,” who is more concerned about the development of the inner life.

He reinforces this by exploring the lives of some of the most inspiring leaders of the early 20th century, such as Frances Perkins (labor activist), Dorothy Day (journalist and social activist), Ida Stover Eisenhower (who shaped the remarkable life of a US president), and civil rights pioneers such as A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.

Their lives reflect a rare kind of selflessness, reticence, and discipline which speaks of deep inner character. But Brooks is not quick to give us a specific definition. He writes, “I wrote this book not sure I could follow the road to character, but I at least wanted to know what the road looks like and how others have trodden it.”[ref][/ref]

The Pursuit of Character

So we turn to another book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey, which presents an approach to personal growth and effectiveness that is based on the pursuit of character.

In his research, Covey noted that much of the “success literature” of the first 150 years of American history focused mainly on matters of character (humility, integrity, courage, etc.), but that after World War I there was a dramatic shift to matters of personality (image, skills, techniques, etc.).

Thus, Covey prefaces his treatment of the seven habits with a strong emphasis on the need to take an “inside-out” approach to life and business, instead of “outside-in.” To achieve high levels of outward success but fail in the areas of inner congruency and healthy relationships is tragic.

Who We Really Are

As the iceberg in the tragic story of the Titanic so painfully illustrates, the visible aspects of our being represent only the “tip” of what we really are. That which is below the waterline is much larger and is of far greater consequence.

So consider the following definition of character, as crafted by Pastor Andy Stanley in his book, Louder Than Words. He writes, “Character is the will to do what is right–as defined by God–regardless of personal cost.”

Note its key components: the will to do the right thing, a God-centered definition of what’s right, and an unwavering commitment to that standard.

As Stanley explains, these are based on an accurate understanding of God’s sovereignty (that He owns everything and everyone), and our absolute surrender to His ownership, which predisposes us to a God-honoring response to whatever circumstances come our way.

Our Character Reveals Who or What Rules Our Heart

To drive this point home, Stanley recalls the story of John Wolfinger, the missionary martyred by the Japanese military during World War II. When the Japanese sought to arrest and execute Wolfinger, his followers devised a plan to hide him in the mountains until the danger passed.

But he reasoned that cooperating with such a plan would not only be a poor example for these new converts, but would cause them to compromise their own faith, for they would have to lie when questioned about his whereabouts.

Therefore, refusing to relent, John Wolfinger bravely faced the consequences of faith in Christ, was captured, and executed.

This moving testimony reflects the outworking of rock-solid character. Not every character test involves martyrdom, but each reveals what we are deep down on the inside, which reveals who or what rules our heart.

We see this in Joseph’s spontaneous response to Mrs. Potiphar’s salacious invitation, in the response of Daniel and the three Hebrew boys to the compromising edict of Babylon’s king, and in a thousand similar stories that remain untold.

Our Character is What Matters Most

They remind us that when push comes to shove, what we are deep down on the inside, our character is what matters most. Character is what comes out when we’re jostled, colors our instinctive reaction to life’s challenges, and shapes our most important relationships.

Deep down on the inside, our character is what matters most. - Whaid Rose Share on X

Stanley summarizes it this way,

Your character is the internal script that will determine your response to failure, success, mistreatment, and pain. It reaches into every single facet of your life. It is more far-reaching than your talent, your education, your background, or your network of friends. Those things can open doors for you, but your character will determine what happens once you pass through those doors.[ref][/ref]

That’s why we only reproduce who we are, and why what some people are, speaks so loudly that it is difficult to hear what they’re saying. And that’s why character is foundational to genuine and effective leadership.


  1. David Brooks, The Road to Character (New York: Random House, 2015), Introduction, XIV.
  2. Andy Stanley (Louder Than Words: The Power of Uncompromised Living (New York: Multnomah Press), 21.


Whaid Rose

Whaid Rose, former president of the General Conference, is dean of the Artios Center for Vibrant Leadership and pastors the Newton, NC CoG7. He and his wife, Marjolene, live in Denver, NC.