Character: Actions, Not Words . . .


If you get to thinkin’ you’re a person of some influence, try orderin’ somebody else’s dog around.  ~Cowboy Wisdom

Patagonia-Steppe-and-Lagoon-IGFishing is definitely a solitary pastime.  Just you, the rod, line, fly and (hopefully) a big fish.  As a result there is a lot of time without the normal daily interruptions to think about things.  Some important, some not. This past week I found myself fishing in the desolate and wild landscape of Patagonia, Argentina, with plenty of time to think on the 13 hour flight from London to Buenos Aires and back, as well as during the six days of fishing.  It’s called fishing and not catching because catching is few and far between, so lots of time to think.

So being in a more relaxed state of mind than when going about my normal life activities, I suddenly become aware of things that often go unnoticed. And with the US presidential campaign in full swing, the concept of “personal character” was fresh on my mind. (If you have to ask why, then you haven’t been watching the so-called presidential debates).

lone rangerSince I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, much of my view on a person’s character came from reading the autobiographies of great men and women (Lincoln, Gandhi, Florence Nightingale, Albert Schweitzer, Einstein, Marie Curie) at our local town library and from evenings spent watching TV serials featuring heroes like Roy Rogers, The Lone Ranger, Sky King, Tarzan, John Wayne, Audie Murphy and Davy Crockett. Exaggerations and caricatures I agree, but none the less, clear examples of one of the first definitions of the word “character”: the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual. 

Now days, it seems like the word character is more accurately translated as “exaggerated traits or a ridiculous but amusing person; a clown”. Just watch the antics of Donald Trump during his campaign speeches, or follow the tabloid behaviour of the Kardashians or any number of “popular” celebrities of the day.

Two Examples of Character

So, here I am at a rustic lodge on the windy and arid steppes of southern Patagonia, over a 100km from the nearest paved road, with fishermen from Spain, Argentina, the US and the UK, along with a number of local Argentinian guides. Plenty of opportunity to fish and observe “character”.

Two actions stood out for me that bring home the importance of character and those people we want to have as friends and companions in life, and those we don’t. Let me describe them.

The first exhibition of character came late one afternoon at the end of a hard day of fishing in nearly gale force winds with temperatures hovering around 3° C (37 F).  My guide for the week is a young (mid-20’s) Argentinian from the north who spoke little English, but in every way a person of strong moral and social character. He spent the entire day helping me change flies, untangle knots in my line, helping cook lunch in a hut over coals, even picked me up from a fall on slippery rocks and dunking in the ice-cold lake. Not a great day of catching either. I was cold, tired and looking forward to a shower, fireplace and a large Scotch as we drove back from the lake over the rough gravel road. All I wanted was to get to the lodge in a hurry.

All at once my young guide stopped the pickup, opened his door and ran about 10 yards up the road. I just sat and watched. Somehow he had spotted female Ground-Tyrant (small insect and seed eating ground bird) and a brood of about six baby chicks in the middle of the road. They are tiny and grey in colour and blended in with the rocky road to make them almost invisible. I didn’t even see them! Anyway, he gently shooed them off the road, and even went back to look, finding two more chick hiding among the stones, which he carefully escorted to their waiting mother. Then he got back in the truck and we drove on. He said nothing. Just a natural act of character from someone who cares.

The other event concerned two guest fishermen at the lodge. One spent most of the evening complaining in my ear about the wine, the condition of the accommodations, the long-winded tales from the lodge owner, and a dozen other faults (from his point of view). A second guest, quiet and well-mannered, stood up after each meal, thanked the lodge owner and the cook, and helped clear away the plates. Both were paying guests.

Reflecting on these events and others in my life, it is easy to see that character is about actions, not words.  I hope the American public recognize the difference when they go to the polls this November.

Because power corrupts, society’s demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases.  ~John Adams

Written and Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,  Business Books Website

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

John also writes thriller novels!


About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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3 Responses to Character: Actions, Not Words . . .

  1. Michael McNally says:

    I’m not surprised … rather, I am smiling to see how “in sync” we are when it comes to seeing everyday demonstrations of character … people actually acting out their core values with no need to call attention to those actions.
    Thanks for the reminder JRC.


  2. That’s a great quotation from John Adams that I have not seen before. His remarks begs the question of whether there is any man alive who has the character to resist absolute power. Even John Adams found himself passing the Alien and Sedition acts.


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