Site icon Marketing Thought

Character And Impacting Politics From Retirement

David Brooks’ book The Social Animal was fascinating. We saw a Conservative commentator engaging well with social science. The Road to Character is a rather different book. What then does Brooks tell us about character and impacting politics from retirement?

Brooks As Biographer

It is a collection of biographies designed to encourage more moral behavior. I would not be Brooks’ typical target reader. (I’m not a Conservative, the book has religious undertones, etc…). That said, I found it relatively interesting. The stories and characters are well chosen. There are some worthwhile characters. Who knows, some people might even be motivated to try to be better people after reading the book.

There are broader observations I think that are worth drawing out though. The first is about character itself. Basically, I just didn’t get his point about character. The people illustrated clearly (mostly) had massive glaring flaws. I get the point that no one is perfect. We all (hopefully) know that we aren’t perfect ourselves so I guess we are more likely to be inspired that we can achieve things if we see that Eisenhower wasn’t perfect either. (What was going on between Eisenhower and his assistant? How could he drop her so quickly? This seems a very troubling way to treat a woman.) Yet, I still wondered why focus on the good bits and completely gloss over bad bits?

Selective Attention To Character Flaws

Selective attention seemed to be the theme of the book. Looking at the 1940s.

…it did occur to me that there was a strain of humility that was more common then than now.

Brooks, 2015

There were a bunch of terrible things in the 1940s but are we supposed to conclude from Brooks that the 1940s was better? It seems that you can choose any set of facts you want and make any case you want in this sort of work. I honestly worry about any work (including at business schools) mentioning character. It is usually ridiculously selective. One might argue that Churchill had great character. Indeed, he obviously had strong points. Still, what about the racism, classism etc…? For some reason, some major data points don’t count when we judge people. People who writers decide beforehand have “good character” get passes whenever they violate good character. It seems almost anti-science.

Judging A Leader’s Character

Character And Impacting Politics From Retirement

I’d also note that when you read a book etc… changes your perception. In 2018 this book seemed to me like a retirement piece by a Roman statesman sent to the country. (Think Cicero whiling away a few years before someone decided to send a hit squad to finish him off). The statesman would launch subtle barbs at the new establishment. He would be hoping to get credit for being the opposition while not doing enough really to annoy the people in charge.

Brooks’ book seems to be a text from an anti-Trump Conservative. He is suggesting that the right shouldn’t succumb to Trump’s temptations. Unfortunately, the book was pre-Trump’s nomination success. When I found this out the book made less sense to me the more information I had. (Although I guess Trump was already on the horizon in 2014. Maybe Brooks was just ahead of his times?)

Given the selective attention we give to leaders’ flaws perhaps in a few generations time a future Brooks will be writing a book on how much character Trump displayed. If only we ignore the racism, treatment of women, Russia etc… To be fair a number of Trump’s supporters seem to recognize that his character isn’t the best. Not sure if that is better or worse, to be honest.

Character Must Be A Meaningful Concept To Be Meaningful

We need to develop a more consistent way of judging character if it is to be a meaningful concept. The concept of character can’t just be something we say that people we like have.

For more on leadership (and why a lot of it seems like nonsense) see here, here, and here.

Read: David Brooks (2015) The Road to Character, Random House

Exit mobile version