President Ronald Reagan sums up the idea of the fundamental nature of character and what it takes to make good decisions as a leader. In a May 1993 speech to the cadets at The Citadel in South Carolina, Reagan said:
The character that takes command in moments of crucial choices has already been determined. It has been determined by a thousand other choices made earlier in seemingly unimportant moments. It has been determined by all the little choices of years past…by all those times when the voice of conscience was at war with the voice of temptation…whispering the lie that it really doesn’t matter. It has been determined by all the day-to-day decisions made when life seemed easy and crises seemed far away…the decisions that, piece by piece, bit by bit, developed habits of discipline or of laziness, habits of self-sacrifice or of self-indulgence, habits of duty and honor and integrity-or dishonor and shame.
In reflecting on this statement from President Reagan, it’s important to recognize that he wasn’t necessarily speaking about heroes or larger than life figures, although those words could certainly fit the heroes in our midst. He was talking about the common person, and the idea that people rarely “rise to the occasion;” rather most people fall into habits and thought patterns where they’re comfortable. That’s why seemingly unimportant decisions can become the building blocks of character, for good or bad. We have to remember that as leaders we are always “out front.”