A Scout’s Guide to Judging Character (and why it’s critical)

A couple months ago I made my first ever visit to the emergency room. It wasn’t for me, it was for my wife. It was a bit of an unnerving experience… I’m not very comfortable around the medical field. As soon as we left the hospital, I couldn’t help but think that what I learned had a surprising significance to Scouting. I started to consider an aspect of character training I hadn’t considered before. I’d like to share these thoughts with you in this article. At the end, I’ll share the full story of my ER visit and why this topic became so important to me.

A Troop Election

I clearly remember when I transitioned from Senior Patrol Leader of my Troop to Assistant Scoutmaster. They were going to determine my successor by holding a Troop-wide election. Three Scouts were in the running. I had watched these three Scouts ever since they had joined the Troop. They all held positions of leadership before (like Patrol Leader or Assistant S.P.L.). Each one’s level of character and skills should have been evident to the Troop by the way they handled different situations that came up and different responsibilities that had been entrusted to them.

Election day was upon us, and the mantle of Senior Patrol Leader would have to fall on one of them by the end of the evening. Out of the three, it was clear in my mind which one of them demonstrated the best leadership. However, one of the other Scouts (who I felt to be the least ready) was quite popular in the Troop, and I had reservations about how the election would turn out.

Sadly, when the election results came in, I discovered that my misgivings were realized: the Scout who I considered least trustworthy for the office had won the position. He was a good friend and had a likable personality, but I couldn’t understand how the signs that had seemed so plain to me were ignored by the rest of the Troop when they made their decision.

I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. Unfortunately, it turned out that he was only in that position for about a month and a half. He didn’t really want the responsibility that came with the position and ended up stepping down for the remainder of the term. Meanwhile, his assistant took over.

Why don’t we teach good perception of character?

The Scouts of the Troop made their decision based on personality, not on a discerning judgment of character. This is a mistake that is very easy to fall into (one that I have found myself to make many times).

We have a strong emphasis on self-improvement and character training in Scouting, but we don’t talk much about how to be a good judge of character. Why not? Part of our character training should also cover evaluation of character. Seeing character traits in others (good and bad) is sometimes the best way to learn what kind of person we want to be (or don’t want to be!).

Next up, we’ll cover three main questions a Scout can ask himself into order to judge someone’s character. “Is this person transparent?” “Does what he say have integrity?” “What is his track record?”

Transparency

To some extent, we all hide our inner thoughts and feelings from others. There are many different linguistic and visual tools we use. How much we hide from others is largely determined by personality. Some people are more or less transparent in social settings. A lack of transparency doesn’t mean that this person is not trustworthy. It just means that it is harder to know based on observing them and communicating with him.

We must be aware of and actively consider how transparent he is. To gauge this, look out for nebulous words and phrases. (e.g. Does Romeo say clearly what he thinks about things? Or does he describe stuff in ways that do not commit him to positive or negative expressions?) Next, look to see if the body language he uses to express a certain emotion is uniform. (e.g. You can tell when Romeo has a ‘polite’ smile or a genuine one.)

Integrity

Is he consistent with himself in what he says? If not, he could be simply saying what he thinks others want to hear. Or, maybe he is just ‘wishy-washy’. In either case, this belies a character that isn’t very trustworthy. In order to know for sure, you have to spend enough time around this person. You can’t judge a book by its cover, and the less time you spend with someone, the more assumptions and stereotypes you will make to compensate for the unknown.

Pay special attention to what he says around different categories of people. (e.g. Are the opinions Romeo expresses around his peers different from what he says to his elders?) Think about the variegation of moods you have observed him in. Everyone has their off-days, but was there a dramatic shift of standards/beliefs/etc during the changing dispositions? (e.g. In front of the Troop leaders, Romeo gave enthusiastic approval to the service project. But as soon as he got out there, he did nothing but complain about it to his fellow Scouts.)

Track Record

The final question is closely tied to the last two. Anyone can put their best foot forward for a day. It isn’t hard to be a saint for an hour (by all appearances). In order to be trustworthy, one must do the right thing consistently over a long period of time. Only through this is an admirable reputation developed.

I learned this principle from personal experience during my teenage years. I developed an unfortunate reputation around my house for trying to get out of any kind of work that needed to be done. I hated having this reputation and determined to change it. One day, I made up my mind to work cheerfully and quickly at whatever needed to be done without having to be asked. I was very proud of myself because I was able to keep this up for several days in a row. However, I was frustrated to notice that everyone still treated me with the same expectations they had before. My dad explained to me that you can’t change a reputation built over months and years be acting differently for a couple of days. It takes time.

If you want to judge the reliability of someone else’s character, you have to watch them for a while. If you can’t do that personally, you can talk to other people who have known Romeo for longer than you have. Too often we’re so caught up in our own world, and we don’t pay close attention to what other people say and do around us. If you want to be a good judge of character, you have to train yourself to be good at the discipline of observation. Become a discerning student of human nature.

How to Teach and How to Train

It is too much of a ‘soft’ skill to be able to develop some kind of program that could train people to be good judges of character. It’s not just a set of principles to learn or a step-by-step routine to practice. It is a wisdom acquired through years and discipline. If you are serious about improving your ability to judge character, there are only three things you must do: 1. Intently study human nature. 2. Discover what makes up good character 3. Practice discerning others’ characters continually throughout your life.

The Study of Human Nature

For learning about human nature, there are several resources I recommend. “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie is a book that is mostly just filled with intuitive principles on relating to other people. But when it is read thoughtfully, the careful analysis of each of these concepts will lead your mind in the right direction toward thinking about human nature. It’s a good place to start. There are many other good books like this one that will be very helpful in training your mind to be an astute student of human nature.

Another method I recommend for learning more about character and human nature is reading quality fiction works. Skilled writers paint rich, varied portraits of characters and let those characters play out in all the different situations in their fictional world. By watching this unfold, you can gain so much ‘secondhand’ life experience and insight from the author. Find the best works of fiction and prepare yourself for an entertaining venture into pondering humanity.

Developing a Clarity of Worldview

In order to learn more about character and what makes quality character, you should study your worldview more intently. There are virtues that the vast majority of people simply agree are what is morally good, but the deeper you dig (and the more tricky situations you try to apply these virtues to) the more people disagree with each other. The deviation is based on certain diverging beliefs about the world in general: their worldview. For Scouts, this worldview is rooted in what we believe about God. It makes sense, right? The character and nature of the Creator of the world would be the foundation for our understanding of right and wrong. The more you grow in what you believe about that, the more you will have an understanding of what makes quality personal character.

Quality Practice

The last and most difficult step for improving your ability to make good character calls is to simply practice what you learn throughout your life. However, not all lives give the best practice. You’ve got to put yourself in front of different types of people continually. You could spend a Saturday playing video games and doing miscellaneous chores around the house. Or, you could spend the Saturday leading a group doing a community service project at the local food pantry.

Not all life experience is equally informative about human character. You have the opportunity to shape the quality of your own life experience, so I encourage you to make choices that allow you to become a better student of human nature.

A New Tactic in Scout Character Training

In Scouting, we talk a lot about improving one’s character according to the Scout Oath and Law. However, we don’t talk a lot about being a good judge of other people’s character. There are many reasons why we should change this. The most important is that by studying other people’s character carefully and purposefully, we learn so much more about ourselves and the kind of people we want to be or don’t want to be from the example of others.

In the first part of this article, I outlined the three main ways I have found helpful in judging others’ character. First, we need to be aware of how transparent their personality is. Second, we need to examine what they say to see if they are consistent with themselves. Third, we need to look at their track record over a long period of time.

In the second part, I talked about how someone who is serious about improving their skills in discerning character can go about improving themselves in this area. I care deeply about this. As I said in the beginning, an episode in my personal life recently brought home to me how important it is to be able to make good decisions about the trustworthiness of others.

A Matter of Life and Death

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the situation I mentioned previously where a judgment of character was needed, and the consequences were very weighty. Our trip to the ER was brought about because my wife began experiencing strange and potentially very urgent symptoms that are not normally seen during healthy pregnancies.

Thrust into this very vulnerable situation, my wife and I were forced to make quick decisions about what to do with the different advice we received from the doctors and nurses. Some tried to teach us about the different options; some simply tried to tell us what we should do. We didn’t doubt the skills or credentials of any of them. But some things didn’t make sense. We also knew there are different approaches to various medical situations. We hadn’t gone through this before, yet we were responsible for making a good decision. Everything about pregnancy was very new to us, so we had to rely on the authority of others.

We stayed at the hospital for a day. Fortunately for us, the symptoms strangely cleared themselves up over the course of that day, and the doctor authorized us to go home. The experience of that close call strongly brought home to me how important it is to be able to observe someone, analyze how they act and what they say, and determine the trustworthiness of their character.

Growing up and becoming an adult has taught me that life isn’t as simple as “All you’ve got to do is what the authority figures tell you.” I am responsible for the decisions I make, and many times authority figures are wrong. I have to choose trustworthy authority figures. I must take ownership of making a good decision based on their wisdom and trustworthiness. And that makes this endeavor of becoming a better judge of character one of the more important skills to acquire.

Take some time this week to talk with those who you are mentoring about the importance of being a good judge of character. You will not regret the conversation!

Thank you for reading this article! I hope you enjoyed it and found it helpful. If you did, please pass it along to anyone else you know who might benefit from it. Also, please contribute your voice to this topic. Is there something you’ve learned about this that would help others? Write it in the comments below so that everyone who reads this website can benefit.

Thank you!

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1 Comment on "A Scout’s Guide to Judging Character (and why it’s critical)"

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Scouter Joe
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Enoch — an excellent contribution to your discussion! Judging a man’s character is a skill we desperately need as a nation. A corollary common in my youth but rarely heard today is related: “Respect is earned, not granted.” Collectively, our society prefers flattery and empty promises to frank assessments and constructive criticism, especially in matters of character. Also, I enjoy reading about your journey from youth to father and wish you and your wife the very best. I hope she is delivered of her labors without further incident and your family is healthy, vital and prosperous. I also hope you’ll… Read more »
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