Personality or Character?

What are you more known for: your personality or your character?

Do you focus more on how others perceive you; or on being true to yourself in a way that respects yourself and others, and honors God?

“The word personality itself stems from the Latin word persona, which referred to a theatrical mask worn by performers in order to either project different roles or disguise their identities” (Kendra Cherry).

In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Broadway, 2012), Susan Cain draws on the research of cultural historian Warren Susman to explain the rise of the “Extrovert Ideal” (chapter 1 of Quiet). Without intending to oversimplify a complex social and cultural phenomenon, this occurred with the rise of industrialization and urbanization.

People began to spend more time working for strangers than with neighbors and family. Mass production led to the growth of a capitalistic, consumer culture which required “salesmen.” The Dale Carnegie Institute was founded to help businessmen develop traits and behaviors to help them move ahead in business. For the most part, these traits focused on how people presented themselves to others; that is, the focus shifted to persona, or personality.

By the early 20th century, “America had shifted from what . . . Susman called a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality – and opened up a Pandora’s Box of personal anxieties from which we would never quite recover” (Cain, 21; emphasis added).

When they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining. “The social role demanded of all in the new Culture of Personality was that of a performer,” Susman famously wrote. “Every American was to become a performing self.” (Cain, 21; emphasis added)

From this perspective, personality is more about outer charm or performance.

But character is about inner virtue and an internal integrity, or wholeness.

Words associated with character are citizenship, duty, work, honor, reputation, morals, manners, integrity. Words which focus on personality includes magnetic, fascinating, stunning, attractive, glowing, dominant, forceful, energetic. (Cain, 23)

Most anyone could reasonably work to improve traits in the character list. However, the personality list includes traits which either you have or you don’t! But these traits of personality became the ideal, and generations of Americans have thought these are the necessary characteristics of success.

At least in American culture, we have a fascination (if not obsession) with performers and entertainers. Our churches and models of ministry have been influenced by this fascination/obsession as well!

In our current cultural context, leaders have a tendency to be personality-driven rather than character-driven. We think and, unfortunately, have been taught that a particular persona is necessary for successful leadership. However, too often personality-driven leadership undermines character because it requires being untrue to oneself. But if we are not true to ourselves, how can we be true and genuine to those we lead?

So on which are you more focused – either consciously or unconsciously: projecting a particular persona, or being the best you possible? Performing every time you are in public; or living out of the deep well of integrity and wholeness within?

Written by guest blogger, the Rev. Dr. Rhonda L. Carrim, associate professor of Practical Theology at Northwest Nazarene University. Previously, she taught and pastored in Trinidad and England. She and husband Errol are passionate about helping Christian leaders thrive in life and ministry.