(Lawrence W. Reed is president emeritus of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, N.Y., and Atlanta, Ga.)

What’s the most important element in forming a successful career and a happy life? Well, here’s one that is so important that without it, you ain’t goin’ anywhere. Some might call it integrity, others might call it character. I use the two terms interchangeably here. No matter which one you prefer, I recommend that you bulk up on it; if you do, you’ll be amazed at how most if not all of the other elements of a rewarding life and career will eventually fall into place. On frequent occasions it will more than compensate for mistakes and shortcomings in other areas.

From an employer’s perspective, Warren Buffett makes the point plainly: “In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.”

Integrity is more important than all the good grades or degrees you’ve earned, more important than all management courses you could possibly take, and more important than all the knowledge that you could absorb on any subject. It’s something over which every responsible, thinking adult has total, personal control, and yet millions of people every year sacrifice it for very little. It will not only define and shape your future, it will put both a concrete floor under it and an iron ceiling over it. It’s what others will more likely remember you for than your looks, your talents, your smarts or your rhetoric. If you lose it, it will taint everything else you accomplish.

Your character is the sum of your choices. You can’t choose your height or race or other physical traits, but you fine-tune your character every time you decide right from wrong and what you personally are going to do about it. Your character is further defined by how you choose to interact with others and the standards of speech and conduct you practice. Character is a prerequisite to leadership. If you’ve got character, others will look upon you as a leader.

When a person spurns his conscience and fails to do what he knows is right, he subtracts from his character. When he evades his responsibilities, succumbs to temptation, foists his problems and burdens on others, acts as though the world owes him a living, or fails to exert self-discipline, he subtracts from his character.

A free society flourishes when people aspire to be models of honor, honesty and propriety at whatever the cost in material wealth, social status or popularity. Without strong character widely practiced, a free society just isn’t possible.