(Note: This commentary originally appeared in the Feb. 29, 2008, Detroit Free Press.)

From time to time, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has shown good policy instincts. He has talked about reducing the city’s "bloated and wasteful budget" and has taken some steps to rein in the cost and expanse of local government.

How inadequate those brief moments become in light of the mayor’s lies under oath, secret deals, cover-ups and abuse of trust. These things are hardly leadership by example.

Leadership — and the personal character that produces it — counts. Its absence is costly. However the current scandal plays out in Detroit, this can be an instructional moment for all of us.

By almost any measure, the standards we as citizens keep and expect of those we elect to lead us have slipped badly in recent years. Too many of us are willing to look the other way when politicians misbehave as long as they are of the right party or deliver the goods.

Our celebrity-drenched culture focuses incessantly on the vapid and the irresponsible. Insisting on sterling character seems straitlaced and old-fashioned. We cut corners and sacrifice character for power, money, attention or other ephemeral gratifications.

Yet character is ultimately more important than all the college degrees, public offices or even all the knowledge that one might accumulate in a lifetime. It’s the one thing over which every adult has total, personal control in virtually all circumstances. It puts a concrete floor under your future and an iron ceiling over it. It may be what others will remember about you more than anything else. Who would want to live in a world without it?

The evidence of a person’s character is the choices that person makes. You can’t choose your height, race or many other physical traits, but you fine-tune your character every time you decide what’s right or wrong and act accordingly.

Your character is further defined by how you interact with others and your standards of speech and conduct. Character is such an important ingredient in leadership that it is almost synonymous with it. If you’ve got character, others will look on you as a leader; flush it away and you’ll be seen for what you really are.

A deficit of character shows up every time somebody who knows the right thing to do neither does it nor defends it because doing so might be discomforting or inconvenient. Moreover, when a person shirks his duty, succumbs to temptation, foists his problems and burdens on others, fails to exert self-discipline, or shamelessly flaunts his breach of trust, he subtracts from his character. When he is so self-absorbed he ceases to be of service to others unless there’s something in it for him, he subtracts from his character. When he attempts to reform the world without reforming himself first, he subtracts from his character.

A free society flourishes when people seek to be models of honor, honesty and propriety at whatever the cost in material wealth, social status or popularity. It descends toward chaos when they abandon what’s right in favor of self-gratification at the expense of others; when lying, cheating or stealing are winked at instead of shunned.

Having character means that there are no matters too small to handle the right way.

At all levels of government and throughout society, we need more men and women who can’t be bought; who don’t mortgage integrity to pay for expediency; who have their priorities straight; whose word, oath, handshake and vows are ironclad; and who realize that the most impressionable among us—youths—are learning from the way we behave.

It will not suffice for any one bad figure to depart the scene if we don’t raise the standards of character we demand of all our leaders and those who aspire to lead. Character matters. It’s time we settle for nothing less.

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Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

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