what you see isn't always what you get

What You See is Not Always What You Get

9.6 min read

Dr. J. Howard Baker

Many of us grew up watching teenage movies with themes based on the popularity of high school cheerleaders, beauty queens, and good-looking star athletes. These were the “beautiful people” that everyone admired and wanted to have as friends. Of course many times these popular teenagers were actually self-centered, insensitive, and very superficial.

Before the end of the movie the true character of these idols was exposed. The exposure usually came with the triumphant recognition by the students of a timid, shy, mousy teenager who really possessed the true character.

Stephen Covey, in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, identifies a change that has taken place in America over the past fifty to seventy-five years. For the first 150 years in America the success literature focused on what he calls the “character ethic.” Individuals living their lives based on ethical principles such as honesty, integrity and humility characterized this earlier period. Around World War I there began a gradual shift from an emphasis on character to an emphasis on personality. This shift was toward what Stephen Covey calls the “personality ethic.” It places emphasis on outward appearance rather than character. It emphasizes “appearing to be” rather than “actually being.” 4

David Riesman, in his book The Lonely Crowd, says that character is developed in the home and then dispersed into society through work, play, politics and various activities of society. 7 Riesman recognizes that the emphasis on character that was dominant in America in the nineteenth century has gradually been replaced. Today the success literature emphasizes techniques more than character. Communication techniques, public relations techniques and dressing for success are major themes today.

Recently, a friend of mine shared her experiences about an employee who was a true diamond in the rough. Prior to returning to the work force full-time, she was working a few hours each week as a consultant to several small businesses. Entering a client’s business one day, she observed that the whole office was in an uproar. The problem was that on the day before, the owner had hired a person we’ll call Mary, who appeared in short shorts and looked like she had just left an all night bar. Because the owner was short handed and desperately needed help, he hired Mary on the spot and put her to work immediately.

My friend soon came to depend a great deal on Mary to assist her. Mary was always eager to learn and do things the right way. As my friend spent more time with Mary, she began to see that Mary had real character built on a strong work ethic. Unfortunately, like the greater part of an iceberg, this character was hidden “under water” from the casual viewer, and only the “tip of the iceberg” was visible to others. Mary was abrasive at times and lacked many social skills.

Stephen Covey uses the iceberg as a metaphor to explain the relationship between personality and character. 4 Covey explains that personality is like the tip of an iceberg—the part that people see or come in contact with first. In teenage movies, and many times in real life, we judge people by their physical beauty or their possessions. The tip of the iceberg symbolizes all these traits that are immediately visible.

The first time that my acquaintance suggested to Mary that she continue her education at the local college, Mary was horrified at the suggestion and said it was something that she could never do. No one in her family had ever graduated from college. Mary had been scripted by what Stephen Covey calls the “social mirror.” Each of us tends to form the perception of our self from our surroundings and the opinions, perceptions, and paradigms of others. How we perceive ourselves is often very distorted and out of proportion. 4

You can see someone’s outward beauty, but you can’t physically see character. Character is “below the surface.” People with character are honest and sincere in their relationships. They demonstrate integrity daily by standing up for what they believe, and they know what is right and what is wrong. They treat people fairly. They live the six “pillars of character,” which are trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. 2

The “character ethic” is based on such pillars, and principles such as sincerity, temperance, humility, courage, integrity, honesty, industry, and thrift. These principles cannot be violated if an individual wishes to be truly successful. 3 True success goes beyond financial success. This character, symbolized by the larger portion of the iceberg submerged under the water, was still extant in 1933 during the Great Depression. Many Americans were without work and lacked any means of supporting their families. President Roosevelt implemented an emergency assistance program to help these individuals. Written into the law was the requirement that assistance be given in cash. It was hoped that by giving assistance in cash, officials would be able to convince these proud men, who were industrious, to accept government help. 1 How times have changed!

Some people have a tremendous strength of character but it is hidden behind a personality or appearance that is not acceptable. How often do we ignore such people or “write them off” immediately as failures? We need to prepare ourselves to recognize when a character base is strong enough to overcome the lack of an acceptable personality or image, and give such people support and encouragement until they are able to acquire the necessary social skills to function in healthy personal and business relationships.

I was once so introverted and awkward that one of my teachers told me I would never be a public speaker. A manager once painted a mental picture of me working in an office by myself for the rest of my life, with someone sliding a tray of food under the door at lunchtime. I carried these images, derived from the social mirror, in my head for many years. I accepted them as reality—“the way things are.” Thanks to the help and encouragement from many people over the years, I came to recognize that my self-concept was not totally accurate—and certainly not predetermined. I discovered that I could be proactive and change my social skills over time. Today I speak regularly before audiences of hundreds of people and have taught communication and leadership courses at the college level for many years.

Some time passed and my friend had been working full time at another location for about a year when a position came open in her department. She immediately thought of Mary. Forgotten was her lack of acceptable social skills and her unprofessional dress and language. What was remembered was the fact that Mary was a dedicated employee who worked very hard, was very honest, and always eager to learn. As brusque as Mary could be at times, she was never mean or spiteful or cruel to anyone. She did not have a winning personality, but she did have a lot of character.

My friend hired Mary. When Mary came to work for the department, the response was worse than it had been at the first business where she had worked. Employees would come to my friend and say, “Did you hear what she just said?” “I can’t believe you hired her!” One manager even said Mary needed to be talked to about the way she conducted herself when men came in the office. However, there was never a single complaint about her work or her work ethic—only her social skills.

Within a year Mary had won over the office staff just as she had won my friend. They too began to recognize the solid character underneath the unsuitable social interaction. People in the office began to informally help Mary become more aware of her inappropriate dress and language. Mary was also urged to continue her education. She finally developed enough confidence to enroll at the local junior college. Once she saw that she was an “A” student, she decided to continue her education and pursue a management degree at the local university.

Last May my friend attended graduation ceremonies and watched Mary graduate magna cum laude! Over the past eight years, Mary has developed a winning personality, which complements her outstanding character. Because of her hard work, dedication, and work at self-improvement, Mary has moved into a professional position within her organization and is considered a very valuable employee.

Many times we are guilty of “selective perception.” When we first meet someone, we are often guilty of judging the value or worth of the person based on what we immediately see—the “tip of the iceberg.” Often the halo effect causes us to make a determination about the person we have met based on a single characteristic, such as their looks or their speech. 6 The shortcuts we use to judge others may keep us from opportunities to help others to grow and mature. How many people appear to be “losers” at first, but turn out to be real “winners” once we get to know them? Judging on outward appearance and first impressions can keep us from developing personal and professional relationships that would be very fulfilling and beneficial.

Personality is unique to each individual. Some people have very flawed personalities, yet under the surface they have a magnificent character. Often it takes time to discover this since it is “below the surface.” My personal experience tells me that a person with a flawed personality and strong character is usually easier to assist than a person with a winning personality and a flawed character!

Anybody can lead perfect people. Servant leadership organizations believe that a person that is immature, stumbling and inept is capable of great things when wisely led. As Robert Greenleaf said, “The secret of institution building is to be able to weld a team of such people by lifting them up to grow taller than they would otherwise be.” 5

As leaders, we are in the business of “growing people.” We must not overlook those who may lack certain social skills, but have character. Once such a person is worked with, there is no limit to what such a person can contribute to the organization.

Comments to: jhb001@juno.com



Dr. J. Howard Baker is Assistant Professor of Computer Information Systems at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. Dr. Baker has been a Franklin Covey 7 Habits of Highly Effective People certified facilitator for eight years, and has served the University of Texas at Tyler as their facilitator for four years. During the summer he offers a graduate and undergraduate course at U. T. Tyler in personal and organizational leadership. He holds a B.S. in Management from Samford University, a Master of Accounting (MAcc) from the University of Southern California, and a Ph.D. in Information Systems from the University of Texas at Arlington.


1. Bernstein, I. (1985). A Caring Society: The New Deal, the Worker, and the Great Depression. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

2. Character Counts! Retrieved July 28, 2001 from https://www.newciv.org/ncn/eric/character.html

3. Character Ethic Vs. Personality Ethic. Retrieved July 28, 2001 from https://www.ryu.com/mascio/7habits/Chicago/sld017.htm

4. Covey, Stephen R (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster.

5. Greenleaf, Robert K. Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. New York: Paulist Press, 1977.

6. Frequently Used Shortcuts in Judging Others. Retrieved July 27, 2001 from https://mars.acnet.wnec.edu/~achelte/obl/lprob03/tsld009.htm

7. Riesman, David (1974). The Lonely Crowd. Clinton, Massachusetts: The Colonial Press, Inc.

  • Quote of the Day

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