Character is easy to define, but hard to quantify. It is fundamental to leadership yet describing beyond a few maxims, such as, “What you do when you think no one is looking,” can be devilish.
Character within a context of leadership is example. This lesson struck home as I was reading the memoir of one doctor and later listening to an interview with another. Neither are physicians nor Ph.D.’s, but both dispense amounts of healing and wisdom in healthy doses. They are Doc Watson and Doc Simon. Both are in their eighties now and their approach to their crafts, Watson music and Simon drama, give us windows into the role that character plays in work and why it matters.
Both docs are characters in their own rights. Doc Watson is a granddaddy of country folk and bluegrass who has delighted generations of fans with his wistful ballads and mellifluously voice. Doc Simon is one of the most successful Broadway playwrights and Hollywood screenwriters who has entertained millions with characters that make us think, often wince sometimes cry, but so often laugh out loud.
What we learn from the two Docs–by the way Simon, as he reveals in Rewrites, earned his nickname as a toddler when he was given a toy doctor kit and Watson was christened Doc by a fan who shouted the moniker during a radio broadcast — is that character emanates more from what you do more than from who you are.
Voice. A leader needs a voice, a point of view. For Watson it is literally his voice, for my money the most tender yet masculine and warm voice in folk music. Listening to Watson is like pulling up an old chair. For Simon it is a sense of humor that allows him to look at the human condition with an eye toward provoking insight through laughs.
Craftsmanship. Leaders need to care about what they do. Listen to a Watson tune and you know you are listening to a degree of musicianship that fits him and his accompanists like a glove. Simon is a master of creating characters who are so much like us they seem real and it is their foibles that provoke such understanding.
Hard work. Leaders need to put in the time. Watson told Terry Gross on Fresh Air in 1988 that when he broke into music scene he was “green as apples” and depended on so many others to make his way. Simon for his part defines the writer’s mantra, writing is rewriting. All of his plays undergo significant rewrites during rehearsal and in some instances entire new acts are created.
Depth. Leaders need to have soul, a sense of centeredness. When you listen to a Watson ballad you hear a voice that echoes an understanding of the human condition as well as a faith in a higher power. Simon’s plays, and his memoirs, provoke hilarity but they do not simply for laughs for to connect us to life’s eternal questions.
Community. Leaders need to be connected to their people. Watson operates in world of bluegrass and folk where musicians relate to each other in all kinds of interesting ways–teachers, idols and most of friends. Simon lives the community of theater, writers, directors, producers and actors. Cutthroat and chaotic at times, but also warm and understanding, it is fundamental to Simon’s development as an artist.
There is something else that unites the two Docs for me. Both have known hardship and loss. Doc Watson lost his sight before his first birthday; Doc Simon grew up in the shadow of an intolerant and often absent father with a mother who worked hard to make ends meet. Watson’s son, Merle, an accomplished guitarist who accompanied his father on tour, was killed in a farming accident. Simon’s first wife died of cancer at age 40 leaving him grief stricken and challenged to raise two daughters.
Both found peace through their work . Their experiences adds a layer of depth to their respective crafts. Each teaches of the role example plays in shaping character by doing what you do best and trying always to create and to entertain. Good lessons for all of us.
First posted on FastCompany.com on 10.06.10