“Great leaders come in all shapes and sizes with a wide range of experiences, knowledge, and abilities. What they all have in common, however, is great character. In the The Character Triangle, Lorne Rubis provides a terrific framework to be applied by all who desire to lead and lead well.”
— Dick McCormick, Chairman emeritus, US WEST
The junior high school gym was stuffed with a few hundred hormone-infused kids between eleven and fourteen years of age. The year was 1975 and I was leaving. I’d given my heart and soul to St. Nicholas and now it was time to say goodbye. It was my first job after graduating from the University of Alberta, where I played college football and had centered my academics on sports.
Not surprisingly with my background, I’d spent the last four years coaching almost every school team, from soccer in the fall to track and field in the spring, and teaching the physical education classes as well. I also taught English, the sex education program (that was interesting), and ran the intramural program. My exceptionally patient and supportive wife, Kathleen, and I lived in a basement suite across from the school. Our place was cramped and dingy but strategically located for a guy who spent his life across the street, blowing his whistle and running around in gym shorts.
There I was sitting on the auditorium stage, the “goodbye” guest of honor in front of the entire school assembly, as the school principal, Henry Czlonka, conducted a number of “end of year” ceremonies. I felt like a lump of sugar slowly dissolving in a glass of Kool-Aid. Doubts about my choice to leave my teaching/coaching position and go on to graduate school at the University of Oregon surfaced more and more as the school year ended. Then Mr. Czlonka said “a few” people wanted to come forward with some “special farewells” and “thanks” to me.
First my team captains came up and gave me “memory gifts,” including plaques and trophies with touching messages engraved on them. Other people had a few things to say about my impact and dedication, all very moving on both a personal and professional level.
And then, spontaneously, these crazy, loving kids stood up on their chairs and gave me the ultimate standing ovation. This expression of gratitude was so overwhelming for me that I lost it completely and began to sob like a big, blubbery baby right there in my chair. I did not know what to do, so I just sat with my hands in my face.
Thankfully, the principal quickly adjourned and the students awkwardly shuffled out, a little disquieted by my reaction. I sat there, my face in my hands, until I captured my composure and retreated to my office, which was up the stairs behind the stage. While I huddled in my office, the kids formed what seemed like a never-ending line, each wanting to wish me a personal thanks and goodbye.
I remember one seventh grade boy came up and said, “Mr. Rubis! All I have to give you is my good luck key chain.” The boy’s key chain turned out to be a little bronze colored medallion; I still have it.
In one moment, these amazing kids gave me a lifetime. I told Kathleen later in the day that it almost didn’t matter what happened next in life; whatever comes next would all be a bonus after the outpouring of love and gratitude I experienced that day. In many ways I still feel that way. These incredible kids gave me back way more than they could ever know. If there was a reference for “give and you shall receive,” this shining moment was it—and then some—for me.
I share this story because, although it signified the ending of one part of my life, it also meant the beginning of another. Specifically, the experience began to establish for me a belief system for working and contributing. Many of us work without a definitive framework or guide for how we define success. And for many of us, we allow success to be defined exclusively by some combination of position attainment, pay and benefits. While all of these elements are important, many find that these things are insufficient and out of our direct control anyway. We go to work and know something is missing.
Sitting on that stage that day, overcome by emotion, I realized I hadn’t just worked with these kids; they had invited me into their domain and allowed me to share what I thought was important. Maybe it was how to hustle on the playing field; maybe it was how to conjugate a verb in English class, or maybe it was simply the idea of doing your best each and every day. Regardless, something magical happened in this relationship between teacher/coach/leader and the “student body.” I now thought more purposefully about how I worked and contributed. That was the beginning of framing up and articulating what I now call the Character Triangle (CT).
At the same moment that those kids were thanking me for impacting their lives, I began to establish a playbook for defining personal success at work, and in life. When I first arrived four years earlier at St. Nick’s in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, there was essentially no legacy physical education or sports program. The team uniforms were discolored, mismatched, torn, or missing. We were short of sports equipment in every sense, and our teams were known primarily for losing. By the time I left, we had a school intramural program that fired up every kid from grade four to nine. We were strong competitors and, to the surprise and delight in the community, had even won a few championships in track, basketball, and volleyball. More importantly, the school’s academic performance was also improving.
The morale and pride that seemed to be missing in the school four short years earlier, now bounced off the school walls just like the energy of these teenagers. This overall improvement in performance and morale was because of the teamwork of many colleagues and the administration, as well as the willingness of the kids to buy into “the program.”
When I look back into the distant mirror, I realize that, as a collective system and culture, the majority of school participants applied the elements of The Character Triangle substantially more than less in our daily “work” at St. Nicholas, and THAT was the fuel that propelled an entire gymnasium of students to stand on their chairs in applause and appreciation. Of course we were not a perfect school and not everyone “liked” everyone else, including me. But collectively, we built something overwhelmingly positive. So I realize (duh) some years later, with less of an ego involved in assessing what happened, that the kids were not just cheering me. They were cheering us as an entire system and as collective entities sometimes do; we paused to celebrate and acknowledge each other.
Although there have been no more “chair stands” since leaving St. Nicks, I have experienced a great deal of personal and cultural success in every organization I’ve worked, and I strongly believe much of this can be directly attributed to a commitment to applying the values resident in The Character Triangle. Of course, I have had my share of personal and cultural failures since then too; and, upon careful reflection, drifting away from these values often contributed to my biggest disappointments.
So what is the Character Triangle? I guarantee; it’s a personal game changer. Learning and applying it will help you build more character, have a greater impact, and inspire others. Change the game by applying the Character Triangle playbook and develop a habit system of using it.
Our character is exclusively ours. We define it by how we think, what we do and the choices we make.
The Character Triangle describes and emphasizes three distinct but interdependent values to apply in our daily thoughts and actions:
In this geo-economic environment of hyper-competition and tornado change, the external buffeting of the organization we reside in can rapidly add to a feeling of little or no personal control over the life cycle of the organization itself, let alone our roles within that organization. The combined effects of these business truisms can leave the best of us dazed, confused, and struggling just to keep our heads above water.
So, the question becomes, how do we go beyond just surviving in this type of undulating work climate? Is it possible to complete each day with a personal sense of reward and contribution, regardless of what is happening around us? I believe it is. While we may have less than desirable control of our environment, we do have control of our character—how we choose to think and act, regardless of the situation.
As you complete The Character Triangle, you will be able to determine how valuable and helpful these concepts can be in providing a clear guide and benchmarks. While the values of accountability, respect, and abundance are generic in definition, these values will be exclusively yours in application. I make no request that you modify anything about the core of who you are. But I challenge you to observe how well you really understand each of these values, whether you consistently apply them, and constructively model and coach others to practice them daily. Like most worthwhile things in life, the rewards and benefits from embracing the Character Triangle will come from regular and incremental practice. Remember—success in any area will most effectively be defined by you and your daily interactions with others. If you are lucky, you will experience your own version of a “chair stand” or two.
Be accountable. Be respectful. Be abundant. Living with character and applying the Character Triangle is a belief and action habit system. While each of the values specified in the Triangle are important in their own right, the most powerful application comes by connecting the values as a system every day in some way. The Triangle, however, is no quick fix. Like nearly everything else of value, it is aprocess, a never-ending belief system that gets continuously tested, strengthened, shaken, adjusted and buttressed by the day-to-day challenges of living and working in this turbulent world. As a system, the Character Triangle helps us get the most out of our work and life situations. By living in the triangle we put ourselves in much greater control. While we cannot control what others do, we can control how we think and act. We personally become the most important determinant for thriving and winning at work and live.
WARNING: Living in the Triangle does not equal perfection. There may be factors outside of one’s control that impact the outcome. Being cognizant of these enhances your decision-making. Applying the CT in tandem with one’s own raw intelligence illuminates but does not guarantee the desired result. But when we live in the Triangle, we know the journey we’ve taken. We can be proud of that.