What we can learn from studying the Great Wall of China

  • Published
  • By Col. John Michel
  • 319th Air Refueling Wing commander
The Great Wall of China was built over a 2,200-year period. It was started in the 5th century B.C. and was not finally completed until early in the 17th century A.D. This great structure was originally designed to protect the various reigning dynasties of the era from raids by outside invaders and for hundreds of years stood as a symbol of strength and resolve. To this day, the Great Wall remains the world's longest man-made structure, stretching a formidable 3,948 miles.

In the early stages of building the wall, bricks were not available so it was primarily constructed from earth, stone and wood. Unfortunately, these materials made it difficult to lay a strong, lasting foundation and, as a result, very little of this early portion of the wall remains structurally sound today. However, by the Ming dynasty several hundred years later, bricks became the material of choice as they were easier to work with, could bear a great deal more weight and, when secured with mortar, retained their integrity better than the rammed earth technique of old. Today, many portions of the wall whose foundations were built from these bricks remain standing, allowing millions of people to enjoy what has been labeled one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

The lesson of what it took to build the Great Wall of China can also teach us would-be Second-Mile leaders a great deal about how we should strive to live our lives. In particular, it should remind us that every time we set out to build anything, be it a great wall, a simple building, or even a mutually satisfying relationship, it is the foundation that is the key to the durability of the structure. It is the foundation, although often hidden from view, which is essential to establishing and maintaining the structural integrity of what is being built. And above all, it's the foundation that determines if what is being built can stand the test of time.

So what is this foundation I'm describing as it relates to leadership? It's none other than our character.

Character: the foundation of second-mile leaders

Character is the set of emotional, intellectual, and moral qualities that distinguish one person from another. William James wrote, "I have often thought that the best way to define a man's character would be to seek out the particular mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon him, he felt himself most deeply and intensely active and alive. At such moments there is a voice inside which speaks and says, 'this is the real me.'" In simplest terms, what James' description reveals is that our character simply represents our authentic self. The person we are through and through, both when people are watching and when they're not.

Developing our character is not something that occurs haphazardly. Instead, it's built over time as we discipline ourselves to put into practice habits and qualities that shape the direction of our lives while revealing the conditions of our hearts. In the words of Austin Phelps, "The grand aim of man's creation is the development of a grand character, and grand character is, by its very nature, the product of probationary discipline. Doing what is good, right and proper as often as possible."

However, consistently doing what is right and proper, especially in those moments when we know nobody would find out otherwise, is no simple task. In fact, exercising the solid moral fiber and ethical strength to consistently say "no" when the world wants to hear "yes," as psychologist Eric Fromm expresses in his book The Revolution of Hope, is perhaps the most difficult thing we will ever do. But it is in these very moments of deep struggle that the firm foundation of our character is formed. As Helen Keller expresses in her journal, "Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through the experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved."

Of course, we cannot expect to develop a strong character overnight anymore than we can expect to build something as magnificent as the Great Wall of China in a single day. Like with anything capable of enduring the test of time, the foundation of our character is constructed brick by brick through the choices we make every day. For as philosopher and author C.S. Lewis reminds us "... every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before."

Hence, our character is formed by the habits, qualities and behaviors we choose to cultivate in our lives every day. In other words, the foundation of our authentic selves, "the real us," is constructed by what we say, what we do, and by how we act on a daily basis. In how we choose to conduct ourselves both in public and private as we seek to do what is good, right and proper as often as possible.

Integrity: the mortar of our character

As I mentioned earlier, much of the enduring segments of the Great Wall of China were built with bricks similar to those we use today. However, to be able to withstand the test of time, these bricks had to be fastened with mortar or mix capable of holding them firmly together. It was the mortar that secured the wall, for without it, the bricks would be unable to hold even a shallow load. Today, as it relates to becoming second-mile leaders of strong character, this mortar does the same for us. But we know it by another name.

We call it integrity.

If you were to look in the dictionary you would find integrity is defined as a "firm adherence to a code of especially moral values," or as "the quality or state of being complete or undivided." Integrity then is the raw material that allows you to securely stand your ground when your principles are challenged; it is the ability not to waver or fall when placed in a compromising situation; and it represents the moral strength required to do the right thing, no matter who is (or is not) watching.

Thus, the "bricks" of character secured by the "mortar" of integrity form the foundation of who you are, both inside and out. They are the only materials capable of helping you stand tall when the world would have you crumble and fall. They are, in fact, the most accurate means of assessing if who you are on the inside is consistent with whom you choose to be on the outside.

Second-mile leaders understand this. Just as they understand that the only way they can build a personal, moral, ethical and spiritual foundation solid enough to stand the test of time is to possess the requisite "bricks" and "mortar" to keep them solidly anchored to what they believe to be right and true. No matter what others would have them do.

The rest of the story ...

Some of you may be wondering by now how the wall was finally breached. How its formidable presence was ultimately compromised. Well here's the rest of the story.

For 1,500 years this Great Wall stood unconquered. One day, a guard who had been entrusted leadership of one of the many sentry posts decided to get drunk while on the job. After a short time he noticed a simple, harmless-looking shepherd walking toward him. The shepherd engaged the guard in conversation and after a few brief minutes was successful in bribing the sentry to abandon his post for a few moments. Almost immediately, hordes of barbarians poured in through the sentry's position and despite the valiant efforts of other Chinese soldiers, they could not be stopped.

For centuries, many had tried to overcome China by force by attacking its great wall, but in the end, China's enemies gained entrance through a single man who lacked the integrity to stand up to his responsibilities as a soldier. A man whose decision to pursue his own self interest over his personal and professional responsibility revealed a person void of character -- a person who did not believe one person can truly make a difference.

How about you? Are you a person known for the depth of your character and strength of your integrity? Someone who can be counted on to uphold the trust that has been placed in you by others? A person so grounded in your convictions that no matter what you may experience on the outside, it does not change what you hold to be important and true on the inside?

If the answer to the above is anything but a resounding "yes," then my challenge to you is to learn a lesson from those who built the Great Wall of China and pick your building materials wisely. Failure to do so can lead you to build a life much smaller, narrower, and shallower than it was designed to be. A life far from being the kind of leader you're capable of being.

And there is no greater tragedy than this.