It’s something we all want. In our leaders, our children, and for ourselves.
But what is character and how do we go about developing it?
My guest today tried to find the answers to those questions and the result is his book Forces of Character. His name is Chad Hennings. Many of you might know him from his days playing defensive end for the Dallas Cowboys when they were winning Super Bowls left and right. But what you might not know about Chad is that he’s also a veteran of Operation Desert Storm. Since hanging up his football cleats, Chad has spent his time helping men become better leaders, husbands, and fathers through speaking engagements and book writing.
In Forces of Character, Chad shares interviews he did with a wide ranging group of people — from Roger Staubach to a woman who survived Auschwitz — on what it means to live a life of character. Today on the podcast, Chad I discuss some of the insights about character he’s gained from talking to these folks. This is a great podcast to listen to with your children.
- Why character is kinetic
- The lessons on character Chad got from playing football as a kid
- Why training your character is similar to training your body
- What all the people Chad interviewed in his book have in common when it comes to character
- How growing up on a farm builds character and resilience
- What Roger Staubach can teach us about duty and consistency
- How a homeless recovery center in Dallas has a 25 times higher success rate getting folks off the street than other organizations
- What an Auschwitz survivor can teach you about the importance of humor in developing character
- How Gregg Poppovich created a “team first” ethos at the San Antonio Spurs (and how that’s caused him to pass on some of the most talented players in basketball)
- What men can do to teacher character to the next generation
- And much more!
Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast
- Practical Philosphy: Greco-Roman Moralists (the course on Stoicism I mentioned I’m listening to)
- Roger Staubach
- Dallas Life (Bob Sweeny’s homeless recovery program)
- Dr. Edith Eger
- Gregg Popovich (a book dissecting Popovich’s leadership skills)
- National Center on Fathering
Forces of Character is a quick read, but full of great insights about living a life from character from prominent individuals from all walks of life. My favorite interviews were with Roger Staubach, Tom Henricks, Gregg Popovich, and Edith Edger. For more information about Chad and his book, visit chadhennings.com
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Brett McKay: Chad Henning, welcome to the show.
Chad Henning: Hey, pleasure to be on. Thanks for having me on.
Brett McKay: You came out with a new book called The Forces of Character where you interview friends, associates, mentors that have been involved in your life in some way or another about what character means and what it means to live a life of character. I’m curious, what was the impetus behind this book? Was there something that happened in your life that you felt like I needed to write this?
Chad Henning: I think it’s all the things that we are consistently bombarded with day in, day out, whether that be through the media, through relationships, through whatever, where I just see character lacking, whether that’s watching political debates in this political season approaching a presidential election, to athletes on the field hurting their teams with certain unsportsmanlike conduct, to things you read about in the business section day in, day out, that I really wanted to start a conversation about the importance of character and why it matters to us as individuals as well as to us collectively in our culture.
Brett McKay: I’m curious, you start off the book talking about what you mean by character. Everyone has a different definition of what it means to live a life of character, but I think it all sort of hits on the same thing. I’m curious how you define character?
Chad Henning: Character, in essence it’s doing the right thing. I know that’s a very broad definition, but to me it’s defined by certain traits, whether that be functional moral character about selflessness, self-discipline, perseverance, resilience, how you treat others, following that golden rule of do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. For me, I define being an individual of character or being a force of character as someone who lives to be their best self everyday, who encourages others to do the same, as well as lifting those organizations or those entities that they’re affiliated with, whether that be a family, a business, a team, encouraging those around them to live to a higher normal purpose and cause.
It’s taking in all those different things and bottom line, if you had to boil it down to just one statement, it’s following that golden rule of servant leadership and doing unto others as you want them to do unto you.
Brett McKay: It seems like the emphasis is on action. Is that what you mean by when you say in your book character is kinetic?
Chad Henning: Very much so. Character can be made as an analogy just when you exercise and you work out and you’re exercising a muscle group. If you’re doing a bench, you’re doing a squat, character is made up of those small decisions that you make day in, day out, that they matter. You don’t just wake up and decide as I write about the book to … Hey, I’m going to rob a bank today, or hey, I want to go start a homeless shelter. No. Those decisions, who you are, first of all it’s a choice and those decisions that you make impact your actions and whether you can achieve to be the person that you want to be for your tomorrows.
Character has to be active. It’s just not a light switch that you turn on and turn off. It’s an identity, and that’s what I talk about. It’s kinetic. It really takes in all your thoughts, your words and your actions, who you are as an individual going forward in your life.
Brett McKay: I know many of our listeners are likely familiar with you and your career with the Dallas Cowboys and in professional football. I’m curious, how much did foot ball influence how you perceive character? What lesson did you take from the football field that you’re able to apply to just regular life, everyday life?
Chad Henning: I would say not much from playing professionally, because who I was as an individual is already ingrained in my identity. But going back, playing football in elementary school, where you’re on the playground, where you’re just out there with your friends, that’s where I learned the importance of character. It’s those lessons … They talk about athletics, particularly football, being one of the best leadership laboratories that their is, where you learn life’s lessons on character, how you play with others. How do you define your role as an individual in the confines of the team? How do you overcome adversity? How do you act when you win, when you lose? What’s the commitment, your practice in the “off season” or your preparation? How do you think strategically? How do you think tactically?
All these different lessons I learned as a kid growing up that were solidified as to who the person I wanted to be and chose to be. We all played with those kids that were selfish, that were ball hogs. You don’t want to be around those guys because it’s all about them and you learn early on that to win a game that’s a team sport you need others around you. You need to encourage everybody to be doing their role to the utmost in order to win the game. All kids see that. That’s where it’s important to have these conversations with your kids at an early age, even when you’re watching on television, when you’re watching the Super Bowl.
Those players are great athletes, tremendous athletes, but more importantly talk to your kids about how do they act on the field when something gets a call against them, or do they pick up their opponent after they tackle them and slap them on the butt and say good job? Those are all great lessons to learn, that we all can learn through athletics, either by participating or by being a fan just watching them from afar.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I think it’s interesting … I love the analogy between athletics, training for sport, and using that as an analogy to train your character. I’ve been listening to some lectures about stoic philosophers and they often used the analogy of the Olympic games and training physically, training your soul or training what we would call character. I just love that analogy. You interview several people in your book ranging from … You have Roger Staubach on, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. I’m curious, how did you go about selecting individuals you included in the book?
Chad Henning: First of all, my whole goal was to show that character is ubiquitous. You don’t have to be from a certain economic level or you don’t have to come from a particular background to exemplify character. I picked individuals from a broad breadth of background, from different gender to experience. They all to me were, as I defined earlier, what a force of character was. You named a few, from Clarence Thomas to Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman, Gregg Popovich, coach for the Spurs, space shuttle commander, CEO for the National Center on Fathering, an Auschwitz survivor, an international human rights attorney out of Communist Romania, to a homelessness expert. All these people have very wide backgrounds but they all have impacted others by being a force of character. That’s why I wanted to get it out and that was the intent of having as broad an audience as I can, because anybody can read this book and take something out of it because they’re going to relate to one of the individuals in one of the chapters that I wrote about.
Brett McKay: We’ll get into the specifics of some of the folks you interviewed, but I’m curious, as you interviewed them was there one thing or a few things they all had in common when it came to living a life of character?
Chad Henning: Ultimately they all had that transformational moment where they realized that character mattered. A lot of them I wrote about, I think all the Cowboy players, for those people who are Cowboy haters out there can empathize with this, but as young kids they all stole something, whether it was Roger Staubach, a little Virgin Mary icon, Troy Aikman was a pocketknife. I took a football card. Jason Garrett took a pack of gum from neighborhood store. It was all those things where they felt guilt, they felt remorse and they were held accountable for that. They went to our parents, we were punished appropriately, but we had to go face it up and return those items.
That’s where for everybody across the board had that transformational moment where they realized there’s a difference between right and wrong, that your decisions every day matter. They then transformed that experience into being, again, that force of character, being your best self every day and encourage others to do the same, and then lifting those around you toward an higher noble purpose or cause.
Brett McKay: I thought the story about you stealing the football card was kind of funny. You made a little girl cry?
Chad Henning: It’s a great way to open a book, I stole a football card from a little girl.
Brett McKay: There was a learning moment. I thought it was interesting too, a lot of the people you interviewed grew up on farms. They came from rural lifestyles. What is it about farm living that helps develop character?
Chad Henning: One of the aspects I mentioned earlier too about functional character is work ethic, and that’s where grown up on a farm … I grew up on a farm in Iowa and by watching my father, my grandfather, my brother work the land, because as a farmer if you don’t get out there … There’s no days off. If you don’t go out and take care of your livestock, if you don’t go out and till the soil or plant the soil or harvest the crops that you plant, nobody is there to do it for you. It’s up to you, so it’s that aspect of personal responsibility. If you don’t take care of your family, there’s nobody there to do that.
The great American work ethic or whatever, that I think has been in our national psyche for years, was based on that agrarian society of people working the land, and that translates over. It carried over for me in my career both either as a fighter pilot or as a football player. I took those same lessons in life about work ethic and worked as hard as I could to be the man that I am today.
Brett McKay: I think there’s something about farm work too, that it helps you become resilient. Farming, you’re dependent upon the weather and you have no control over that.
Chad Henning: That’s where I laughed at my dad and I said I don’t know how you can deal with the stress because in other businesses you can control certain inputs into your business to control margins of the cost of your goods or cost of goods sold, et cetera, production timing, but as a farmer you have no control over the commodity prices of your grain or your livestock that you sell. You can’t control the weather. You can’t control the cost of your input. It is what it is. The only thing that you can do is control who you are as a person, work your hardest getting the crops in, and praying to God that you get a crop, that you don’t get drought or an overabundance of rain where you get flooded out, to your point that these farmers are probably the most resilient people that I know.
Brett McKay: Whenever I read these stories … I grew up in the suburbs of Oklahoma playing Super Nintendo. I feel like I missed out on something in life. I didn’t get that school of hard knocks that comes with agrarian living. I guess sports helped me with that. Let’s get into specifics here. One of the people you interviewed was one of the famous Dallas Cowboys coach, Roger Staubach. I love the story about duty and consistency when it comes to building character. What did he have to say about those two ideals, about living a life of character?
Chad Henning: Roger, being very similar … This is one of the reasons why I wanted to interview him, because we came from a common background. He went to the Naval Academy and I went to the Air Force Academy and then ultimately served our commitment and went on to play for the Cowboys. Of course he’s the Hall of Fame quarterback, Super Bowl champion, been a huge mentor to me. What he talked about was that aspect of character kinetic, that it’s not so much the words you say, it’s your actions. Today, for those parents that are out there listening or for anybody that is mentoring a young person, just to go off on a quick side note here, is that kids today have a pretty good filter, a pretty good radar of are they going to trust you just based on … Because kids to day are bombarded with media, that they can determine pretty much who they trust and who they don’t.
If you’re not exemplifying those lessons that you’re trying to teach your kids or those individuals that you’re mentoring you might as well give up on it, because they’re not going to listen to you. It’s going to go in one ear and out the other. You’ve got to walk the walk. That’s what Roger talked about, doing his duty. I don’t want to take anything from those of you that want to read the book, but when he was in Vietnam as a supply officer he had some issues with certain aspects of corruption going on and how he had to confront that. He had a choice where he could have turned his head the other way and forgot about it and just allowed this stuff to go on and rode his time out, but he confronted that.
Also on the football field he talked about certain individuals that he had to pull aside or how he had to motivate them on the field. Again, it was living the life that he did, the choices, the decisions, the thoughts, the actions … All the things that he said mattered because he knew that people were watching them. To live that life of character, you have to walk the walk much more so than talk the talk.
Brett McKay: It’s a daily thing too. I think a lot of people approach self-improvement … They get on the bandwagon. This is the time. I’m going to change, and they have like this big effort and they make some progress and then they just stop and they’re not consistent. I guess a life of character requires just daily work-a-day actions. It’s boring. It’s un-sexy, but that’s how you develop a life of character, just doing the little things on a regular basis.
Chad Henning: That’s what matters the most. It’s not the spectacular, the magnanimous things we do in life. It’s those little things, to your point, day in, day out, that matter most, that truly define who we are as individuals.
Brett McKay: Another person you talked to is a gentleman by the name of Bob Sweeney. He’s part of an organization that works with the homeless in Dallas. What I thought was fascinating about him was that him and his organization have a twenty-five times higher success rate with getting folks off the streets. That’s not twenty-five percent higher, it’s twenty-five times higher. I’m curious, what is the secret sauce? What is he doing different than from a lot of other agencies or organizations that work with the homeless?
Chad Henning: He works on the aspect of identity. Again, not to take away all the stories, but from a high level here he … Dealing with people that are homeless typically come from a varied background. It doesn’t matter your race, your gender, whatever. A lot of people fall into these cycles, these downward spirals, whether that be addiction through substance abuse or physical abuse, relationships, or just life happens, health issues where they find themselves homeless. It’s the identity of do they take personal accountability or responsibility for their actions or do they blame the others? It’s my ex-wife or it was my ex-husband or it was that relationship or that job, it was really that boss’ fault.
The way he has made his program so successful is he gets people to take personal responsibility as to who they are, their identity to be that individual of character, to then take that on where they can go on and become who they really choose to be. The big thing about it too is he talks about it holistically. He talks to them about the importance of taking care of yourself physically, of bettering yourself mentally, of getting that education, at least that high school education, if not taking any continuing education beyond that, but also the spiritual component.
He’s an unabashed Christian, and that is what really gets people to find their purpose, their meaning in life, where then they can go out and be that individual of character and take responsibility for who they are and be a productive member of society. Bottom line, it’s their identity. He helps them find out who they are first and foremost.
Brett McKay: And then helps them become that person that they could be?
Chad Henning: We all want to be somebody, but a lot of people … I mean somebody of significance. Bottom line, we all want to live a life of significance. I firmly believe we all want to look back on life and say we made a difference. Some people are willing to pay the price for that. Some people are willing to make those tough calls, those decisions, to do those little things day in, day out. Others, it may be too difficult based on circumstances. Again, life happens, but a true character resides in how you respond when “that life” happens to you. We’re all tested, and that’s where he gets people to step up to the plate and realize granted it may not have been my fault, but the decisions I make from here going forward, that is my responsibility.
Brett McKay: Helping them become farmers, right?
Chad Henning: Exactly. Exactly.
Brett McKay: I never knew who this lady was until I read your book. Her name is Dr. Eger. She was in Auschwitz. What can we learn from her about dealing with hard times in life? That’s like the ultimate hard time, is being in Auschwitz. What did you glean from her about the character traits you need to develop with hard times?
Chad Henning: She was probably one of my favorite interviews or conversations that I had. What a remarkable lady. She’s probably eighty-eight years old now, but as a sixteen year old teenager growing up in Hungary, fairly middle class family, very affluent. They were put on the cattle car from Hungary to Poland to Auschwitz. Along that train ride there her mother pulls her and her daughter … Her father had already been separated from them. Her mother holds her hands and says, “Edie, we’re not sure,” her name is Edie Eger, “Edie, we’re not sure what’s going to happen to us. We’re not sure where we’re going to go, but always remember they can’t take away what you think, your thoughts, the choices that you make.”
As soon as they got to Auschwitz, they get off the train, they come face-to-face with Dr. Josef Mengele, the Angel of Death who is known for just standing there, pointing his finger to the right or to the left, his thumb, and her mother was sent to the right, the girls were sent to the left, the mother goes to the gas chamber. She is murdered, killed. Edie was a classically trained ballerina, where she ended up having to perform for Mengele before his dinner. Here she is, she has a choice to make, what am I going to do? Do I chose to forgive this guy? This guy murdered my mother. What am I going to do? How do I live? How do I survive this?
Just a tremendous character in finding meaning and purpose in life. My statement to people after hearing a story like that where she made a choice … She realized that she always had a choice, what’s your excuse? That’s the thing about … I learned most from her was, again, resilience and that life is a choice. We have a choice. No matter what happens to you, you have an experience through a concentration camp, which is the ultimate extreme where you’re left to the bare essence of humanity just to survive, and how you survive, you can survive with dignity or you can … We all have a choice. No matter what, we have a choice.
Brett McKay: We can choose how we respond? We can’t choose what happens. That was interesting too. You talk about humor being very important to setbacks and problems like that.
Chad Henning: It’s always trying to find the joy, the true marrow of life.
Brett McKay: You mentioned Gregg Popovich as one of the individuals you interviewed. I’ve always been a big fan of the San Antonio Spurs. It’s one of those basketball teams, they’ve consistently done well, but they’re not flashy. They’re never talked about that much on ESPN or in the gossip magazine shows. They’re never really in there because they’re very work-a-day and they’ve developed this … He’s been able to create an atmosphere within that team that’s very team first. It’s not individual first like you sort of see in the free agent. I’m curious, from this conversation that you had with him, what did do to develop that ethos of team first?
Chad Henning: When I look at the experiences of a Gregg Popovich, and I’ll make another example of Coach K at Duke, both were service academy graduates, Gregg Popovich was from the Air Force Academy and Coach K being from West Point, but they’re both have dynasties. Duke has been consistently … I think this is the first time in I don’t know how many seasons that they’ve actually dropped out of the top twenty-five as a ranked team, but over the years national champions last year. Then you look at Coach Pop, how many NBA titles has he won in the last … They’ve established dynasties. Why is that?
It’s because they take the importance … It’s more than just basketball in the culture that they’re nurturing. It’s about coaching the individual, the man. Coach Pop cares about one, the individual guys that he’s recruiting or that they’re wanting to bring on to play for the Spurs matters. He’s not going to get a guy who can’t laugh at himself, who has a self-deprecating humor. He won’t recruit a guy who always blames somebody else. I should have made All American but if it wasn’t for my coach giving me that extra playing time. He just won’t take them because it’s about the me more so than about the we as a team.
Also it’s important for him to get to know the individuals’ families, to know who they are as a holistic person. Again, I use the phrase coaching the man because they’ll do different exercises before team meetings about word vocabulary or how many capitals of each state can you name? Little things that kind of break the ice, but give these guys an experience beyond just running different offense or defensive sets and getting up and down the court and how’s your three-pointer or how’s your free throw form. It’s about coaching the man. He has a lot of his former players want to come back and coach for him or want to be a part of the organization. He is just establishing a culture that matters and it goes deeper than just what you’re doing for an occupation or a job.
Brett McKay: This means he’s probably turned down some really great talent? He’s not banking on it? He’s thinking something long-term here? He’s not putting success on just one individual?
Chad Henning: Exactly. It’s a long-term vision. You’re not going to get there overnight. He didn’t get there overnight. But once you get people to buy into that vision as your players and understand the importance of it, you have that connectivity and I’ll call it the skin of the game where you want to be a part of that. Tim Dunkin and several of the other players could have gone on to free agency or taken more money, but they chose to stay there to take less because they realized the importance of being around that culture and those core values that Coach Pop has set.
Brett McKay: There’s lots of other individuals that we could talk about. There’s one more I want to talk about because I think it’s important, a fellow by the name of Carey Casey. He devoted his life to being a role model and being a mentor. I think for the folks who are listening to this, all of us are … Not all of us. Some of us are fathers. Some of us just have young men in our lives that we could be mentoring. I think that’s an important aspect about passing on character to the next generation. What did you learn from Carey about the best way of going about mentoring the next generation of young men, young people that have good, strong character?
Chad Henning: What I learned from him is … Carey is the CEO for the National Center on Fathering, is that fathers matter. It does take a family, a mother and a father, to raise children. From dads a child gets that sense of identity and that sense of values from the father. From the mother they’ll get empathy and feeling and the nurturing aspect, male and female. What I learned from him is that it takes time. It’s not something that … You want to provide a good material upbringing for your kids, to do your best, but what matters the most, what your kids want the most is your time, your attention.
I’ll admit, I had been guilty of that. When I was playing for the Cowboys I had young children and there was so much stress in being a Dallas Cowboy at times when you’re trying to get that team position … You’re either trying to make the team or maintain your starting position or preparation for a game, that many times in looking back I was home physically, but I wasn’t home mentally. I was thinking about other things and I jut wasn’t there and I did not give my kids the time. When I realized that, that it matters, it’s both quality as well as quantity of time. Carey has done this so much that he mentors a lot of … Whether they’re black or white athletes, non-athletes, it matters because you’ve got to let them know that you care, and how you let them know that you care is be spending time with them.
That’s the thing that, for those of you guys who are out there listening right now who are dads, you need to spend the time. It’s not just five minutes here, ten minutes there. Get that one-on-one time. Find something to do common with your kids where you can talk. Again, if you’re not exemplifying it, if you’re just talking about this is a lesson on character today son, they’re thinking they’re in a classroom and they don’t want that. They want to spend time with you where it’s a natural part of the conversation.
Brett McKay: Love that. Chad, this has been a great conversation. Where can people learn more about the book and your work?
Chad Henning: You can go to forcesofcharacter.com or you can go to chadhennings.com. Either one of those, you can learn more about what I’m doing as well as learn about the book.
Brett McKay: Awesome. Chad Henning, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Chad Henning: Hey, thank you Brett.