The Reflex of Character

The foundation of effective leadership is character. Nothing else has more impact. Nothing else has greater reach. And nothing else can make up for its lack—not education, experience, talent, or contacts.

Every now and then you hear a story about someone’s character that brings this principle into sharp focus. I had this experience just last night.

Gail and I watched a segment on 60 Minutes about “The Shooting at Chardon High.” If you are like me, you probably don’t even remember the incident. (Sadly, school shootings have become so commonplace they are no longer memorable.)

Here’s the background. Two years ago this week, a student-turned-gunman killed three of his fellow students and wounded three more in Chardon, Ohio. There would have been undoubtedly been many, many more if Frank Hall, the assistant football coach, had not intervened.

When the gunfire began, Coach Hall did the unthinkable. Instead of diving for cover, he stood up, pushed his table out of the way, and started pursuing the gunman.

The gunman fired at him twice and missed. Hall kept coming, pursuing the boy out of the building. Though he lost him in the parking lot, he successfully got him away from the students. (The police apprehended him in the woods soon after.)

Meanwhile, Coach Hall ran back inside to try and help those who were dying while they waited for emergency responders to arrive on the scene. The entire assault—from the gunman’s first shot until he exited the building—lasted just forty-seven seconds.

Twice during the story, Scott Pellsey referred to the coach’s heroism as “the reflex of character.” I didn’t understand that phrase fully until I watched the whole segment. I encourage you to do the same.

As it turns out, the shooting incident was like the visible part of an iceberg. What wasn’t visible was Coach Hall’s character. Though it was tested in an instant, he had spent a lifetime building it—one choice at a time.

That’s how it often is.

For each of us, there comes a moment—perhaps several such moments—when we don’t have time to think. We can only react. And we do so out of our character.

What we do flows out of who we are. Being precedes doing. How we respond comes as a result of all the choices we have made throughout our lives.

Our choices become our actions. Our actions become our habits. Our habits become our character.

This 60 Minutes story reminded me again of why deciding to be a person of character is the single most important leadership decision you will ever make. Everything else pales in comparison.

Note to leaders: Watch the above video with your team and then lead a discussion about the importance of character in leadership. The video is only thirteen minutes long and well worth every minute. You can also find the transcript here.

Question: What can you do today to cultivate your character? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • David Esposito

    Michael – Great comments on the importance of character! Thanks for sharing. Character is the foundation for lasting impact as a leader. Keep up the great work in sharing such valuable information

  • Paul Jolicoeur

    Thanks for sharing Michael. I believe that we must develop integrity. Our integrity is the foundation of our character, everything is build from there. I have found the simplest definition of integrity as; being who you say you are.

  • Leah Adams

    This is so, so true. I have a friend who teaches gun safety and self-defense. He tells his students that they need to know how to practice with their gun on the shooting range so they are intimately familiar with it. That way when/if the time comes when they need it for self-defense, they know their weapon well. He says, “if you are being attacked, you most likely will not rise to the occasion. Instead, you will act out of what you already know to be true.” Same is true for character. Great article.

    • Michael Hyatt

      It really comes down to muscle memory. It’s the daily training that determines how we react when we don’t have time to think.

      • Michele Cushatt

        “Muscle memory.” Fascinating.

  • Rick Funderburk

    My wife and I reacted similarliy last night to the phrase “reflex of character.” I’ll use that! A great description. It seems character can be cultivated in times of trouble or challenges. Our reaction to those times reveals our charter at the moment (or our reflex) but moving through the challenge to the other side forges new character qualities.

  • Kenneth Acha

    I agree Michael. And I think the foundation of all character is genuine love, from a pure heart, and a good conscience.

    • Blake Mealer

      Well said, Kenneth!

  • Debbie McAlear

    I generally have 60 minutes on in the background while doing other things, but I was totally engrossed in this story. What an amazing example of true character! It isn’t something you can pull up “for show”–it comes from years of building. And Coach Hall is trying to build up that kind of character in the at-risk kids he now coaches, who might miss out on those lessons if not for someone who cares for them as he does. We need so many more Coach Halls.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I found the second part of the story to be more moving than the first. What an incredible example—and inspiration.

  • Jordan Fortenboher

    Wow. This was absolutely moving. I think so often we forget the importance of character and living with integrity day by day.

    The fact is, our character is a reflex which is mirrored in all our actions…this article has me asking if my reflexes reflect a weak & selfish character, or a strong, compassionate one. Thanks for sharing Michael!

    • Michele Cushatt

      Me too, Jordan. I keep asking myself the same question.

      • Jordan Fortenboher

        Wow, Michele! Thanks for letting me know I’m not the only one!

  • GarrySenna

    Michael powerful story and great comments – thanks for posting

  • Matthew Ball

    The character needed to do right in the big things when it’s difficult is forged by daily doing right in the little things.

  • Bruce R. Cross

    Michael – my eyes needed a good cleaning…thanks for being the catalyst for a good cry! Thanks for including choices lead to character quote…tweeted that out just last week!

    • Michael Hyatt

      I cried, too, Bruce. The story really moved me.

  • kristinechristliebcanavan

    I have just been reading Dr. Henry Cloud’s book, Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality. I strongly recommend it. Few of us have arrived in this regard, but Dr. Cloud’s book gives hope that we can change–one choice at a time.

    • Kathleen Thompson

      Thanks for this recommendation. I just ordered it on my kindle.

      • kristinechristliebcanavan

        I think you will really find it helpful. I’m not one who recommends books left and right. This one is different.

    • Michael Hyatt

      It’s a great book!

  • kristinechristliebcanavan

    Someone defined character as what comes out when you are under pressure.

  • Jim Sullivan

    Michael, I missed this last night so, thank you. You ask what we each can do today to strengthen our characters. I say, take the difficult thing you need to do but have been putting off, and do it. Even if it’s small. Do it. If it’s huge, do it. If you need help, ask for it. As you say, our thoughts lead to actions which lead to habits which lead to character. So, resolve to take that one action you must to build your character…today, before it’s too late.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I agree. These small actions build habits and those build character.

  • Kathleen Thompson

    Most of us don’t have an experience like that to test our character. I have lived through a few smaller tests of my own and saw where I had room for development. it has given me the opportunity to work on some things and hope that I have what it takes if put to that type of test. thank you for sharing this compelling story and reminding us of what is truly important.

  • Matt McWilliams

    Definitely strikes a chord.

    Most of us, I pray, will never encounter a gunman. But we face “reflex of character” moments all the time.

    When a coworker does something unethical.

    When an attractive woman hits on a married man.

    When you lose your job.

    You name it.

    Character has a certain way of reacting to all of those things.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Absolutely, Matt. Constantly.

  • DS

    I appreciate the idea of reflex – and the implication of the instinctive reaction. It’s a part of who he is.

  • ATerribleHusband

    Wow! What an amazing man. Thanks for sharing this. A great post to start the week with.

  • Kari Scare

    I read this story several months ago in my son’s Sports Illustrated magazine. Such a powerful story because it shows true depth of character by how he reacted. So often, our reactions – what we do without thinking – do not show a good side of us. At least, they don’t for me. This story inspired me to develop character in a way that reflected in better quality reactions, in setting a better example in what just came out of me naturally when I didn’t have time to think and plan. Cultivating my character is all about making small choices in the seemingly unimportant details of life that will develop the depth of character that truly shines in necessary times of reactions. As I make solid choices in the small details, they will add up over time to make a huge difference. I can’t expect to have solid character in the big, gun-in-your-face moments if I don’t exercise it in the small, ordinary, everyday moments of life.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I agree, Kari. It is those habits that build our character that defines us when we don’t have time to think.

  • John Richardson

    He never thought of you as just students…

    • Michael Hyatt

      Wan’t that powerful?!

  • Lucille Zimmerman

    My husband and I watched, both crying in our chili. When it was over we asked each other, “How do you make people like that?” and, “What makes someone turn out that good and others turn out so bad?” Incredible role model.

    If anyone missed it they can watch it online.

    • Michael Hyatt

      We cried too!

      I have asked myself the same question. I think there are three forces that shape the quality of our character. I am working on a blog post about this now.

      • Lucille Zimmerman

        John and I discussed this more on our walk. There were two different events that showed what the coach was made of: 1. How he reacted in the school 2. The decision he made to coach the other team.

        Because I study trauma, I think the first choice was made without thinking (fight or flight) because the pre-frontal cortex—the thinking brain—shuts down in moments like this. But the second choice clearly came out of a deep empathy for students.

        Most people have heard of Brene Brown, and her TED talks and books about shame and vulnerability. I’ve read and watched her for four years, but lately I’ve been listening to her audio book, “The Power of Empathy” and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I listen for a couple minutes, then pause to record her thoughts in my notes. Her material is phenomenal. She’s a breeze to listen to because she has so many interesting stories, and a fun delivery, along with the clinical research to back it up. In your spare time Michael :-)

        • Michael Hyatt

          Thanks, Lucille. I think you are right.

          Where did you find that book by Brene Brown. I can’t seem to find one with that title. Thanks.

  • Debra Ross

    I’m an editor at heart and by training, so I wanted to jump in here about phrasing. I think the phrase “having character” is a bit like the word “quality”: Most of us USE those in the positive sense, as if we’re really saying “having excellent character” or “high quality” when we say “character” or “quality.” But really, everyone has a character and every item has a quality, and those can be either good OR bad OR mediocre. I’m not just being persnickety here, because actually using the adjectives before “character” and “quality” gives much more depth to what is being said about the person or product. Think about how much more vivid a picture is painted when you say “A person of impeccable character” vs. “A person of character.” Or “high-quality work” vs. “quality work.” (And BTW, “quality” is never an adjective, it’s a noun, even though people use it as an adjective all over the place…and now I *am* being persnickety. :-) ) Most of us are marketers in some sense, so I just wanted to encourage Michael’s readers here: Consider using those descriptive adjectives to paint pictures about our products, services, and selves, rather than just hoping the bland words imply what you want them to.

    All that being said, I can only completely agree with the sentiment of this post: There are so many reasons to be a leader of impeccable character: The automatic habits that such a person has are crucial for making sound business decisions as well as for connecting with and retaining team members of the highest quality.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Debra, thanks for your comments. You make a good point.

      By the way, “quality” is listed as an adjective as well as a noun in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. ;-)

  • John Grigsby

    That’s what I’m talking about! A love that cannot be described, and cannot be taught except through trial and errors of life.
    Thank you for sharing

  • John Kramp

    Michael, I love the phrase “the reflex of character.” I had not thought about it before but it may be that what we do by “reflect” may provide the clearest indicator of our character.

  • Josh Collins

    Great post here Michael! I passionately carry this banner about how everything flows from our being. That’s the created order of things. Unfortunately far too many high achievers and productivity gurus out there focus too much on the doing, which creates tremendous soul tension, effectively rendering most of us useless and stuck. Identity and being will always be what produces meaningful doing.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Amen to that, Josh.

  • Melanie Boyd

    Since I live within a few hours of this school, I can assure you this shooting has not been forgotten in Ohio. But how sad we live in a time where such things are so commonplace that we do not remember them all.The “reflex of character” in Coach Hall’s case was positive. The shooter also operated under a reflex of character, but unfortunately his character was much different. The challenge is developing a character with qualities in ourselves and others so that when the time comes we make good choices.

  • Charles Johnston

    Thanks for sharing Michael, I missed this segment last night as it was on as background noise while working on homework. What a powerful message to serve like family and a one for all attitude. Makes you wonder what would you do with just 47 seconds. Makes you want to do what you can everyday to be a little bit closer to the man Frank Hall is everyday.

  • Arlen Miller

    What a powerful story. A tearjerker for sure. We definitely live among heroes. Thanks for sharing this, Mr. Michael.

    • Michele Cushatt

      I love that: “We lilve among heroes.” Yes.

  • Joey Espinosa

    Video totally made me cry.

    You know, I’d like to THINK that I would do a similar thing. But honestly, I don’t know. I seem to find myself missing much less sacrificial opportunities to love and to serve others around me.

  • Michael Hyatt

    Ah, I wondered. Okay, I just bought it.

  • Zechariah Newman

    Thanks for sharing this Michael. I think character is developed by the Be-Do-Have instead of the Have-To-Be. Have to be waits passively and when major tribulation and trouble comes is not ready. Where Be- Do-Have says I am a person of character and I will live it out in the small things. So that when like this man major things come along we will stand strong and be of courage.

  • Doug (Terp) Terpening

    Michael-Thanks for sharing such a great tool to display character and a way to talk about with our group. What commitment. Powerful.

  • Jenny Hester

    You must first decide what type of person you want to be. If it is a person of great character you must begin filling your mind with productive, character building information. You must also choose to associate with others who have the character you want. These three steps will propel your journey faster than anything else.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Jenny, I totally agree. In fact, I have been working on a blog post about “three forces that shape our character.” You have mentioned two of the three I included. The other one I have is the habits you cultivate. Thanks.

      • Jenny Hester

        Looking forward to the blog Michael.

    • Michele Cushatt

      Great insight, Jenny. I’m guessing you learned these in moments of crises, as well. :)

      • Jenny Hester

        Michele – I blog about this. I teach how to Invite Excellence into your Life. Have a great day!!

    • Jim Martin

      Wow. I really like your thoughts. Thanks.

      • Jenny Hester

        Jim – Thank you for the very kind comment.

  • PJ

    We all could take a lesson in character from Frank Hall. Thanks so much for sharing. I also believe that his stance on putting the schools and children first is the exact place where we start the building and respecting and the acknowledgment of the reflex of character. Without it there it will never flow up to those places where it needs to be in our communities, our cities, our government and our every day life.

  • Ken Zimmerman Jr.

    What a powerful reminder about the foundation of character. Coach Hall’s actions saved many, many lives that day. Study after study shows that active shooters do not stop until confronted by someone fighting back. Had Coach Hall not chased him out of that school many other kids would like have suffered harm that day. His character was evident during and after this tragedy.

  • Tony Chung

    60 Minutes is bound by broadcaster laws that prevent viewing outside the US. As this is an important subject, I’m glad I found this non-restricted version:

    • Michael Hyatt

      Thanks for sharing, Tony.

    • Shelley Hess

      Ahhh! And I was a fraction too late, as YouTube has already terminated the account.

      Anyone else found a link where it can be viewed outside the U.S.?

      • Tony Chung

        Rats. Try the CBS link directly: – I was able to view it at work (in Canada)

        • Shelley Hess

          HEY, Tony! Thanks so much!! The link worked. Message received.
          Of worthy note is the character Coach Hall has also demonstrated SINCE the shooting. Steadfast character indeed.

  • lmarmstrong66 .

    I loved the idea that he had the whole team apologize to the teacher and what it represented to those boys. We are all connected and he demonstrated that perfectly through that example alone.

  • Sharon Spano

    Michael – thanks for the post. We saw this episode as well, and I totally agree. It was a very moving example of character in a time of great stress. What a great example for each of us.

  • Michele Cushatt

    My dad always told me, “If you don’t have integrity, you have nothing at all.” I’ve never forgotten it. Such a powerful post, Michael. And it fits so well with your post last week: “Why Effective Leaders Cannot Afford to Be Easily Offended.” Those moments of offense and reaction are often an easy way to get a glimpse of character.

  • Jason Richardson

    There’s a great quote from Ronald Reagan:

    “The character that takes command in moments of crucial choices has already been determined by a thousand other choices made earlier in seemingly unimportant moments. It has been determined by all the ‘little’ choices of years past—by all those times when the voice of conscience was at war with the voice of temptation, whispering aloud or internal, ‘It doesn’t matter.'”

    I originally came across this quote after hearing about Lance Armstrong’s confession. Quite the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of character.

    The seemingly unimportant moments and little choices DO MATTER. What a great example Coach Hall is to all of us, especially those boys on his football team.

  • catrina welch

    Powerful story. Character is like a teapot isn’t it? When under pressure it sings it’s true tune.

    • Joe Lalonde

      Love the analogy Catrina.

  • Al Getler

    The Coach possesses that reflex perhaps as a natural ‘muscle’ that he has built, but I suspect he had a great example to follow. Someone, an adult in his life, showed him how to run towards the problem and not away from it. He and his wife obviously live this throughout their lives together. Just look at their family. Talk about bringing your work home with you…

    It underscores the themes of ‘lead by example’, ‘you become who you spend time with’ and ‘seek a mentor; be a mentor’.

    The husband of a cousin lost his brother on 9/11. His brother kept going INTO the towers to rescue more people, not out. His nature came from his father helping others on his milk route; going above and beyond the call of duty for the milkman.

    Police officers and firefighters often follow in their elders’ footsteps.

    Activists, civil leaders and leaders of all stripes often beget other leaders through their children, their coworkers and their subordinates.

    The coach is more than just a football coach. He is a hero. A hero who could not fight what had been ingrained in him somewhere along the way. I wish I knew who his personal mentor and hero was in his life. Certainly God plays a big role.

    Thank for sharing this Michael.

  • Dionna Sanchez

    I’m so glad that someone wrote a post on character! It has been my theme, motto, and tagline for some time…”It all comes down to character.” (Thanks to my dad.) :):)

    • Joe Lalonde

      Character is so vitally important to us Dionna. Glad to hear it’s something your dad taught you.

  • Lisa Lewis

    Michael, I can’t thank you enough for sharing this piece on Coach Hall. The statement ‘the reflex of character’ is so true. We made every effort to raise our two sons with a similar statement ‘character counts’. Isolated, one-time choices make a difference in the long term even when at the moment no impact is obvious. We can learn a lot from Coach Hall’s model of instilling values into the next generation regardless of our circles of influence. Thank you again for sharing this quality piece.

    • Jim Martin

      Lisa, this is a powerful story. Like you, I was impressed with the way he instilled values into the next generation.

  • Matt Edwards

    Turning the hearts of the Fathers to children!

  • Jim Martin

    What a powerful story! Thanks Michael for sharing this.

  • Joe Lalonde

    That story is awesome Michael. I often wonder what I would do in a situation like that. I hope it would be the same as Coach Hall.

  • Blake Mealer

    A moving story of courage and character…Kleenex required!!

  • Giois Cividino

    Yes, kleenex are needed. The values associated with building character are something we can all strive to inculcate in our children/grandchildren. We’ll never know if we’ve succeeded until the “reflex of character” is called to act.

  • Maryzoe

    As parents, my husband and I have been preaching “what you practice, you become” to our 8 and 11-year old boys. This clip really shows how true this is.

  • LadyJevonnahEllison

    Absolutely incredible. Simply incredible. This video reminds me of how we should all strive to be. (Headed for the Kleenex now…:)

  • Brian Wyant

    What a great story and so heartfelt and touched my soul. What a dichotomy as we watched Dr Phil last night a father who couldn’t even say he loved his son then threw him under the bus for a murder he committed. And then to see this…..Wow! On the one hand love in its purest form (a reflection of Jesus) to evil on the other hand. Thank you for stiring my heart!

  • PastorMelJHOW


  • Afolabi Omowunmi

    Thanks for sharing. Everyday people doing extraordinary things inspires me.

  • Darci Riesenhuber

    Thank you for the post, Michael (as I wipe my eyes). Feeling sad for those who lost their lives and were wounded. Feeling proud that we have people like Coach Hall in the world. You call this Character Reflex, I see it as a perfect example of his inherent fight or flight response kicking in. The “fight or flight response” is our body’s primitive, automatic, inborn response that prepares the body to “fight” or “flee” from perceived attack, harm or threat to our survival.” Coach Hall exhibits, in many ways, his desire to fight for the underdog and those who he feels can’t fight for themselves (eg: children). It’s no surprise, then, that his automatic response to this stressful situation was to fight, not flee, when his kids were under attack.

  • Jeff Goins

    “What we do flows out of who we are. Being precedes doing. How we respond comes as a result of all the choices we have made throughout our lives.”

    To this, I say both a hearty AMEN and a heft GULP!

    Lord help us (especially me).

    • Kathleen Thompson

      Amen and gulp from me as well, Jeff.

  • Kelly Summers

    Coach Hall is from Ashtabula County, the same county I live in and he is so truly humble about this incident. He is a great christian man and I hope he does awesome things at Lakeside High School. Every school district needs many more Frank Hall’s. I know if it were my son fighting for his life on the floor, I would want a man just like him to pray over my child and let him know someone was there with him. Tremendous man!

  • Kyle Shultz

    I found the second half of this video even more moving than the first half, which is just remarkable in itself. Coaches are among the most influential people in our culture (mostly for good, though sometimes for bad). Frank Hall is a jaw dropping inspiration.

  • Debbie Seenarine Wilson

    Michael, As a Chardon parent who had a student in the building in that day and knows Coach Hall personally, I can say that your observation is so very true. It also comes from a person who went into teaching because he cares about kids and shows them that on a daily basis. What happened that day was a moment in time that came from a lifetime of love. My dad said to my husband the day our first child was born: “Remember, all a child truly needs at the end of the day is LOVE” Coach Hall just simply understands that very thing!!

  • John Dunham

    I strongly recommend Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics by Samuel Wells. He says many of the same things about character, and he does so in a drama metaphor. Forming habits is one of the keys, and this allows a person or community to “do the obvious thing.” Many might ponder whether they would respond the same as Coach Hall, but he didn’t even think. He “did the obvious thing.”

  • Brian Del Turco

    Very inspirational. Challenging. What strikes me is that it takes time to forge character — Frank Hall made many decisions leading to that fateful day in Chardon. The decisions he made in that one moment were already established in a time-tested character.

  • IJustWantTruth

    Aristotle said that people must be trained to be moral and this training must occur early in one’s life or it will never take hold. He said there is no difference between being good and being happy: they are the same thing. To be happy, you must have virtue. Acquiring virtue requires acting properly consistently. Getting people into the habit of acting well is what moral training is all about. Habits are things we do without thinking. Having the right habits is virtue. Character is the measure of a person’s virtue. Integrity is how you conduct yourself when no one will see what you’ve done. It exists when proper moral training is successful. Leadership is a virtue but not all of virtue. Some say you can’t have a virtue if you don’t have all of the virtues. But it is easier to simply point out that the virtues perfect each other. Coach Hall was recognized for his virtue of courage. But what 60minutes did was show his virtue of love… which made his courage possible.

    Whew, now that I got that all out, I can attend to my vices. Good day.

  • Dam Mallya

    Michael, this video doesn’t work anymore and I hadn’t gotten around to watching it. Any shot of any other links to it?



    • Michael Hyatt

      Try it now. I re-embedded it directly from the CBS site. (Unfortunately, it seems to start with a Viagra commercial. Nothing I can do about that.) Thanks.

  • Rebeca

    I really want to share this great story with my young students…why the age insensitive commercial?!

    • Michael Hyatt

      Unfortunately, I don’t control that. Sorry.

  • Jason S. Woodrow

    Your timing on sharing this was fortuitous. I brought my sixth grader home from football practice, where the coach had spent considerable time lecturing them (after a bad loss Saturday) on how his priority is forming their character and the type of young men they are growing to be. Then my third grade son came home today having experienced his first “This Is Not A Drill” lockdown at school. (Fortunately, no one injured.) Sharing your blog and the 60 Minutes story with them was perfect. Thanks for sharing.