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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  • 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.