Susan Cain (Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Broadway Books, 2012) writes:
America has shifted from what the influential cultural historian Warren Susman called a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality…. In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private. But [in the twentieth century we] embraced the Culture of Personality. Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining.
This shift over the past 100 years has had enormous consequences. It touches every sphere of American life. The narcissism of social media provides a stark example of the Culture of Personality. We project preferred images, carefully cultivated and cropped, to present ourselves as interesting, adventurous, or glamorous. Image is everything, and what lies behind the image (character marked by integrity, humility, generosity, and service) has quietly slipped off the radar.
This is no more evident than in politics right now. Some politicians are treating public service like a reality television show, full of theatrics, sound-bites, and superficiality. The Culture of Character has given way to the Culture of Personality.
Similarly, we see this playing out in some churches across the country. Pulpits are less and less filled with pastors who pray, promote holiness, and model the humble Presence of Christ among us. Instead, the celebrity pastor has become the ideal. Showmanship, entertainment, humor, and attractiveness (replete with plastic surgery, television make-up, and athletic builds) are everything. This cult of Personality subsumes the gospel and stymies the spiritual formation of the people.
This shift from the Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality also means that the loudest and proudest get the most attention. Quiet achievers get relegated to the backwaters. Fast-talking and long-talking has displaced thoughtful talking. The extrovert trumps the introvert every time. Leadership becomes linked to boldness and assertiveness.
But real leadership must never be so shallow. When character no longer counts, leadership can no longer be trusted. When personality and flamboyance become the measure of leadership, we sacrifice its legitimacy.
To all the introverts out there (many of whom tend to read blogs and listen to podcasts), your call to leadership is authentic. Receive it. Lean into it. Embrace it. Live it. Leadership is not measured by the momentary mania of the crowd, but by the long-term change of the people.
Character counts. Personality barely does. Let’s rise above superficiality. Let’s reject the Culture of Personality. Christ himself had little time for whitewashed tombs.
David Timms is Dean of the School of Christian Leadership at William Jessup University. Views expressed here are not necessarily those of the University.