The Road to Character | Book Review

David Brooks’ deeply referenced work offers a lifetime of classical, nourishing sources, and more specifically, historical depictions of virtuous paragons, whose complex journeys of discovery are captured in individual portraits, or chapters. Chapter 1 (p. 5) sets up an enduring Moral Ecology theme, that a strain of humility was more common before World War II, captured while watching a modern professional football game:

“It occurred to me that I had just watched more self-celebration after a two-yard gain than I had after the United States won World War II.” (p. 4)

The Introduction (pages xi-xii) sets forth Adam I (creative, savors his own accomplishments) and Adam II (renounces success for purpose) temperaments from Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s Lonely Man of Faith, then illustrates inspirational character portraits in Chapters 2–10.

Consider reading the Introduction, or the Introduction & Chapter 1, along with just one or two of the chapter portraits at a time for inner thought and reflection, as Brooks’ masterwork warrants habitual revisit. Four of the nine portraits struck acutely, and this book review explores them.


Cicero wrote in Tusculan Disputations:

“That person then, whoever it may be, whose mind is quiet through consistency and self-control, who finds contentment in himself, who neither breaks down in adversity nor crumbles in fright, nor burns with any thirsty need nor dissolves into wild and futile excitement, that person is the wise one we are seeking, and that person is happy.” (p. 111)

George Marshall may be the finest example of service before self in the twentieth century, and likewise demonstrates leaders may be made rather than born. Interestingly, Marshall’s brother Stuart feared George’s unimpressive academic record would disgrace (p. 106) the family name, creating a lifetime motivation. How much time is lost before we truly believe in ourselves, and in others?

A series of passages (pages 107-8) suggest the excellent, the very good, serve as models for many of us. Brooks aligns with Personal Leadership Philosophy development in that acts (or values) precede the virtue. (p. 110) We must walk the talk. Consider feedback (p. 111):

“The higher you go in life, the fewer people there are to offer honest feedback or restrain your unpleasant traits.”

Afraid to share your leadership goals? Marshall sneaked into the Oval Office and presented his case to President McKinley! (p. 112) Further, he took immense career risk, confronting General Pershing (pages 113-114), who later hired him and became Marshall’s most important mentor. Marshall refuses to promote himself as the leader of Operation Overlord, and Eisenhower advances into history, yet Marshall continued serving after the war, organizing the great task of rebuilding Europe, which bears his name.

Brooks gently laments contemporary loss of institutional faith and privacy, especially compared to Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn’s testimonial:

“We are in the presence of a man who is telling the truth as he sees it.” (p. 122) Integrity matters.


Most of us celebrate Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, while forgetting their moral predecessors Philip Randolph & Bayard Rustan (e.g. Rustan rode in the white section of a bus in Nashville in 1942 – p. 139). Brooks returns to creation of a formidable moral ecology, created by both men as guiding beacons throughout their lives. Randolph continuously faced the question “How do you amass power while not being corrupted by power?” (p. 132), a worthy question for all leaders. Our impulses may interfere with Adam II goals, as Rustan’s arrogance, promiscuity and recklessness did, severing his relationship with Randolph for years.

Brooks offers an interesting explanation (pages 145-6) by David L. Chappell’s, Stone of Hope, of two civil rights movements; a northern and highly educated, optimistic vision; and a biblical view that man is a sinner at the core of his being. This suggests the strength of our leader vision, and coherence of our communication increases likelihood of success, as withRandolph, King, and Rustin.

Eventually Randolph and Rustan reunited, realizing their enduring prior vision of a Washington DC civil rights march where Mahalia Jackson sang and Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream” speech. Maybe this is what our Personal Leadership Philosophy is for, as Brooks reflects (p. 151), “building an inner structure to contain [our] chaotic (like Rustan’s) impulses within.” Leadership endures.


Brooks’ pairing of Samuel Johnson & Michel de Montaigne reminds one of Robert Pirsig’s Lila, or static and dynamic quality. That is, he describes Samuel Johnson as “An East Coast rapper – intense, earnest, combative” and Montaigne as “A West Coast rapper – equally realistic but relaxed.” (p. 228). Johnson, like many of us, had great strengths alongside equally enduring weaknesses. Brooks reflects “He seems to have remembered everything he read, (p. 214), but he was also rebellious, rude, and lazy (p. 215).” Perhaps Johnson was autistic.

Intellectually overmatched by William Law’s 1729 A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, while at Oxford, the work activated Johnson’s internal moral demands. Similar to our frequent low scores on time management self-evaluations, he struggled with incoherent multi-tasking, or Zerrissenheit, (a great German term – p. 218) reminding us of wasted energy described in Scrum.

Despite his quixotic behavior, Johnson authors a torrential literary output (p. 220) – twelve thousand words, or thirty book pages, per sitting. Take a look at Johnson’s observations of vice (p. 225), two really strike me:

• Man’s chief merit consists in resisting the impulses of his nature.

• Very few can boast of hearts which they dare lay open to themselves.

Montaigne, like many of this book’s archetypes, “had a midlife suspicion that he had been living wrongly in some fundamental way.” (p. 229) In our leadership training, we endeavor first understand ourselves better, then others. Montaigne described himself, while Johnson undertook describing other people first (pages 229-30), just as we have learned to initially focus on ourselves, then others, as part of our continuing journey.

The Big Me

Give Chapter 10 separate, considered treatment. Many books limp to the finish, however, in welcome contrast Brooks integrates his exemplars with energizing flourishes unifying his moral ecology. On pages 244-5, his integrated moral realism cases (Johnson, Montaigne & Eliot) collapse, giving way to a more upbeat and positive version of life after World War II (see referenced Rabbi Joshua Liebman’s Peace of Mind). Brooks persuasively backs his claim (p. 246) referencing a literary gamut from Benjamin Spock to Norman Vincent Peale.

Brooks introduces the contrasting modest, self-effacing Johnny Unitas with the flamboyant Joe Namath meeting in Super Bowl III, in a way passing the baton from the moral realism age to contemporary self-esteem. Employing Katherine Meyer Graham’s life as analog, we traverse from one moral ecology to another, addressing social injustices along the way, moving from Little Me to Big Me.

Technology has three effects (pages 250-1) on our moral ecology according to Brooks:

 1.   Communications have become faster and busier.

2.   Social media allow a more self-referential environment.

3.   Social media encourages a broadcast personality.

On page 254, Brooks mentions the Big Me culture tells [us] “how to do the things that will propel [us] to the top, but it doesn’t encourage [us] to ask [ourselves] why [we] are doing them.” Here our Personal Leadership Philosophy may help, so that we may balance Adam I and Adam II muscles.

A final integration of fifteen propositions, coined The Humility Code (pages 262-7), conclude the book with a reminder (p. 268) that each of the personal sketches revealed were deeply vulnerable requiring a lifetime to triumph over.

Just like us.

JE | October 2015