A Useful Guide to Improving Your Character

Sailing True North book cover and image of the author Admiral James Stavridis

Admiral James Stavridis, Ph.D.
Supreme Allied Commander of NATO
Dean of the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University
Chief International Security and Diplomacy Analysts for NBC News
Review by Peter Burke
February 2023

The exercise at the end can be life changing. It helps us clarify and personalize what we are learning from our heroes and role models.

Stavridis, a clear example of one kind of success, offers to teach us characteristics that can guide us through life. He calls upon his extensive reading to present brief histories of ten naval heroes through the ages, from oars to computers. Based on these histories, combined with his almost 40 years of naval duty, he goes on to define ten “character traits at the heart of both good character and effective leadership.” These ten traits follow, along with
the exercise.

“This constant process of self examination is at the heart of improving our character, which is indeed the work of a lifetime for all of us.”

  1. Creativity –
    “willingness to embrace the new despite the difficulties and challenges of doing so”
  2. Resilience –
    ” It is insufficient to be capable and good when things are going well, because sooner or later they will go badly.”
  3. Humility –
    “Arrogance is a toxic quality in a leader.” “It is a lot easier to be resilient when you are humble to begin with.”
  4. Balance –
    “need for balance between our natural ambitions and our drive to succeed as opposed to our love of family and time for contemplation.” “It is ambition that so often drives this lack of balance. Struggling with it is an act of character for us all.”
  5. Honesty –
    “Character that is built around a respect, really a veneration, for truth, is the sort of character to have.”
  6. Empathy –
    “A virtuous person begins every encounter with the world, not from their own perspective
    alone, but rather from trying to understand the situation, mindset and challenges that others are facing. There are both moral and pragmatic reasons for doing so.” (I am reminded of Dave Packard, “First think of the other fellow.”)
  7. Justice –
    “Believing that a sense of justice matters is a powerful part of character.” “I never doubted (nor do I today) that our values are the right ones – democracy, liberty, freedom of speech, gender equity, racial equity. We execute them imperfectly, but they are the right values.”
  8. decisiveness –
    “While I commend the idea that we can always get more information before making a decision, I think there are times when a decisive approach allows a decision maker to seize the initiative.”
  9. Determination –
    “Determination is a strength, but not when it overturns good sense.”
  10. Perspective –
    “We are but sailing in a tiny ship on a boundless sea.” “Character is knowing we are decidedly not eternal, and we should live our lives in the best way we can.”


  1. Column 1. “Write down the names of your heroes, people you know or read about, on a piece of paper.”
  2. Column 2. “Alongside of each name write a characteristic that you find compelling about them.”
  3. Column 3. “Now comes the hard part – in the column next to the quality you esteem, indicate how you are doing.”

Peter’s Examples:

Oleg Sherby, my grad school advisorenthusiasm, zealrestrainedLet my excitement show. Make use of it to help me through dark times.
Scott Weaver, friend and business advisorattention to detailscatteredCommit to keeping files and piles in order. Think ahead to the relief I will feel when I don’t have to search and search.
Liam, my dogengagement, eagernessa bit shyDon’t hold back from speaking to new people.