11/30/2012 05:03 pm ET Updated Jan 30, 2013

Little Lessons Along the Way: Building Character

Having lived in a number of corrupt countries, I have been provided with the character-building opportunities of interacting with some truly shady individuals, many of whom are in leadership roles that impact my work environment. As a result, I have been thinking about what creates these sorts of people, and how we can teach children different ways of being. In my reflections, I started to think about where I learned about character, and realized that it was through little lessons along the way.

When I was in my rebellious youth phase of life, there was a trend amongst my fellow rebellious youthers to wear bowling shoes as some sort of statement. These mismatched shoes were an outward sign that one did not kowtow to the name-brand nonsense that was meant to give you some value, some sense of "fitting in." On a bigger level, they declared to the popular crowd: I am not like you, and I don't want to be.

The shoes were also a small badge of accomplishment, because to attain them, one had to go bowling and sneak the shoes out of the establishment. The really sly were able to get their personal shoes back -- the ones you had to hand in so that you could have a pair of Bowl-O-Rama shoes in the first place. The less talented shoe-swappers just wore a pair of shoes they were ready to depart with, making a sort of swapping deal without the consent of Bowl-O-Rama management.

I was one of the sly ones. No one suspected that I was capable of a covert bowling shoe operation, and so I pretty much went unnoticed by the Bowl-O-Rama people. I was proud of the badges I wore on my feet, until my dad took notice.

When he saw that I was wearing shoes I did not acquire honestly, the immense look of disappointment on my father's face was a warm-up for the lesson I was about to learn. He sat me down and calmly, quietly explained that I needed to think about the impact of my actions. He talked me through the perspective of the owner of the bowling alley, a man who worked hard to have what he had. He helped me to see that, by taking these bowling shoes, I was impacting this business man's ability to be as successful as he should be, perhaps even impacting his ability to employ people who truly needed work. My seemingly small actions were put into a larger perspective, and I could see how my one small deed had a negative ripple effect.

My father also went on to explain the importance of character; how I could be one who goes along with what others were doing (by participating, or by just quietly standing by) or how I could speak out when I saw that something not right was happening. He helped me to see that I had to make these choices every single day, sometimes in little and sometimes in big ways. "You are a natural leader," he said to me, "You can choose to lead in a powerful and positive way, or you can lead in a way that has negative ripple effects on your community. You can have the choice."

After our talk, he guided me towards returning the shoes to the owner. My belly was in knots as my father drove up to the front of the building, slowing at the entrance so that I could go in solo (a quiet gesture of trust). The shoe return could have gone two ways: I could have quietly dropped the shoes at the counter, or I could have handed them over explaining what I did wrong, and then apologize. I chose to speak the words, and take ownership of my actions. In all honesty, I did that so I could regain some respect from my father, and somehow make him proud. He wouldn't have known either way which action I chose; he was in the car waiting, trusting that I would do the right thing.

As I handed the shoes over, the Bowl-O-Rama manager's response was a big relief: He smiled wide, shook my hand, and said he was amazed at how big and brave I was, for such a small person. "No one has ever done that before," he said, "You must be a girl with a lot of integrity." (Integrity? Me? I stole the shoes!) "No," I meekly responded, "I'm just a girl with a really smart dad."

For more by Erin Michelle Threlfall, click here.

For more on wisdom, click here.