The Unfettered Mind: How to Judge Good from Bad Character
by Donavon L Riley 


“If you would know a man’s good and evil points, you should know the underlings and retainers he loves and employs, and the friends with whom he mixes intimately. If the lord is not correct, none of his friends and retainers will be correct.” 

― Takuan Soho, The Unfettered Mind: Writings of the Zen Master to the Sword Master

When we consider a man’s character, Takuan Soho’s words offer us a revelatory insight: “If you would know a man’s good and evil points, you should know the underlings and retainers he loves and employs, and the friends with whom he mixes intimately. If the lord is not correct, none of his friends and retainers will be correct.” 

These words, extracted from “The Unfettered Mind: Writings of the Zen Master to the Sword Master,” invite the reader to think deeply about the nature of leadership, relationships, and the goal and purpose of morality.

Leadership as a Moral Compass

At the heart of Soho’s insight lies the notion that a leader, or “lord” in the historical context, serves as a moral compass for those under their charge. The leader’s character, whether virtuous or flawed, influences the ethical orientation of their associates. It’s a vital recognition that the values upheld by a leader permeate through the layers of their relationships and interactions.

Think of a leader as the focal point of a moral ecosystem. If this central point is skewed, the entire system reflects the distortion. The principle extends beyond hierarchical structures; it encapsulates any interpersonal dynamic where one individual assumes a position of influence. This can be within a family, a team, or a community. The leader sets the tone, and their correctness or lack thereof ripples through the collective morality of the group.

The Mirror of Associations

To understand a person’s moral inclinations, Soho suggests examining the company they keep. This insight aligns with the age-old adage, “Show me your friends, and I’ll show you your future.” The friends, underlings, and retainers one chooses offer a mirror to their character. It’s an acknowledgment that the associations we cultivate are not mere happenstance; they are deliberate reflections of our values and worldview.

Think about, for example, a leader who surrounds themselves with individuals of integrity, competence, and compassion. In such a scenario, the leader’s correctness is likely to be reinforced and magnified by the positive attributes of those they associate with. Conversely, if a leader gravitates towards individuals with questionable ethics or lacks discernment in their associations, it becomes a testament to potential moral blind spots.

The Chain of Influence

Soho’s wisdom, therefore, also extends to the dynamics of influence within relationships. A leader, by virtue of their position, holds a unique power to shape the ethical climate of their sphere of influence. The correctness or lack thereof in the leader’s actions reverberates through the chain of command, impacting the behavior and attitudes of those under their leadership.

Consider a corporate setting where the CEO fosters an environment of transparency, fairness, and ethical conduct. This ethos trickles down through the organizational hierarchy, influencing managers, employees, and even external stakeholders. Conversely, if a leader is morally lax or turns a blind eye to ethical breaches, a culture of permissiveness may prevail, tarnishing the collective morality of the entire organization.

Intimacy as a Litmus Test

As the reader can readily observe, Soho places particular emphasis on the friends with whom one mixes intimately. Intimacy, in this context, serves as a litmus test for the sincerity and depth of relationships. It suggests that the true nature of a person’s character is laid bare in the intimate bonds they forge.

For example, what is one to conclude about a leader who, in their private circles, exhibits values contradictory to their public persona. The dissonance between public correctness and private conduct erodes trust and authenticity. Soho’s insight beckons leaders to uphold consistency in their moral stance, recognizing that the erosion of correctness in intimate relationships inevitably seeps into the broader fabric of their influence.

Correctness as a Dynamic Process

It’s crucial to recognize that correctness, as conceived by Soho, is not a static state but a dynamic process. A leader’s correctness is not a fixed attribute; it evolves through introspection, self-awareness, and a commitment to moral growth. Thus, Soho’s perspective invites leaders to continually assess and refine their correctness, recognizing that personal development is an ongoing discipline, such as a leader who, upon self-reflection, identifies areas for improvement in their ethical conduct. By acknowledging and addressing these shortcomings, the leader demonstrates a commitment to growth, influencing a positive ripple effect throughout their sphere of influence.

The Enduring Call to Correctness

In Takuan Soho’s words, we encounter a time-tested truth that reverberates through all human relationships, whether we are aware of it nor not: the correctness of a leader shapes the moral landscape of those they lead. This wisdom extends beyond the boundaries of historical context, offering us at present a lens through which to examine the interplay between individual character and collective morality.

So as we attempt to navigate the intricacies of leadership, friendship, and intimate connections, Soho’s insight can serve as a guide, prompting us to consider the reciprocal influence between personal correctness and the moral orientation of our associations. In this dynamic of influence and effect, correctness becomes not merely a static quality but a dynamic force that shapes and is shaped by the complex interplay of human relationships.


*The views and opinions expressed on this website are solely those of the original authors and contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Spotter Up Magazine, the administrative staff, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

By Donovan Riley

Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, and contributing writer for 1517. He is also a co-host of Banned Books and Warrior Priest podcasts. He is the author of the book, "Crucifying Religion” and “The Withertongue Emails.” He is also a contributing author to "The Sinner/Saint Devotional: 60 Days in the Psalms" and "Theology of the Cross".

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