This is a follow on from the post that began discussing the call, character and competence of a leader. There is one more part to come in this triad.
That there should be a discussion of the character of a Christian leader should hardly be surprising, given the significance of the theme of character in Scripture and the Christian tradition.
James Lawrence offers a simple definition of character (‘who you are when no one’s looking’) and suggests that it is most clearly seen in small, day-to-day things, when the leader is under pressure, and when the leader is in private. Among the reasons why character matters is that ‘without credibility … a leader will have no one to lead’ and that it is character issues that most often lead to derailment.
Then there is this – from Os Guinness:
As traditionally understood, from the Hebrews and Greeks onward, character is the inner form that makes anyone or anything what it is – whether a person, a wine, or a historical period. Thus character is clearly distinct from such concepts as personality, image, reputation or celebrity. It is the essential “stuff” a person is made of, the inner reality and quality in which thoughts, speech, decision, behavior, and relations are rooted. As such, character determines behavior just as behavior demonstrates character.
It has been suggested that much of the Old Testament account of the ancient Hebrews could be viewed as ‘a story of character and character formation’. Both Old and New Testaments exhort the people of God to be obedient and holy. Special application was made to the OT kings who were to be on their guard against the temptations of wealth, horses and the accumulation of wives. In the New Testament, alongside Jesus’ general teaching in places such as the Sermon on the Mount, specific qualities are highlighted in relation to spiritual leaders.
Yet both biblical and empirical evidence remind us that while we might be disappointed at contradictions in leaders’ character, we should not be surprised. While many of the OT kings are condemned for their character failure, there is also a recognition that essentially good leaders can also be flawed.
The biblical record has a lot to tell us about the tests of character: whether it’s Joseph and David, two leaders who meet sexual temptation with contrasting responses, or Jesus himself, whose faithfulness in the face of desert temptation contrasts with the failure of his ancestors at the time of Moses.
Both adversity and prosperity reveal a leader’s character and draw attention either to strengths or to weaknesses that will have to be addressed.
Bill George noted that some of the leaders who get derailed during the course of their leadership journey are not necessarily bad leaders: they get caught up in their own success. I spoke to a leader who shared (with searing honesty) about a phase in the early days of his ministry when his public stock was soaring, but his home life was threatening to derail him.
It seems that success can be more dangerous than failure!
There are several ways in which character has a shadow side. For one thing, as Parker Palmer puts it, a leader can project either light or shadow and leaders need to pay attention to their shadow side, something that calls for a degree introspection that is not always present in leaders. Failing to understand our own failings, according to Palmer, leads us to find ways in which we can make someone ‘out there’ the enemy and so we become leaders who oppress rather than liberate.
Another, perhaps more subtle problem is that our strengths sometimes have shadow sides. For example, resilience can easily become stubbornness; discernment can become judgmentalism. Yesterday’s reflection on calling noted that a strong sense of call can have a shadow side when it means that a leader is so committed to the task of leadership that spouse and family are neglected.
Samuel Rima observed that,
The personal characteristics that drive individuals to succeed and lead often have a shadow side that can cripple them once they become leaders and very often causes significant failure.
In talking with several leaders in the course of my research I noticed some specific examples.
- The self-reliance that can lead to the vital quality of resilience can also make it challenging for a leader to relinquish control. The leader may become stubborn or controlling.
- The ability to confront (not always a comfortable task) allows a leader to deal decisively with issues, but its shadow side can become harshness.
- Similarly, passion gets things done. It is those leaders with passion and drive who are likely to break new ground or thrive in challenging situations, but the shadow side is the risk of burnout or the risk of collateral damage caused to others on the team.
There is this, from Leighton Ford:
Every leader has a ‘shadow’ side, like the dark side of the moon – areas that are disguised, or perhaps explored but unrecognized. I am convinced that our leadership will be stronger and the dangers of collapse lesser if we become aware of these dark areas and bring them into the light early.’
I think the best leadership is that which flows from who the leader is: in that sense it is authentic leadership. I use the term with a degree of caution. There is no doubt that people (perhaps especially younger people) are drawn to authenticity. But its shortcoming is that its reference point appears to be internal while the reference point to character is external.
So perhaps I should say that the best Christian leadership is that which flows from the authentically God-shaped character of a leader.
Which means that all of us ought to be on a constant growth trajectory.
A young church leader asked me once if I thought a lot of Christian leaders have a gap between their public persona and their private life. It was a great question and while I can’t quantify the answer, it has to be some kind of a yes!
Those of us who have some kind of public persona, whether as leaders or preachers, often come across as those who have it all together. According to our persona, we never worry (because we roll our burdens onto Jesus), we are patient and kind, our wives worship the ground we walk on and are so grateful to be married to such wonderful people, we never get angry, all the prayers we pray in our rich prayer lives are answered, we never have any doubts, questions or fears. The calm conviction that we express so eloquently from the pulpits we grace characterises every waking moment.
Whereas if only people knew that our wives sometimes despair of us (I’m reminded of the incident which Paul Tripp recounts – against himself – where he told his wife that 95% of the women in his church would love to be married to a man like him: she declared herself in the 5%!); or that some of us struggle to pray, that we don’t always find our souls nourished by our Bible readings, that our private spiritual lives may not have the vitality everyone assumes, that we get anxious, that we feel guilty, that we may lie awake at night fretting over one thing or another, that we get more angry over some things than we should, that the fruit of the Spirit is not always evident in our lives, that we have questions about unanswered prayer, that we have regrets, that we sometimes get more wrong in our leadership than we get right, we experience moments of self-doubt and self-loathing, that when we cut we bleed, that we sometimes struggle to forgive, or that we have times when we even wonder if we should really be doing this stuff.
In short – we are not perfect, nor will we be until we see Jesus and we are made like him.
None of this should be an excuse for hypocrisy, or for inattention to the cultivation of spiritual character. It should be an incentive for growth.
Ministry and leadership are a gift and a privilege but should not be understood as a ‘get off the hook’ pass in terms of the need to grow in character.
We’ll get to the third ‘c’ (competence) in next week’s post.
But don’t rush to get there just yet – not least if you are a younger leader. Character matters. Failure to pay attention can result in leader derailment with all that entails.