FIRST-PERSON: Character always matters

Tags: character

ONTARIO, Calif. (BP) -- It seems like there is a new revelation or accusation about immoral conduct by a politician, media or entertainment leader almost every day. Among the many questions raised by all this is, "Does character count anymore in choosing a leader?"

For many people, the answer is no. Their emphasis in leadership selection is on other issues -- creative talent, engaging personality, business acumen and political expediency. They want someone who can "do the job," which can be a short-term, selfish perspective.

The better answer is yes. Leadership selection in the church and in other realms of life should involve all the qualities listed above -- after all, leaders by definition are pacesetters who must be able to do the job. But great leaders are also people who demonstrate strength of character. They are self-restrained people who make decisions for the common good. They treat other people with respect -- both their followers and detractors. They are not perfect, but neither are they reckless in personal behavior. They have an internal compass set to true north, objective truth impervious to polling.

Why is this important? Because leaders deal with unprecedented situations for which there is no blueprint for solutions. When those decisions must be made, leaders (like every other person) revert to their basic convictions, guiding principles and core values for guidance. That's why character matters. When the pressure mounts, what is squeezed out counts.

A good follow-up question is, "How much character?" In other words, how do we find leaders who demonstrate moral virtue while acknowledging that no one is perfect, that leaders make mistakes, and that some very flawed people have done some very remarkable things.

A good starting point is the unholy trinity of issues that are the most serious and most common tests of character -- money, sex and power. Leaders must demonstrate self-control in these areas. Without it, a downfall is inevitable. That does not mean a misstep in these areas completely disqualifies them from leadership, but it will at least diminish their impact or taint their legacy. These temptations are so pervasive, wise leaders take extra precautions to protect themselves and ensure accountability regarding them.

Another significant issue is how a leader handles mistakes -- which are inevitable. When a leader takes full responsibility for his/her mistakes, accepts the consequences (legal, financial or relational), really apologizes for their actions and makes restitution when required -- recovery of leadership stature is possible. For sure, some mistakes and their consequences are so egregious that trust is forfeited and leadership roles are permanently lost. But those situations are rare. American history is replete with political, religious and corporate leaders who bounced back from serious mistakes and made significant leadership contributions.

Finally, the archaic-sounding quality of humility is another significant issue when considering the character of a leader. True leaders hold their position as a stewardship -- not an entitlement. Humble leaders recognize their gifts and opportunities as blessings and privileges -- increasing their burden for the well-being of others, not proving they are better than others. It's easier to forgive a humble leader than an arrogant one.

Character counts, now more than ever in leadership. As Christian leaders, let's set the pace in modeling the character required for leadership in today's convoluted world.

Jeff Iorg is president of Gateway Seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention and author of "The Character of Leadership: Nine Qualities that Define Great Leaders."
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