Throwback Thursday: Assessing Character (The Three Legs of Trust)

This article first appeared as a Leader’s Insight in Leadership Weekly, September 18, 2006.

Leader’s Insight: Assessing Character

Peter was one of the most gifted pastors I’ve ever known at his position. His programs at his church were known throughout the area for their quality and influence, and he was looked upon as a model for leadership in his field.

This man was having great ministry impact–all while he was having an extramarital affair.

Today, this pastor is out of full-time ministry. Fortunately, although he lost his job, he managed to keep his wife and family. But there are many who will never trust him–or another pastor–again because of his actions.

In a previous column, I introduced the idea that leadership trust is based on three legs: character, competence, and communication. Of these three, character seems the most obvious, and the one that is most often singularly equated with trust. Yet, it is hardest to assess.

Character can be defined as a leader’s sense of moral fortitude, an inner compass that determines how a person acts when no one else is looking. Other definitions use terms like “reputation,” “integrity,” “virtue,” and “core ethical values.” At its root, the word “character” reflects the idea of etching, something that is so deep, it not only identifies a person but also defines them.

Ministry leaders would agree in principle that character is important. Yet in reality, many leaders and organizational systems allow the other legs of trust, competence and communication, to stand in for character. But while doing so may result in short-term success, eventually an individual’s true character will surface, and that revelation will not only erase many of those successes, it can potentially ruin that leader’s reputation for a lifetime.

For an example of this, just look at the recent athletic doping scandals involving Marion Jones, Justin Gatlin, Barry Bonds, and Floyd Landis, among others. All are exceptionally competent performers. All have excellent public relations staffs to handle their communication with the press and their image in the public eye. But can their words, and their achievements, be trusted?

Time will tell, of course. That’s the nature of character: it is proven over time, in multiple settings, both in the public eye and outside of it. The Scriptures talk about character as something that has been proven and approved. There’s a reason Professor Harold Hill had to jump from town to town in The Music Man, he knew that eventually he’d be found out and his “boys’ band” scam would no longer work in that city.

A Measure of Character

Here’s another thing about character: It is revealed not in skills, but in community. How can you determine the depth of a leader’s character–their etching? There are the obvious things, of course, the big, socially unacceptable sins like dishonesty and infidelity. Next, look for patterns in the leader’s day-to-day habits. How faithfully does the person handle time and money and those he or she works with?

The most important measure of character is the quality of the leader’s relationships. Does that person live in community, not grudgingly, not just willingly, but to the point where he or she pursues accountability? A person of sound character is not afraid of the light; in fact, he welcomes it and even desires it.

I knew another pastor who was always reluctant to join a small group at his church, even though such groups were foundational to his church’s community, and a requirement for employment there. For this leader, however, there was always an excuse to not become involved: he was busy; he hadn’t connected in previous groups; his role as a pastor would change the dynamic of the group; he didn’t feel comfortable sharing his feelings.

Sadly, but to no one’s surprise, this pastor left that church rather than engage in community, and we eventually learned that he had succumbed to multiple addictions. But again, this man was gifted and well-liked for what people saw on Sunday mornings. In fact, he is still very competent, and he is still struggling, now for his life and for his marriage.

Leadership effectiveness depends on trust, and trust depends on good character. There is absolutely no substitute.

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