Leading, and learning, together

Leadership has been a hot topic for years now. It seems like everywhere I turn, I see leadership books, podcasts, conferences, and seminars. I have learned volumes of theory about leadership and have been fortunate enough to test some of those theories in the crucible of daily church leadership for the last decade or so. In this brief post, I will share three shifts I have made in the way I lead.

Character more than competency

I used to coach and train potential leaders as though competency was more valuable than character. I never actually believed that, but my practices were not aligned with my beliefs. To be candid, there are many prominent leaders who would agree publicly that character matters more than skill, and yet their private lives are full of immorality.

How many more public scandals must the church endure before we take the content of a leader’s character more seriously than their skill?

While competency and skill are important, a lack of personal integrity will undermine any level of ability. When it comes to developing leaders, I have learned not to let the brightness of their skill distract me from the dark areas of their character. The task of leading others is too important to take anything for granted, so I must ask questions like:

  • When is the last time you sought forgiveness?
  • How do you deal with failure?
  • What are you tempted to hide?

The primary character trait I look to develop in a potential leader is an eagerness to learn. If a person has every necessary competency yet lacks the willingness to learn and expand their skillset, they will eventually become more of a burden than a blessing. Conversely, no matter a person’s shortcomings, whether in the area of competency or character, if they are willing and eager to learn, they can become a powerful leader.

The living room more than the classroom

I have spent many hours in a classroom hearing principles of leadership pronounced, but not demonstrated. Since effective leadership must build on a foundation of character rather than competency, the training ground for leadership must move from the classroom to the living room.

To develop leaders I must provide opportunities for them to see my character being tested in the day to day instead of just hearing my theories in a classroom every now and then.

Today’s leaders must be authentic and transparent in order to be trusted and followed. These are not skills you can exercise only when needed, but character traits that must be part of your deepest self.  For the next generation of leaders to be effective and productive they need to see authenticity and transparency modeled for them in a relational context.

I have been told that if I let people get this close to me they will lose respect for me, so a good leader needs to keep a healthy distance in order to be respected. I couldn’t disagree more. If you lose respect for me when you get to know me better, it likely means there is a flaw in my character. Instead of using distance to hide my flaws, I want to commit to relationships where people can see how I deal with my flaws.

Spontaneous more than planned

Competency can be taught on a schedule in a classroom, but character is cultivated spontaneously in the everyday stuff of life. Most of us can hide behind a veneer of good behavior from time to time if we know we will soon be able to return to what we consider to be our private lives. The spontaneity that occurs in a relational context however both reveals and tests the strength and depth of my character more than a planned classroom session ever could.

It’s been said that character matters because you will always do more good by accident than on purpose.

On a practical level, this means that my leadership development practices look a lot like inviting people into everyday life. Instead of required reading for students, I recommend books to friends. Instead of being available during class hours, I am available almost all the time. This is certainly a slower process, but I am convinced the fruit of it will remain longer than conventional leadership training methods.