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The Role of Character in Leadership
The best leaders aren’t always the smartest or most innovative ones, says Jim Gentry, business manager at McKinney Memorial Bible Church in Fort Worth, Texas. The best leaders are those with integrity and those, like our own Howard Butt Jr., who are transparent about their weaknesses.
Gentry has heard Mr. Butt speak about his personal struggles at Laity Lodge and counts his book The Velvet Covered Brick: Christian Leadership in an Age of Rebellion as an important influence in his life. Likewise, Gentry, who is also a retired Kroger grocery store executive, recalls a district manager who asked his team for help in improving his communication skills. This manager inspired him as a leader.
Gentry said, “He was one of the greatest examples that I had of a leader that had character—not that he was a perfect person, because we all know there are no perfect people out there, but the fact that he was honest … he admitted that he had a down side, and he asked us to help keep him in check on that.”
“Who is fit to lead in a church, or a company, a marriage or a family or anywhere?” asks Glenn Barnett, principal at Providential Energy in Houston, Texas. Even after a career-threatening failure, Barnett says the question isn’t whether or not a leader can rebound, but rather: “Will the leaders’ previous failures be repeated? For who of us is blameless?”
Most people are willing to accept our flaws if we are open and contrite, he explained.
“Our society is full of moral failures and some failed people lead and some don’t. But for those that want to lead, decide that you will follow teachings (for us these are Christian) that will support your optimal path. Then lead like your last decision was your last act to be written on your headstone,” Barnett said.
For Barnett, good character is about having a “moral compass,” a sense of right and wrong that guides you. He says people are drawn to leaders with “stunning” character, but will “shun” selfish leaders who put themselves before the good of the organizations and people they are called to serve.
“When you lead, you must ask yourself what your actions reveal to your team. Are you subtly saying one thing but shouting to the world a contradictory message? Our non-verbal acts trump our verbal intent eventually and if your actions don’t align with your words, you will not be able to lead effectively,” Barnett said.
According to Gentry, leaders with good character care about the long-term success of their organizations, not just meeting short term profit or shareholder goals. The leader sets the standard and if subordinates see him or her cutting corners, they are more likely to do the same.
Gentry said, “I just don’t think you’re going to find many individuals who are going to exceed the character of their boss. Whatever standard the boss, the executive, the leader, sets, everybody feels like, ‘Okay, that’s the highest we go, that’s as good as you need to be.’”
Leaders fail to demonstrate good character when they get too proud of themselves and their accomplishments and don’t spend time in humble examination of their own lives, Gentry said. They need friends with whom they can be honest about their struggles and who will lovingly call them to account when they fall short.
A leader’s character will eventually reveal itself, added Barnett. When it does, it will either inspire or infect the leader’s team. “If you really try to be a bad person and your character is good, I think your character is going to betray you and you’re going to go back to being a good person,” he said. “Unfortunately, I think if you really have served the darker world or if you’ve made yourself much more of a believer that you’re going to succeed in the world by being a person who attacks the weak, the young, the infirm, or the old, then that’s going to be your course also. You’re going to naturally go back to that.”
So, perhaps the question we each need to ask ourselves is: What kind of leader—and person—will I be?
Note: In the second part of this two-part series, we'll look at how leaders can nurture good character in their organizations.
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