By Simon Presland
A quick search on Amazon shows that almost 140,000 books have been written on the topic of leadership with more on the subject coming out each year. Whether it’s a church, business, or home, an organization rises and falls with its leadership.
When discussing leadership, we might think of words like authoritative, trailblazer, or CEO. We might think of a leader in terms of their gifts: he’s a great orator; she’s gifted in administration; she has the gift of knowledge; he is mercy-driven. The truth is we are all leaders because we lead our own lives. Thus we are all gifted in some way.
In the life of a leader, there is one area that stands out above the rest, but often takes a backseat: character. Whether we are leaders solely of our own lives or are at the helm of a church or business of thousands, we are known by our character. It is our character that others trust—or distrust.
So what is character, how is it developed, and what is its relationship to leadership?
The Anvil of Life
It is interesting to note that our English word “character” comes from the Greek word kharakter, which means a chisel or marking instrument for metal or stone. This tells us that our character is engraved within us. While we can learn manners and operate according to our gifts, our character is chiseled into us on the anvil of life.
Life and our response to it determine the type of character we live by. For example, Numbers 12:3 states, “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” When did he learn humility? Certainly not while growing up in Pharaoh’s household. Instead his humility was forged while tending his father-in-law’s herds for 40 years in Midian. Here is a great lesson for all to learn: godly character isn’t formed in us overnight. Consider that King David was on the run from Saul for eight years, during which time God shaped and formed his character and stature in preparation to lead Israel.
While the world sees leadership as something we do, the Bible has a different perspective: leadership is a reflection of the heart. “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23). If we think about Jesus, we know that he was a servant, a steward, and a shepherd. These three words bring to mind images of his leadership style. But could he have served without having a servant’s heart? Could he have been a steward of God’s kingdom without having the heart of someone who rightly manages the possessions of another? Could he have called himself “the good shepherd” (John 10:11) without having a heart that cares for and protects others?
Our heart determines what is most important to us. And what is most important will eventually forge our character, which will always determine our conduct and leadership style.
Our character is our moral compass; it is the source of our ethics and perspectives. There are many lists compiled that show characteristics we should aspire to develop. However the Bible contains the best list of character traits in Galatians 5:22, 23, known as the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the embodiment of the Holy Spirit and show that developing godly character comes through cooperating with him as we face trials and tribulations in life.
“Against such things there is no law” (v. 23). When we exhibit God’s fruit—or character—in our lives, we cross over cultural, racial, and ethnic boundaries; we bypass negative mindsets and personal suspicions to become reflections of God to our friends, neighbors, coworkers, and strangers alike. According to Scripture, there is no law against doing good, and doing good is an outward display of inward character.
Train Yourself to Be Godly
One way the dictionary defines character is “moral excellence and firmness.” Jesus is our example of moral excellence and our illustration of firmness. He never wavered in his moral obligation to God, and he was firm in his conduct and character when faced with the stiffest of opposition. As Christian leaders, Christlike character should be our highest aim in life, and the results of this pursuit are borne out in the choices we make in our daily lives. Paul had this type of character in mind when he encouraged Timothy to “train yourself to be godly” (1 Timothy 4:7).
We can also train ourselves to be godly by:
1. Believing in something bigger than ourselves. Paul and Barnabas knew that God had made them—and all believers—a light for the Gentiles in order to bring “salvation to the ends of the earth” (Acts 13:47). When we understand our purpose in God’s plans then we see life as so much bigger than ourselves. This takes our focus off of self and onto God.
2. Building on what God has entrusted to us. The parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 teaches us that God expects everything he has given us to grow, including our character. Our character grows as we allow the Holy Spirit to work in our hearts so that more and more we display the fruit of that work.
3. Bringing out the best in others. Jesus taught, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). People with character take the initiative to treat others as they want to be treated.
4. Being a bridge builder. Barnabas was known as the “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36). He was always reaching out to others. He was born a Cypriot and raised as a Levite, and God used him to build a bridge between the Greek and Jewish worlds. God can do the same through us, no matter where we live.
5. Becoming immune to grumbling and complaining. Moses led a nation of whiny people. For the most part he did not take their complaints to heart but took them to God. Proverbs 19:11 tells us, “A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense.”
6. Bringing love and courage together. This could be called tough love. It means having a tough mind and a tender heart. People of character are not afraid to speak the truth when needed, but they do so in love, according to Ephesians 4:15.
7. Bouncing back. In Matthew 26 we read of Peter’s thrice denial of Jesus. Peter then “went outside and wept bitterly” (v. 75). Yet this same Peter was the first to publicly and boldly proclaim Christ as Messiah in Acts 2. Our character weaknesses may pull us down, but our character strengths will cause us to rise up again and overcome.
The Greatest Gain
When Paul wrote the letters we know as 1 & 2 Timothy, his intention was to instruct and encourage his young protégé, Timothy, as he grew in his role as a church leader. In 1 Timothy 6:6, Paul told Timothy that “godliness with contentment is great gain.” There was a heretical teaching pervading the early church that claimed Jesus was the means to achieve wealth, fame, and fortune. Paul warned Timothy to watch out for those who use godliness as a guise to control and manipulate. Rather than pursuing worldly wealth, Paul exhorted Timothy—and us—to make godly character the focus, just as Paul himself did while in prison (Philippians 4:11, 12).
When we make character development our priority, we can rejoice when others get promoted, rewarded, and recognized. There is no jealousy or envy in our hearts. As we grow in character, others see us as trustworthy and as people of integrity. Our character can be seen in what we say and do.
I once heard a person described as having the “scent of Christ.” As Christians we are called to be leaders in conduct and character. When we are, we become to God “the pleasing aroma of Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:15).
Simon Presland is a freelance writer in Clinton Township, Michigan.