Character Over Competence in Deciding on and Developing Leaders

Younger leaders have been passionately challenged with messages like: Don’t peak too soon. Your platform must not be bigger than the person you are becoming. Don’t let your gifting outpace your integrity.

The messages are wise, good, and true. We must declare messages about the importance of character to younger leaders AND we must design our leadership development to be more about character than competence.

1. Character over competence when deciding who to develop

When Jethro challenged Moses to hand responsibilities over to others, to design a system, and to develop other leaders, he mentioned both character and competence.

But you should select from all the people able men, God-fearing, trustworthy, and hating dishonest profit. Place them over the people as commanders of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens.
(Exodus 18:21)

You see competence: “select able men.” But you also see character: “God-fearing, trustworthy, and hating dishonest profit.” In the account of Jethro challenging Moses to select leaders, you see character to competence at a 3:1 ratio. When it comes to selecting leaders to develop, promote, and invest more significantly in, competence is important—but not nearly as important as character.

The Apostle Paul instructed Timothy to entrust the message and ministry to “faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). Paul did not encourage Timothy to entrust to “those with lots of ability who will later be faithful.” Instead “find the faithful and work with them on their ability” was the posture.

We have seen this. When competence outpaces character, a leadership implosion is highly likely. Thus, when deciding on who will be developed, choose character over competence. When choosing what skills to develop, ensure those skills are taught with an emphasis on integrity.

2. Character over competence when deciding what to develop

In ministry contexts, viewing leadership development as part of discipleship—or in marketplace contexts, viewing it as not being divorced from character development—is essential. If we view leadership development as separate from character development, there will be the tendency to think “we did the character stuff already, so now we are focusing on competence,” as opposed to constantly emphasizing integrity and personal development as skills are being taught. If we only train for competence, we could unintentionally develop people who are more skilled and less sanctified.

In ministry contexts, this requires us to root development in who Christ is and what He has done for us. As an example, we want to grow in our hospitality because Christ has been hospitable to us, and He welcomed us to Himself when we were enemies toward Him. We want to grow in our stewardship of time and resources because God is the owner who has given us the gifts of time and resources to steward for His sake. 

When the Apostle Paul wrote a younger leader who he developed, a young pastor named Timothy, Paul challenged him to set the example:

Don’t let anyone despise your youth, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity. (1 Timothy 4:12)

Young leaders are often exhorted to set the example in creativity, innovation, technological savviness, modern communication, and more. While all those can be good, Paul encouraged Timothy to set the example in areas of his integrity and character. Because character is more important than competence. Always.