You Can't Train Character
Many years ago we hired a guy to lead an important part of the ministry. He had all the right qualifications and was a joy to work with most of the time. But something that didn’t show up on his résumé or in any of our reference calls was that he had a temper. About two months after he started, he got upset at a meeting and threw a table across the room as he stormed out. We gave him a warning, but it was only a couple weeks before he got angry again and cussed out a volunteer loudly and publicly. This guy had a gaping character flaw, and we had to let him go.
For church leaders, choosing people of character can be a bit difficult for us. Why? Because we are the church. It is part of our business model to help pick up the pieces for people. It is our intention to be there when people fall so we can point them to Jesus and help get them back on their feet. If people in our church have addictions or bad habits, or if they engage in damaging behaviors, we don’t kick them out of the church. We meet them where they are and help them take their next steps.
But when we are talking about volunteers or staff leaders, whom we have brought on the team to help others take steps, it is important that there aren’t any debilitating character flaws that will cause others to stumble.
This can be misinterpreted by some to mean that only perfect people are allowed on the team. Nothing could be further from the truth. We don’t want to encourage that kind of thinking or put that burden on our staff. Everyone is dealing with something. Everyone has an area in his or her life where he or she needs help and support. All of us deal with the reality of our humanity, and we are constantly striving to lean on Jesus.
But it’s crucial that the people we bring on our team do not have huge flaws in their integrity that could cripple their ability to lead. Luke 12:48 says that more is required from those who have been given greater responsibility.
Even if you are leading a business, you want people of integrity on your team. You don’t want to worry about whether money will go missing, customers will get mistreated, or a sexual harassment accusation will divert your focus.
I’m not talking about unrealistic expectations; I’m talking about basic areas of integrity. In my experience, there are three big areas that seem to take leaders down over and over again.
You don’t want someone on your team who can’t control his or her tongue. James said, “By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation” (James 3:6 msg). Whether you are trying to transform lives or deliver a product that will serve your customers, an employee who can’t control his or her tongue will be detrimental to your bottom line.
We live in a world that has little tolerance for financial mismanagement. It is important that you have policies to protect the assets of the organization, but it’s also important that you have employees who are not mesmerized by money.
This is the big one, isn’t it? It seems as if every week I hear of someone else who couldn’t keep his or her pants zipped. This is not just a male issue. We’ve seen male and female leaders equally fall to sexual temptation. And it is damaging because it betrays trust and strips away credibility.
So how do you make sure you don’t hire someone with character flaws? You can’t.
Even if you ask all the right questions and call all the references in advance, it doesn’t mean someone won’t fall.
You are not responsible for someone else’s personal choices, so don’t beat yourself up if you have a member of your team who makes a bad choice.
If someone has fallen more than once to the same issue (such as an extramarital affair or embezzlement), it is much more likely he or she will fall to it again.
But there are some things you can do during the interview process to minimize the risk for yourself and your organization:
- You can ask lots of questions up front of the candidates, their spouses, their references and other close friends. You aren’t looking for dirt, but if you find out about chinks in their armor, then you want to ask more questions.1
- Be very concerned when you hear about character flaws from others that the candidate didn’t tell you about first. In my mind, that almost always disqualifies him or her.
- Be less concerned when a candidate comes out and tells you right away, “This is what happened, and here is what I’ve done since then, and I encourage you to talk to anyone you want to ask more questions.” That shows a strengthening character and authenticity, and that is attractive.
- When a staff member does fall, do everything you can to restore him or her. He or she may not be able to stay on staff, but that does not relieve you of the responsibility to care for that person (in the church world we call that “pastoring”) through his or her recovery. Many times that means you are pressing through your own feelings of betrayal and abandonment, but it is something you must do. It gets even more difficult if he or she rejects your help in favor of hiding and covering instead of coming clean.
In his book Developing the Leader Within You, John Maxwell quoted Thomas Macauley, the nineteenth-century British historian, who said, “The measure of a man’s real character is what he would do if he would never be found out.” Maxwell continued, “Life is like a vise; at times it will squeeze us. At those moments of pressure, whatever is inside will be found out. We cannot give what we do not have. Image promises much but produces little. Integrity never disappoints.”
Let’s do everything we can to have men and women of integrity leading our organizations.
This has been adapted from my next book, Fairness Is Overrated, to be released by Thomas Nelson in January.