Character, or Competence?

Every so often, a friend and I indulge a favorite argument. The debate is over what matters more when it comes to leadership: Character, or competence? While we both have similar worldviews, I have contended that character matters more, while my friend argues for the greater worth of competence.

Regardless of worldview or political orientation, I believe most Americans would side with me, at least when it comes to elections—which is, of course, meaningless as far as substantiating my argument. Furthermore, I suspect most citizens sense their own incompetency to act as a judge or arbiter over the competency of a political (or business) leader. That is neither their field nor expertise. However, every person has been perpetually engaged, since the day they were born, in exercising their powers of character assessment. We do this constantly. We have to, as socially dependent creatures.

So, although I may not have a whit of knowledge about a single issue addressed by a particular candidate, I may still listen to the man or woman, and walk away supremely confident in my ability to discern what sort of man or woman they are. It is stunning how quickly and decidedly we make determinations about whether we trust someone or not. And when we have done so, we sit back, at ease, convinced that we stand on level ground with any other person when discussing this particular leader and the gamut of their policies. After all, character judgments serve as all-encompassing assessments, applying all the resources of our own life and experience against all the personhood of another. And I have yet to meet a person who does not believe himself to be an above average judge of character.

To put our initial argument on equal footing, let’s examine two case studies on either extreme. In the first case, we have a highly competent leader—let’s call him Billy—who knows how to be successful, but is entirely unscrupulous. The argument in favor of Billy is that he can at least be worked with. He won’t “gum up the works”. Billy needs to be shown why a particular decision is advantageous to his interests, but once that threshold is crossed, he makes a ready, willing, and effective ally. Billy is someone who can be counted on to act “sensibly”, who can be relied on to contribute quality work, even if the ends are consistently selfish. Those who support Billy typically do so, not out of ignorance of his corruption, but because they want to see a job done, and are entrusting the checks and balances inherent in a healthy form of democracy, or a well-monitored institution. C.S. Lewis was a proponent of democracy precisely because he believed in the Fall of Man. Because no man or woman can be trusted, it is safer to diffuse power and authority. Or, as Winston Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government...except for all the others.”

The trouble with this position is that I question how thoroughly one can trust Billy to “get the job done." Proverbs 4:23 tells us to “guard our heart, for from it flow the springs of life.” All speech and all action, no matter their direction, have their origins in our hearts. A dishonest man should not gain your trust more simply because you like the same music, or cheer for the same sports team, or because you both want your company to make money. Such a man does indeed have greater probability of making money for the company than one who is incompetent, but he also has a greater probability of bringing the company down on its head, or entangling it in litigation.

In the second case of our argument, we have Colin. Colin is uneducated and simplistic, but he is rock solid in his values and integrity. Undoubtedly, the ceiling for a leader such as Colin, if left on his own, is lower, but the floor is also higher. He will not fall as far. He will recognize his own failings. It is that trait, in fact, that enables character to swallow up competency. If Colin’s character is high enough then he will be humble enough to admit that he doesn’t know enough. He will surround himself with experts who are wiser and more competent than he. His humility will position him—and everyone around him—to be exalted by God. (Mt 23:12, Js 4:10)

This brings us to the real challenge: Applying these principles. I am not writing with any particular candidate in mind, nor advocating for a particular vote, but rather attempting to lay down timeless principles for how we approach ideal leadership. In the evangelical world, we often claim that we care about character, but too often this amounts to nothing more than surface level box-checking on hot button policies. Often times, that is all we can look at or know. But we need to be wary of a feverish tribalism which embraces anyone who self-identifies as evangelical, or who happens to cite the Bible. When we do that, we are feeding into the narrative that Christianity is simply one more special interest bloc. We need to want and to pray for more men and women in leadership who are actively pursuing God and who desire, personally, to conform more and more to the image of Christ.

Justin Poythress (MDiv, WTS) is Assistant Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Fort Myers, FL. 

Related Links

Podcast: "A Dark Cloud for Democracy"

"The War of the Words" by Mike Myers

"Spreading the Worst Infection" by Andrew J. Miller

"The Donald in Dilbertian Perspective" by Bruce Baugus

Grace Transforming by Philip Ryken

The Christian's True Identity by Jonathan Landry Cruse