Becoming Intentional About Character Development
The powerful impact of a model is [a] common tool used by God to help shape us. For many of us, people (parents, teachers, pastors, mentors) will be used to positively model character qualities and subsequently build them into our lives. We will observe how they implement certain character qualities in their lives and then apply these principles in our own. Sometimes this application is conscious, but many times it comes about because we have been around someone for so long that we unconsciously become like them. The writer of Proverbs tells us, “He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm” (Proverbs 13:20) and “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). A modern proverb states the same principle, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” We become like those with whom we associate.
A wonderful way to learn from the example of others is through reading their biographies. Reading about the lives and trials of other leaders can inspire and instruct us in relevant areas for our own situations. Aside from the bible, I have learned more about life and leadership by reading the biographies of leaders than any other source. Reading the biographies of spiritual, business, political, and military leaders can be a great habit for self-development. Let me suggest that you begin with the biographies of such great spiritual leaders as William Carey, Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichael, J.O. Fraser, Adoniram Judson, D.L. Moody, George Mueller, Dawson Trotman, and Bill Bright.
The teaching and example of a spiritual mentor is another key element in the development and growth of an emerging leader. More than a model, a mentor builds into your life Christlike character and values. Asking God to give you someone who can be a positive example and who actively builds into your life can be a great blessing. Paul selected Timothy to be with him in the work and along the way he built into Timothy’s life what he had learned of Kingdom leadership. He writes to Timothy in his last letter this exhortation, “You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings…But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it” (2 Timothy 3:10-14).
Mentors and other leaders can help develop us in character as well as leadership skills (competencies). Though both godly character and skills are needed for good leadership, the environment in which they are shaped is very different. An environment with accountability is necessary for skill transfer and development, but a more relational environment is needed for character formation. If we mix them up, trying to develop character by imposing accountability, we will not see lasting change. [A friend has said, “All accountability does is turn us into good liars.”]
[Another] tool that the Lord frequently uses to develop our character is the life situations and circumstances that we find ourselves facing. How we respond in our hearts in these situations is often much more important than what we finally decide or do. God is arranging these situations for our continued development and growth. Rather than being frustrated or discouraged by our trials, we can welcome them as tools being used by God for our good. If we learn to rest in Him and draw strength from Him in the midst of these times, we will benefit greatly. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
For an emerging leader, one lacking leadership experience, their primary felt need is for leadership skill development. This is especially true because these skill needs often come with deadlines that must be met. We have to turn in a strategic leadership plan, but we’ve never done that before, so we seek help in how to create a plan. We are given responsibility for leading an event, but having little experience with it, we eagerly seek out help for how to lead an event well. And so it goes, seeking the leadership skills (competencies) necessary to meet the immediate demands of our responsibilities. The result will be more responsibility and greater influence, for this is the reward of successful leaders. Thus, the daily busyness of leading crowds out the time needed for intentional character development.
The final outcome of focusing on leadership skills is frequently a leader who in their 40’s has arrived at a pinnacle of influence that is great, but inwardly their character can’t stand the load of their leadership. The pressure and strains of increased leadership responsibility begin to expose character flaws that have been ignored or covered up for many years. But now, with greater responsibility, their impact can no longer be set aside. The ripple effects of their character flaws as manifested in their actions are too great, for they now impact many more people and resources! Many leaders collapse at the height of their influence as a character weakness is finally exposed and great is the collapse thereof! [i]
Don’t hope that with the passing of time or with increased experience that Christlike character will develop. Begin today to be intentional about your character development!
[i] Yeakley, Tom Growing Kingdom Character
NavPress Colorado Springs, CO, 2011 p. 16ff