Today I’ll wrap up this blog series on Character in Leadership. We’ve talked about the importance of character, the things that shape character, and cause us to compromise our character.
Today I want to talk about the best strategy to employ when your character falls short. I think all of us desire to be leaders of character. We want to be beacons of ethical purity as we go about our lives. We want our families, our friends, and our co-workers to look at us with respect and admiration. We see in Jesus a portrait of what high-character leadership looks like and we desire to follow him. At the same time, we are also keenly aware of the gap that exists between the scriptural picture of high-caliber leadership and a life that too often looks like this:
- I yell at my kids.
- I worry too much about money.
- I obsess about being successful.
- I become jealous of people who are more attractive than I am.
- I’m on my phone too much.
- I use subtle deceptions to get myself out of trouble.
- I pass judgment on people all the time.
And so, instead of feeling inspired by a series of posts on high-character leadership, instead you feel discouraged, or guilty, or confused, or just tired. You get overwhelmed by all the stuff you’re supposed to do, and you’re stuck with a noticeable gap between the expectations and the reality. Instead of dealing with that gap in a healthy way, it’s tempting to pursue unhealthy strategies in dealing with our lack of character. So let me call out some unhealthy ways of dealing with the gap before laying out a strategy to move forward.
Unhealthy Ways of Dealing with a Character Gap
1. Try Harder
Many people look at the gap between who they wish they were and who they actually are, and think, “I’ve just got to buckle down and try harder to be a person of character. The problem must be that my effort is not heroic enough. I’ll close this gap by sheer spiritual elbow grease. I’ll get up earlier, pray longer, read more books, listen to more podcasts, work harder to be an ethical leader.” You hear about some other leader whose morning routine starts at 4 AM, so you resolve to do that too even though you’re not a morning person—even though at four in the morning you are dazed and confused and groggy and grumpy, and no one wants to be around you at four in the morning including Jesus himself! But you say to yourself, “Man, getting up early is exhausting and miserable, so it must be doing something.” You keep it up for days and weeks and months, but you can’t sustain it. Eventually you stop. And then, when you stop, you feel guilty. Over time, when you feel guilty enough, you start something else. There’s just a cycle of effort and exhaustion and stopping and stagnating and guilt and conviction and a new burst of effort, and it just keeps going on and on, year after year. The truth is, you can’t grit your teeth hard enough to become a person of character.
2. Fake It
Some people look at this gap, and they decide they’ll handle it by pretending.
They know they’re supposed to be different, so they decide to fake it ’til they make it. When you talk to them, their lives are a miracle a minute, and they smile a lot, and every prayer is answered, and every decision is a “word from God,” and every sentence ends with “Praise the Lord.” But inside, when everything is quiet and they’re alone, the gap is still there. You can’t fake your way to a life of character, and deep down you know the truth.
3. Change Scenery
Pastors leave their churches and go to a new church. Church staff members decide this isn’t the church for me. I’ve made some mistakes here, everyone has seen through me and it’s time to move on. Christian business leaders decide to switch churches. The pastor isn’t deep enough. My church isn’t alive enough, so they go somewhere where they’re dancing in the aisles, or that their church is too emotional and so they go somewhere where they’re heavy on theology and they hope that this will close the gap. Sometimes there’s wisdom in a fresh start, but a change of scenery alone isn’t enough to jump start a life of character.
4. Give Up
Sadly, some people look at this gap, and they just give up. After a while, it’s just too painful. When they read about character and high caliber spiritual leadership, they feel discouraged and hopeless; their inner monologue turns toxic. And they just decide that such a different way of life is really not a possibility for them. They remain a Christian. In most cases, they keep going to church. They maintain a certain involvement in church life. They cross their fingers and hope they’re going to go to Heaven when they die. But they decide that not much can be done about this gap in their life between who they are and who they’re supposed to be. They secretly give up. For those in career ministry, there’s a new term for it, ‘quiet quitting.’ On the outside they go through the motions, on the inside they’re done.
A Healthier Approach to the Gap
Consider a different strategy to deal with the gap. Because those who find that they’re having a hard time bubbling over with love, joy, peace, patience and kindness often try to remedy the problem by looking at an outflow issue. They try to figure out how to pump out those character traits on their own. But what if it’s not an outflow issue, but an inflow deficit. I’m afraid many Christian leaders simply go about their lives not remembering hour-by-hour that they are followers of Christ. They haven’t distilled their faith down to the daily-ness of their lives. They have stopped inviting God into their moments.
Arrange your life to stay connected to Jesus
Dallas Willard said it this way, “We can become like Christ by doing one thing – by following him in the overall style of life he chose for himself. If we have faith in Christ, we must believe that he knew how to live. We can, through faith and grace, become like Christ by practicing the types of activities he engaged in, by arranging our whole lives around the activities he himself practiced in order to remain constantly at home in the fellowship of the Father.”
What is the best resource available to help you develop your leadership character? Why, it’s Christ himself! Jesus posed the solution this way when it comes to producing the fruit of character in our lives.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. John 15:1-7
Let’s make sure we get metaphor straight. God is the gardener, Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. Now there’s an important difference between human branches and plant branches. Verse 6 says you and I have a choice. “IF” you abide in me. Will you decide to abide in Christ? The promise is stunning. If you abide in Christ, all the good stuff that is necessary for human flourishing will start to happen. When a branch is connected to the vine, fruit is inevitable! When a branch is cut off from the vine fruit is impossible. No matter how hard you try on your own, you simply can’t produce your own character. You are a branch, and a branch’s job is to stay connected to the vine.
What does involved in abiding in the vine? There has been a lot of recent conversation in the world of soul care about establishing a Rule of Life. The Latin word for ‘rule’ did not carry the same connotations of rigid expectations with no fun like the modern word carries. It was actually the same word as ‘trellis’ the framework of open lattice work that allows climbing plants to grow and thrive. The trellis protects the branches and the fruit from the damaging affects of weeds, and animals, and disease. What a perfect description of what we can contribute to the spiritual fruit bearing process. We don’t produce the character, we don’t create them through sheer will power, but we can construct the framework of our lives in such a way that it gives our branches the best chance of staying connected to the vine.
The key is to arrange our lives in way that keeps us connected with Jesus. A Rule of Life then is A schedule, set of practices, and relational rhythms that make space for abiding, and allow us to live in alignment with our deepest desires.
Crafting Your Rule of Life
Pete Scazzero has done great work on this. These ideas originated with him.
Step 1: Write down everything that nurtures your spirit and fills you with delight.
This list should include people, places, and activities. Normally, when we think of spiritual activities, we limit ourselves to things such as prayer, going to church, worship, and Bible reading. Don’t limit yourself. Your list may include gardening, walking the dog, being in nature, talking with close friends, cooking, painting, or any number of other possibilities. List them all.
Step 2: Write down the activities you need to avoid, those that prevent you from remaining anchored in Christ. Think of things that impact your spirit negatively—such as violent movies, hurrying, going beyond your limits, extensive time on social media, saying yes to too many ‘opportunities’, etc.
Step 3: What are the “have to’s” in this season of your life that impact your rhythms?
For example, caring for aging parents, having a special needs child, a demanding season at work, or health issues.
Step 4: Decide on some categories you’d like to build life-giving practices around.
Scazzero’s categories are Prayer, Rest, Relationships, and Work. Others include categories like time, money, imagination, decision making, community, media, etc.
Step 5: Choose a small specific practice for each category.
For the Prayer category it may be journal or sabbath or read a book on prayer or practice the daily offices. For rest maybe it’s exercise or a day off or therapy or vacation. For relationships it may be date nights with your spouse or mentoring relationship or leading a group or communal dinners. For work it may be pursue personal development or continuing education, maybe building a process before you say ‘yes’ to something new, maybe placing limitations around certain parts of yoru job that you have control over.
Step 6: Choose the rhythm of each practice.
Good rhythm words are Daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, often, seasonally, occasionally, annually. So your goal may be to sabbath weekly, or to read your bible for 15 minutes daily, maybe an annual well-planned family vacation, or monthly mentoring or therapy sessions. Applying a rhythm will give you a clear target and provide accountability.
In all this it’s important to remember that the Rule of Life is not an end in itself, it’s simply a tool to keep you connected with Jesus. Because it’s only when you are connected to Jesus that fruit will be produced and godly character will be developed. There are many great examples of rules of life that you can find at