What is the Most important trait in a leader: Character, Competence or Charisma?

One of the greatest problems in American Evangelicalism is that we have forsaken the character – competence leadership model and perpetuated a charisma-based leadership model in its place.

Many refer to the charisma-based leadership model as the cult of personality. This charisma-based model is defined as an individual using media, the spectacle, the arts, patriotism, or rallies to create an idealized, heroic, and even worshipful image of themselves in order to gain influence over others.

Unfortunately, the charisma model of leadership is being used and abused far too often among Christian leaders. Many Christians have fallen victim to these charismatic personalities and come under the sway of their tools. I too have fallen victim to this model and even perpetuated it out of naivety and ambition, but I have found freedom from its slavery and insight from a better biblical model.

It is normal and even good for young pastors to have respect for their fathers in the ministry who have gone before them. Young pastors emulate those who have taught them in ministry. In some ways this is how we learn. The Apostle Paul did say, “Follow me as I follow the Lord.” The lesson I learned as I struggled with the charismatic model of leadership was to be careful who you emulate and to be cautious about why you emulate them. I also learned there is a point at which you must be true to yourself and to the calling God has upon you. Most of all your motives must be pure before God, and you must set aside your desire to seek great things for yourself and instead seek glory for God alone. This is much more difficult to do than to write. This requires deep refining and difficult personal examination.

I remember when I began to formulate a Character-Competence based leadership model. I was preaching chapel at “my” seminary, and the president of the seminary was speaking with me in the “green room” prior to the service. He was making excuses for why chapel attendance and enrollment had been so low for some time. During our somewhat awkward conversation, I talked with him about the need for pastors to learn skills that helped them be effective in ministry. He shocked me by stating, “I do not believe leadership can be taught – either the Man of God is ‘anointed’ or he is not.” The more I explored his thoughts on leadership the more clearly, I saw this the “MOG” syndrome being played out in my denomination. The Man of God approach says follow me, and I will use my personality, image, and persona to lead and gain influence. After all I have been “chosen” and “anointed” and that is all I need to lead.

I am not dismissing the calling of God or the anointing of God, but what I am saying is that charisma in comparison to character and competence has become way out of balance in most churches. It took me a while to formulate my thoughts biblically, but here is how I outline them:

1. The greatest leaders in the Bible were not recognized for their charisma. 2. The faithful leaders in the Bible are celebrated for their character and competence. 3. The church desperately needs more Character-Competence based leaders today. Let me speak to each of these briefly:

First, the greatest leaders in the Bible were not recognized for their charisma. As a matter of fact, we are told explicitly their charisma was not what attracted people to them. Consider three leaders from the Bible. It was said of the Apostle Paul in First Corinthians 10.10, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech contemptible.” Isaiah prophesied about Jesus in Isaiah 53.2, “For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.” And poor David embodied such poor leadership possibilities in his father’s mind that he was completely overlooked as being a potential candidate for leadership.

It is very clear that appearance and charisma was not what set Jesus, the Apostle Paul and King David apart. It was something other than their charisma that made them useful in God’s work.

Second, what is it that sets a servant of God apart? Faithful biblical leaders are celebrated for their character and competence. David is probably the most succinct example of this. It is said of him in Psalm 79.72, “He shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart and guided them with his skillful hands.” David is a celebrated leader because of his character and his competence. This is further exemplified in First Timothy and Titus where Paul highlights the “Qualifications” for elders and deacons. In both lists the character – competence continuum is highlighted and what is noticeably absent is charisma. Things like faith, courage, obedience, love, and hope stick out on the character side of the equation. Things like discipline, honesty, trustworthiness, transparency, communication skills, organizational abilities, administrative insights stick out on the competency side of the equation. Again, charisma is noticeable absent.

Finally, what the church desperately needs today is to recover the Character-Competence based leadership model the Bible teaches. Churches need pastors who shepherd with integrity of heart and guide them with skillfulness of hand. This means discipling pastors in spiritual formation that develops Christlikeness and training pastors in the necessary skills sets to lead in the church effectively.

Let me close by sharing the 7 potential impacts if the church were to recover the Character-Competence based leadership model:

  1. The gospel would become the focus of Christianity not the few visible leaders who represent Christianity to the media and to pop culture.
  2. There could be more unity around the essence of our faith and not a loyalty to and a tribalism around those who represent Christianity to the culture.
  3. The church could treasure the gospel again and not the personalities who communicate it.
  4. Movements within Christianity would not be personality based so they can be sustained long-term not just for the life of the charismatic leader.
  5. Unbelievers could base the merits of the Christian faith on the substance of the Christian faith and not judge Christianity by who represents it.
  6. Churches could flourish more because there is a focus upon the outcomes of a pastor’s work and not upon the style or personality of the pastor.
  7. And more pastors could lead effectively in the Character-Competency based model than could lead in the Charisma based model because character and skills can be developed and taught to anyone willing to learn.

To learn more about competency based leadership visit corpusvitae.org

To learn more about the competencies of a skilled overseer, a wise elder and a transformational shepherd you can take the Pastoral Readiness Assessment as a 360 degree assessment to see how you can develop in the Character-Competence based leadership model.

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