Why Character Counts in Leadership
There once was a time when an individual’s character, principles and virtues were the first qualifications laid on the table when one was considered for political office. Today, as the field of 2012 presidential candidates emerges, the chance of one being elected based on character seems quite remote.
The Bible reveals that character and effective leadership are as inseparable as hydrogen and oxygen in water.
The patriarch Joseph began his illustrious political career after his brothers sold him into slavery. Potiphar, his master, quickly entrusted this honest, hard worker with everything in his house. When Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him, Joseph refused to sin against God, and sprinted out of the house while she was ripping off his clothes!
God put Joseph through some serious trials, but rewarded Joseph’s upright character, eventually exalting him to the highest political position in Egypt under Pharaoh! (Genesis 41:41). Egypt prospered under Joseph’s direction. In fact, when a dreadful famine struck, surrounding nations came to him for help because he saved the excess during prosperous times. He didn’t lavishly spend more than he had. He didn’t borrow from others to pay off mounting debts; he had no debts. He saved for the future. All of Egypt and the surrounding nations benefited!
Over 400 years later, God raised up another man of fine, upstanding character. Through Moses, God codified His Ten Commandments for the Israelites. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Honor thy father and thy mother. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not lie. Thou shalt not covet. Imagine how much better this world would be if leaders and subjects alike followed these commands, even just by the letter, let alone the spirit (Matthew 5:27-28).
Under Moses’s leadership, the Israelites prospered. Soon, Moses needed help with the responsibilities of administering a nation. His father-in-law offered this advice: “Moreover choose able men from all the people, such as fear God, men who are trustworthy and who hate a bribe; and place such men over the people …” (Exodus 18:21; Revised Standard Version). These men had to be God-fearing, honest, wise, discerning, and unbiased in their personal lives—or they were not fit to lead!
When Moses died, God told his successor, Joshua, “This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success” (Joshua 1:8). Joshua’s political administration would rise or fall on how he obeyed a spiritual law! And Joshua lived it. He followed God’s law and Moses’s example. So did his officers, and so did Israel. God blessed Israel, and the nation flourished.
After Joshua died, Israel endured much instability—mostly because of its immoral leadership. The book of Judges graphically illustrates this fact, clearly showing how the character of a leader does affect the people. Othniel obeyed God’s commandments; the land had rest 40 years (Judges 3:11). His successors disobeyed; the nation plunged into crisis. God raised up Ehud; Israel had rest 80 years. His successors were disobedient; the nation again sank into oppression.
On and on the cycle went. Gideon told the people to obey God in spite of unrighteous leaders, but in the end, there was no king in Israel, and “every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). By that point, it didn’t much matter what their leaders were doing. Nobody really cared! Everyone just did his own thing. Sound familiar?
In addition to the many outstanding strengths of God-fearing leaders, God also recorded many of their weaknesses. King David was an adulterer, a liar, and a murderer, and yet God called him a man after His own heart (Acts 13:22). Does that mean David was able to get away with his sin and still lead effectively? Look at the Scriptures.
When God confronted David with his sin, David realized that no matter how much he bamboozled the people into believing he was a righteous leader, he could not fool God. David was overwhelmed with shame. He replied sorrowfully, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:13). David repented—deeply (Psalm 51). He changed from his wicked ways. God forgave David and still used him as a leader! Nevertheless, the aftermath of David’s lustful interlude with sin was not pretty. He suffered, and so did the nation. His child died, his son Absalom rebelled, Israel erupted in civil war, tens of thousands died, Adonijah staged a coup, and for the rest of David’s life, Israel had war.
This was the chain of events triggered by David’s sin—and it would have been far worse had he not repented!
Sin is disastrous for leaders and followers. But when we truly change our ways, God forgives and can use us to do great things. God inspired writers of the Bible to record the character flaws and sins of leaders so we might vividly see how sin destroys—both individuals and nations. Destruction may not come immediately; in fact, on the outside, things may look pretty good. But when our “famine” sets in, to whom will the people turn? Will they look to immoral leaders who are only concerned about serving themselves? No: They’ll look for a “Joseph.” But this time around, they won’t find him.