What Kind of Character Does a Leader Need?
When Drs. Howard Hendricks (ThM, 1950) and Don Campbell (ThM, 1951; ThD, 1953) founded The Center for Christian Leadership (now the Hendricks Center) in the 1980s, the character of the leader was their primary concern. Many who sat under Prof. Hendricks can recall hearing him say, “The greatest crisis in America is a crisis of leadership, and the greatest crisis of leadership is a crisis of character.”
In an article in the student publication, Kethiv Qere, Dr. Campbell explained his purpose and vision for the Center:
When we think of the term “leadership” today, we have too many examples of the type of leadership the Pharisees practiced, and few examples of the type of leadership God prizes. Worldly leadership exalts the independent “strength” of a “self-made” man. God prizes dependence on His strength and enablement.
Worldly leadership exalts self-focus and egocentricity. God prizes the God-focused leadership of a Lewis Sperry Chafer, who exhibited Christlikeness in every aspect of his life and ministry. God prizes those who build up others and who succeed through their service to others.
For too many years, some people in the broader Christian community have been developing leaders using the world’s model and have ended up with men consumed by their egos. In the face of this danger, why then should any Christian aspire to lead?
Why is [DTS] expanding its emphasis on leadership?
When [DTS] was founded in the face of the hurricane of liberalism in the 1920s, the crying need of the generation was men of God who had the skills to interpret and relevantly preach God’s inerrant Word accurately. The great need continues and [DTS] continues to produce students who are increasingly better equipped for the task.
Our graduates rarely fail to reach their potential because they can’t accurately handle Scripture. But the ones who do fall short of their potential usually fail in the areas of leadership—personal character flaws, interpersonal conflicts, disorganization, lack of vision, etc.
Flash-forward to today: the need for effective leaders continues, and the call for godly character has become more intense.
Recent biblical work at the Hendricks Center (THC) and interactions with leaders show that the constant culture shifts are what trouble leaders significantly. The demand for attention, wrestling with the pace of information, and the way the environment continues to change has led THC to focus on what engagement with today’s connected world requires. One of the goals has included equipping godly servant-leaders with what THC likes to call biblical agility in these complex times.
What is DTS’s vision for these changing times?
As THC continues to strive to apply truth through Scripture, four significant points of interest have come into focus as we aim to process and engage with this ever-changing world.
The first quality a leader needs to develop is a switch-hitting comprehension that includes an un-derstanding of Scripture, an understanding of the world, and the ability to read and react. For leaders, this demand for awareness emerges because we live in a fallen and flawed world. Life is messy, and it does not go as God originally designed it.
Most seminaries teach the Bible and then move to apply it to life. That is an essential way to learn and read Scripture. But most Christians read Scripture in the opposite direction. They have a situation in life or God has them in a space where they are trying to sort it all out biblically.
Leaders need such a comprehension that they can go either direction, from the Bible to life or from life back to the Bible. This latter way of reading requires an in-depth understanding of Scripture and an appreciation of how the Bible itself discusses the tensions of living in a fallen world. It involves reading that is not about single passages on a topic here and there, but an engagement with the whole Bible at a canonical level with all the angles Scripture gives, aware of the array of texts that address the topic.
Most of the resources at THC start with situations and scenarios that read the Scriptures in light of the context. The goal is to make sense out of what the best biblical applications are for all cases. Sometimes reading Scripture makes people aware that no answer is crystal clear or completely free of issues in a
fallen world, but comes with tension or discomfort because the world is not what it ought to be. It requires believers to do the one thing God has called us to do—to have faith that all things (good or bad) will work together for those who love Him.
Leaders need compassion, empathy, and appreciation for life in a fallen world. They should be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). Leaders working with people also need to appreciate their experiences, which requires excellent listening skills.
Understanding allows for a better assessment of what to do. It also means seeking where the common ground may exist in the culture to draw people into an appreciation for the gospel or for the way God calls people to live through Scripture.
Leaders often have to challenge people to do better or to see things they might miss. That happens after they get some understanding of what others are seeing and why they see it that way. Tone matters in how leaders engage, and challenge works best when the person across from you knows that you care and have made a respectful effort to understand them. All of this takes compassion and the patience of working relationally with another. It comes as part of what it means to love your neighbor as yourself, and what Jesus called the great commandment (Matt 22:39–40; Mark 12:30–31).
The leader must have courage to go against the flow. Scripture challenges the way people live when they go by their independent instincts. Confrontation and difficult conversations often come with the territory. As culture often rapidly moves in directions that produce a distance between God’s way and common practice, the courage to reflect biblical commitments becomes a necessary ingredient for the leader. The leader needs courage to stand for what is right while possessing an ability to explain that stand and show compassion. Paul says it this way, “The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim 1:5). In other words, it is comprehension, compassion, and courage working together to show the way through challenging times.
At the base of all of this is character, a spiritually grounded life that reflects God’s power and presence. A solid character finds its roots in drawing on the Spirit for the relational fruit God produces (Gal 5:22–23). The character qualities in these verses show that the work God does from the heart is designed to make us better able to relate to the people and circumstances around us, even when things may be changing rapidly. Such grounded character means we react not from the basis of popularity but from a place of humility that says “this is the right thing to do” with a sensitivity for how to get there relationally. Leaders must pastor and counsel. They need to care for their sheep with courageous compassion.
DTS’s and THC’s work with leaders over the most recent decade has only confirmed that these four qualities prove essential for all leaders today. Dr. Campbell explained it best:
Leadership success is not measured by size or type of ministry—but by faithful and full use of our God-given talents in dependence on Him.
A great need exists to develop leaders at [DTS] who are God-dependent, and Holy Spirit empowered—servant leaders who can break through the barrier of mediocrity and turn their communities, nations, and the world upside down for Christ.
We need a double-emphasis on both service and leadership; on both God-dependence and skill-development. God empowered leadership develops skills through dependence. God’s leaders serve by leading.
Today, THC’s vision continues to strive to produce biblical agility in leaders to read and react to the changing environments they now face on a daily basis. Effective leaders need relational skills that show the fruit of the Spirit and require a character that is shaped by the heart and ways of God.
That is the task before us, and we invite you to find a place to participate with us in it.
For more information about the Hendricks Center please visit us as hendrickscenter.dts.edu.
About the Contributors
Darrell L. Bock
Dr. Bock has earned recognition as a Humboldt Scholar (Tübingen University in Germany), is the author of over 40 books, including well-regarded commentaries on Luke and Acts and studies of the historical Jesus, and work in cultural engagement as host of the seminary’s Table Podcasts. He was president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) from 2000–2001, served as a consulting editor for Christianity Today, and serves on the boards of Wheaton College and Chosen People Ministries. His articles appear in leading publications. He is often an expert for the media on NT issues. Dr. Bock has been a New York Times best-selling author in nonfiction and is elder emeritus at Trinity Fellowship Church in Dallas. When traveling overseas, he will tune into the current game involving his favorite teams from Houston—live—even in the wee hours of the morning. Married for over 40 years to Sally, he is a proud father of two daughters and a son and is also a grandfather.