Character Or Competence?

– by Brett Johnson

“So he fed them out of the integrity of his heart and guided them by the intelligence of his hands.”– Psalm 78:72

You have probably heard the expression, “Hire for character, train for skills.” The rationale behind this is that skills can be taught, but not character. This is simply not true. Character can be shaped at work, and skills can be developed. One consequence of this faulty logic is only hiring “Christians” and hoping that their skills will improve over time. Another outcome is forgiving shoddy work because “he’s a nice guy . . . has real character.” 

Train for skills
I remember agonising over an employee who was smart, had good work experience, yet did not get the job done. I asked God, “Why did You have me hire him?” Two words came back: “Hospital hire.” As a business leader, I was given the job of helping an employee come to a place of greater wholeness. People hired by companies are, by definition, a work-in-progress. Having a university degree does not make you skilled; it makes you educated (remembering that the person who graduates last in their class at medical school is called a doctor!) The person who decides to follow Jesus has potential, and still needs to be trained for skills, and shaped in character.

Not an either-or
Psalm 78 sheds light on David’s leadership: he fed them, and he led them. The feeding of his people was with heart-integrity. Here was a leader who was fair, gave people what they needed, and did not harm his sheep because he felt like eating lamb chops. “So he fed them out of the integrity of his heart . . .” David’s mandate was not just to cuddle the nation, but to lead them, “with skilful hands he led them.” Godly leaders have tender hearts and firm hands. People are more apt to accept an intelligent hand when the integrity of their leader’s heart is unquestioned.

The heart of a leader
Just as there are four quadrants in the human heart, so there are four aspects to the heart of a leader. IQ, speaks of intellectual quotient, or intelligence. EQ covers Emotional Quotient, or emotional intelligence. OQ adds Organisational Quotient – understanding how organisations work, and then SQ – this is spiritual quotient, understanding that we are whole people (and companies are spiritual entities) who have a spiritual dimension. 

Employers have discipling responsibilities
Whole-hearted leaders address the head, heart, hands, and habits of their people. “Hire for character, train for skills” is a cop-out of our discipling responsibilities. Taking people, made with God-given potential, and refining both character and competence is closer to our mandate, “Go and make disciples . . .” Limiting our involvement with people to only character or competence is not smart; eventually we will run out of patience or grace (or money), and the person will leave our workplace, unhappy. Were any of Jesus’ “hires” lacking in skills or low on character? He addressed the whole person—head, heart, hands, habits—in growing ordinary people into extraordinary leaders. Leading like Jesus cannot be done if we compartmentalise character and competence.


JOY! Magazine (January 2018)

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