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Character: the foundation of servant leadership

Two elderly women were walking through an overcrowded English country churchyard when they came upon a tombstone that said: "Here lies John Smith, a politician and an honest man."

"My, my!" said one lady to the other. "Isn't it awful that they had to put two people in the same grave."

Unfortunately, many people are not the same inside as they are on the outside. They tend to work harder on image than integrity. But godly character is foundational to godly leadership. There are three battlegrounds we must conquer to maintain godly character and integrity as leaders: our passions (appetites and desires), pride (arrogance and pretension), and position (aspiration and ambition). Let's look at these battlegrounds and how we can conquer them to build a strong foundation of character.

The Battleground of Passions

To conquer appetites and passions, exercise self-discipline and self-denial. Samson experienced the consequences of his unrestrained appetites and passions. His lack of self-control and self-denial ruined him (Judges 13-16).

As leaders we face a host of appetites and passions that we must restrain, such as personal pleasure, leisure, or material things. Like Samson, we may indulge ourselves at first, but in the end we are overcome by them. It's difficult to discern what is good and bad when we cater to our every desire. Let's consider how we can overcome our passions and desires through self-discipline and self-control.

First, when we overindulge, we impair our ability to think rationally and make wise judgments. This leads to problems in relationships because it makes us insensitive to others' needs. What I want becomes more important then my relationships. Overindulgence also creates personal dissatisfaction. We become angry with ourselves and take it out on others. Sir Walter Scott once said: "He who indulges his sense in any excess renders himself obnoxious to his own reason; and to gratify the brute in him, displeases the man and sets his two natures at variance." Ruling our spirit is a requirement for successful leadership.

Second, we either control our appetites and passions or they control us. Many times we treat temptation casually. Rather than seeing it as dangerous, we flirt with it to see how far we can go without falling. As leaders it is easy to think that we are stronger and less vulnerable than we really are. What starts out as an innocent, harmless desire can become an insatiable craving that controls us.

Third, daily disciplines build strength, character, and confidence. Christians that cruise through life doing what seems natural will never develop character and integrity. The daily disciplines of reading the Word and praying are essential. Regular times of meditation and fasting keep the flesh under control and the spirit sensitive. Scripture memorization is also a good discipline that builds spiritual strength and character.

Fourth, early victories in the day lead to future victories. When we fail to overcome slothfulness, selfish desires, and passions early in the day, we often find ourselves confronted with a host of other problems that threaten to overwhelm us. If we begin each day by conquering weaknesses, passions, and the lack of self-discipline, we're able to conquer other battles that arise. If we conquer discouragement or a bad attitude in the morning, the rest of the day will go more smoothly. Submitting to the Lord in the morning gives us the strength to overcome the devil in the afternoon.

The Battleground of Pride

To conquer pride and pretension, work on building character and developing competence.

The Pharisees are a perfect example of those who lack inner character (Matthew 23). They were more concerned about appearance than substance, focusing on externals rather than internals. Jesus said to them, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean" (Matthew 23:25-27, NIV).

Pride and pretension are prevalent in a society that places a premium upon talent, not character. As leaders we are vulnerable to this lurking evil. We can find ourselves more concerned with image than character. This evil is only conquered by developing character and true competence. Several issues will help us to deal with this area of our lives victoriously.

First, the pressure to appear powerful, successful, and fashionable may cause us to be manipulative. As leaders we must fight against this pressure. Developing true character and competence takes time. It's tempting to take the shortcut by manipulating people, situations, and perceptions to gain the image of power and success. Socrates said, "The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be." The world is image conscious, and its social mirror is very powerful in creating our sense of identity. According to Edwin Hubbel, "Fashion is the science of appearances, and it inspires one with the desire to seem rather than to be." As leaders we must guard against manipulation. We must lead by true character and competence.

Second, if our security and identity are not found in Christ, we look to society's social mirror for identity and approval. Our self-concept is often a result of what others think about us. Leaders can be very codependent. They often need people more than people need them. They can become very dependent upon those they lead for approval, acceptance, and security. Underneath anger, hatred, envy, jealousy, pride, and negative emotions often lies the desire to be accepted, approved, and esteemed by others. It has been said that we wouldn't worry so much about what people think about us if we only realized how little they really do. What really counts is what God thinks about us, not others.

Third, living in agreement with our core values and principles is the only way to be honest and straightforward. When leaders don't live by core values and basic principles, they become fickle, shallow, and inconsistent. The more we base our lives on God's principles, the more certain and direct our course will be. Ineffective leaders attempt to manage their time around priorities and their tasks around goals. Effective leaders live their lives and manage their relationships around principles.

Fourth, we become vulnerable to pride and pretension when we indulge our appetites and passions. Everyone has a passion that tends to dominate his life, such as pleasure, power, money, or sex. The test of our character comes when we are alone with this passion. The enemy is crafty and will provide the perfect opportunity to sin----one that appears innocent, hidden, and without significant consequences. But when we allow our passions to grow, feeding them periodically, we are forced to pretend we're something we're not. We must master our passions or they will force us to live a life of deception.

Fifth, pretending and playing games leads to vanity, pride, and self-deception. It's possible to experience positive results in our ministries while living a life of pretension, but it's dangerous to assume that we are in right relationship with God because of these results. We become self-deceived by experiencing success through the mastery of leadership techniques and skills apart from the development of character. It's dangerous to succeed in the social arena without first winning in the character arena. The only way to conquer pride and pretension is to focus on building character and developing competence.

The Battleground of Position

To conquer unbridled aspiration and ambition, dedicate your talents and resources to God's purposes and serve others.

King Saul demonstrated the problems of unbridled aspiration and ambition. After God told him to destroy all the Amalekites, Saul disobeyed and spared some of them. Then he built a monument to honor himself (1 Samuel 15). Ambition and aspiration can lead us to disobedience and self-aggrandizement.

Leaders must wrestle with their ambitions and aspirations. Left unchecked they will lead us astray and ultimately destroy us. We must continually dedicate our talents and resources to God's highest purposes and serve others to overcome this battle. Several observations about unbridled ambition and aspiration will help us to do this.

First, aspiring people are more concerned about glory, power, position, and agendas than the good of others or the greater cause of the whole. They see things, family, relationships, and people as possessions to help them win. They are deeply competitive and view people as competitors or conspirators. They believe people are against them and resisting them. The result: they tend to manipulate through threats, fear, bribery, pressure, deceit, and charm. Calvin Miller gives five evidences of power abuse: (1) giving up the disciplines that we still demand of underlings; (2) believing that others owe us whatever use we can make of them; (3) trying to fix things rather than making them right when we fail; (4) closing our minds to suggestions that we could be out of line; and (5) believing that people are expendable (The Empowered Leader: Ten Keys to Staying on Top in the Church. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996, p.130).

Second, self-centered ambitious leaders have no sense of stewardship, proper principles, or worthy causes. They lose their sense of priorities and principles. Rather than seeing their responsibility and accountability to God and others in their roles and resources, they feel that others owe them. Stewardship is the realization that we don't own anything and that we give our lives to the highest principles, causes, and purposes. When we are blinded by ambition, we seek glory, position, power, and promotion rather than being a steward of our time, talents, and possessions. Humility is the mother of all virtues because it promotes stewardship and keeps ambition in check. Dedicating our talents and resources to God's purposes and others will help us conquer personal aspiration and selfish ambition.

Are you losing your grip?
A Self-Test

A leader who is losing in his battle with passion, pride, and position demonstrates several symptoms. We can guard against living in the flesh by recognizing these symptoms. I may be falling when:

  1. I begin to act as if joy is dependent on my circumstances.
  2. I begin to lose the distinct aroma of the fragrance of Christ in my life.
  3. I begin to feel or act as if my selfworth and acceptance is dependent on the approval of others or how well I perform.
  4. I am losing my grip on the reality of spiritual warfare and begin to treat others' as my enemies, seeking to do battle with fleshly weapons.
  5. I act as if victory or success depends on me and my ability rather than on the adequacy of God and the power of the Holy Spirit.
  6. I place undue emphasis on programming and planning to the exclusion of His direction, leading, and guidance.
  7. My time in the activities arena is more important than my time in the prayer closet.
  8. The praises of men and women become more important than the approval of God.
  9. Relating to and caring for people is less important than programs, planning, meetings, and budgets.
  10. I assume responsibility to worry about things and people that the sovereign God has in His charge.
  11. My rights become more important than God's will (Jim Bevis adapted from Pulpit Helps).

These symptoms may indicate the rise of the carnal nature. Our lives and ministries will reflect the presence and power of the flesh or the Spirit. As leaders we are to build up the spiritual man. We do this by conquering passion with self-discipline and self-denial, pride with character, and position with dedication to God's purposes.


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