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  • Writer's pictureMike Ayers

The Character Crisis

As a teacher in Christian leadership, I assign my students the task of creating a “life map” at the beginning of their course of study. It’s an exercise where they honestly reflect upon their past and chart the defining experiences that have shaped who they are. It’s a challenging assignment for most. The purpose is for students to become self-aware, to assign meaning to their former experiences, to understand the dynamics in their present life and leadership as a result, and to discover God’s power to use all of life for good.

Upon completion, students share their life maps with the class. Out of the numerous life stories I have heard throughout the years, I would estimate that more than half of the students come from significantly broken or spiritually dysfunctional backgrounds . . .

and all of them are studying to become Christian leaders in organizations.

This tragedy of brokenness is more than anecdotal. At no time in history has there been such an epidemic of personal instability and brokenness. Myriads of people are moving into adulthood with deep insecurities produced by a culture of divorce, addictive behavior, political unrest, sexual abuse, overstimulation, materialism, and spiritual dysfunction. Even those who grow up in wholeness and emotional health have no guarantees of well-being. The potent influences of our culture coupled with our own sinful nature develops in all of us harmful patterns of thinking, fleshly motivations, and distorted views of self.

One of the prevailing myths of our time is that these matters do not affect leaders in the function of leadership. Yet coinciding with the decay in our culture, we witness leader after leader flounder and fail. Immoral and unethical leadership has never been more prominent. Egocentric leaders are everywhere. Leaders driven by insecurity permeate almost every organization.

Many of us could cite leaders of great competence and skill, yet who lacked character. They were outstanding strategic thinkers, exceptional communicators, and possibly great motivators. Yet they lacked inner security; a firm identity in Christ; a growing, life-giving faith that resulted in a moral compass; and the ability to be authentic and vulnerable in their closest relationships. Consequently, secret sins developed, temptations associated with the power of leadership overwhelmed, and in time, these leaders succumbed to internal collapse. Almost inevitably they end up shipwrecking their marriages, families, churches, and organizations. They lacked the inner character to support the success created through their dynamic skill. In truth:

skills may take leaders where character won’t keep them.

The symptoms of this character crisis are many.

Using Leadership to Meet Inner Needs

All of us as humans have a need for affirmation, love, and approval. All of us need to feel that we’ve achieved some measure of success. All of us need to believe that we are making a difference. These needs are a natural and innate part of our humanness. Yet, instead of meeting these needs through authentic connections to God and other people, there are those who illegitimately use leadership to fill their intrapersonal voids.

In fact, I would say that many go into leadership not due to God’s call or the healthy desire to serve others but to meet some inner need for significance, acceptance from others, or approval from God. There is something within them, something broken, something essentially about the self, that becomes medicated through leadership. Here, legitimate human needs are satiated through illegitimate means. This makes leadership something very dysfunctional in its practice, essentially more about the leader than about God’s will or the people led.

Abusing Power and Position

Leaders who lack the inner security of character must manage their people and organizations in ways that advance their own agendas and personas. You see, what they want must occur. This motivation results in obsessive control, manipulating people and circumstances, the inability to admit wrong, the use of spin control when mistakes happen, making autonomous decisions, and the use of authority rather than godly influence to achieve one’s way. Such leaders often lack the ability to let go, to learn from others, to listen, to share leadership, and to trust God with outcomes.

Denying, Deflecting or Defending Problems

Rather than take personal responsibility, leaders who lack character blame others or circumstances for problems, as well as hiding from elephant-in-the-room situations. When finally confronted, these leaders offer superficial fixes rather than deep, biblical solutions.

Misplaced Ideas of Success and Failure

Taking their cues from the culture, leaders void of character define success in superficial ways. A bigger church, more employees, greater material possessions, a larger salary, more notoriety—these are the symbols of success even for Christian leaders in the twenty-first century. Rather than defining success as faithfulness to God and simply expressing the person God created them to be, they measure success through worldly standards. Often cloaking their motivation in spiritual language and the expressed desire to achieve God’s purposes, they are more accurately driven by selfish ambition.

Something to Prove

Leaders void of Christlike character subtly and subconsciously compare themselves and their organizations to others. They judge success by how well they do in contrast to others rather than by simple faithfulness to God. This leads to the experience of jealousy and insecurity when others apparently achieve more or to pride when they have surpassed their contemporaries in acquiring notable symbols of success.

Warren Bennis may have said it best:

No leader sets out to be a leader per se, but rather to express himself freely and fully. That is, leaders have no interest in proving themselves, but an abiding interest in expressing themselves. The difference is crucial, for it’s the difference between being driven, as too many people are today, and leading, as too few people do.[i]

Low Emotional Capacity

All leaders feel stress at times, and the weight of leadership is often heavy. As Shakespeare said, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”.[ii] Sometimes situations are so dysfunctional and support is so low that leaders should pray and consider leaving. Yet frequently, it is not the situation that needs changing. It is the leader.

Leaders without Christlike character will struggle to find the emotional resources required to meet the pressures of the job. Where inner security and identity in Christ are lacking, leaders become overwhelmed with the demands of the role, saying, “I just can’t do this.” They take critique very personally. They express escapist tendencies, including the constant need to get away (distancing themselves from the job as much as possible—this is in contrast to a legitimate need for occasional withdrawal in order to seek God and be restored), cowering away from feedback, isolating themselves from others, and a fear of trust and intimacy with those who could actually help them. Mostly, they feel they are victims and may even express martyr tendencies (blaming, manipulating others by guilt, feeling sorry for self, etc.). They struggle with overwhelming negative emotions such as sadness, anxiety, deep anger, and guilt. They may even grow depressed and physically fatigued.

Creating Insecure Organizations

Possibly the most tragic consequence of character-void leaders is the destructive impact they can have upon the people and organizations they lead.

Insecure people create environments of insecurity.

Leaders not only embed in their organizations what they intend consciously to get across, but they also convey their own inner conflicts and the inconsistencies in their own personal makeup.[iii]

This dynamic is true whether it be in families, churches, or business organizations. Insecure leaders often fail to affirm and empower others. Or they fail to lead them due to fear. They often confuse people and create unsettled cultures in their organizations because people don’t see consistency or logic in their actions. Insecure leaders are either quick to bring external change (jumping from one new fad to the next) or avoid change altogether when it threatens their leadership. They make illogical decisions not based upon what is best for the organization, but upon what validates them and affirms their leadership. This creates organizations that flounder internally in their functioning, externally in the achievement of a mission, or both.


[i] Warren Bennis. On Becoming a Leader.Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co. Inc., 1989. p. 5.

[ii] Shakespeare, William. History of Henry IV, Part II. Accessed July 10, 2014.

[iii] Schein, E. H. Organizational Culture and Leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1987. p. 319.


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