Tis the season to go blind. My editors at Eerdmans sent the book manuscript for Proverbs (A Life that is Good), back to me–edited with excellence (in my opinion). So now it’s my turn for a final detailed pass, reading every word aloud (to better catch errors), and checking every reference to the text (a lot!!). Thus, my brain is fried for new ideas this week. Instead, I’ll whet your appetite (I hope) with a little excerpt from the text I worked through today: thinking about the selection of new leaders at the church I attend, from a chapter tentatively entitled, “Which way did they go? The Wisdom to Lead”…
Contemporary studies of leadership carry on the process of wisdom including close observation of life to formulate principles for effective leaders. Over the years, especially during my short time in academic leadership, I read my share of the most popular books in leadership and management. While I found overlap in the principles identified by Proverbs and contemporary books, I also discovered one glaring difference. Consider, for example, the four keys of leadership described by Markus Buckingham and Curt Coffman:
- Select for talent
- Define the right outcomes
- Focus on strengths
- Find the right fit
Or consider the seven habits of effective leaders identified by Stephen Covey:
- Be proactive
- Begin with the end in mind
- Put first things first
- Think win/win
- Seek first to understand, then to be understood
- Sharpen the saw
I find Buckingham, Coffman, and Covey to be fair representatives of the field today. Books about leadership typically emphasize the wisdom of identifying goals, managing time, recruiting and supporting the right personnel, and taking time for personal renewal. The book of Proverbs, however, begins with the leader’s character including disposition, temperament, and truest self. This idea has minimal presence in contemporary discussions of leadership. In fact after the 2016 presidential election, it was not unusual to hear someone on either side explain their vote by saying, “I set character issues to the side and voted only on the policy positions taken by the candidate.” Not unusual perhaps for non-believers, but alarming for those of faith who want their leaders to be wise, especially when Proverbs makes it clear that no leader can be effective or wise unless they pursue character development in relationship to God and other people.
A wise leader with “upright” character brings strength to a home (Prov. 24:3–4); the upright exalt a city (11:11); and righteousness establishes a king’s reign (16:12; 20:28; 25:4–5). When people of good character triumph, “there is great glory” (28:12a) and “the people rejoice” (29:2). When a ruler is committed to what is right, just, and fair, as opposed to what is convenient or self-serving, the land retains stability (29:4). In the same way, those who give special attention to the poor and vulnerable also establish stability in the land and enjoy a long reign (29:14). These character qualities take us back to the definition of wisdom at the beginning of Proverbs as acting with “righteousness, justice, and equity” (1:3), built on the foundation of “the fear of the Lord,” the right type of relationship to God.
Proverbs also attests to what happens when leaders lack wisdom and good character. “When the wicked rule, the people groan” (Prov. 29:2b) and “go into hiding” (28:12a, 28:28a) because a wicked ruler is “like a roaring lion or charging bear” (28:15), or simply put, “a cruel oppressor” (28:16a). The sages assert with force what we often ignore: character matters. When the wicked rule, we should expect trouble:
When the wicked are in authority, transgression increases (29:16a)
If a ruler listens to falsehood, all his officials will be wicked. (29:12)
People who lack good character created by wisdom cannot promote values higher than their own.
P.S. I think this is the basic idea behind the “checklists” in the New Testament that describe the “requirements” for elders (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). Character comes first for leadership. __________________
 Markus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, First Break all the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999).
 Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change (New York: Free Press, 1989).