A large bank in Northern California started a program to train unemployed people as bank tellers. These individuals were hired and trained with full pay and benefits and were treated as regular employees. After only one year the bank terminated this uniquely worthwhile program, not because of the inability of the participants to learn banking skills and not because of a lack of funding or participant interest. The reason the bank gave for ending the program was the participants’ lack of “character.”
Bank officials and trainers reported that they could teach banking skills, and the participants demonstrated that they could learn these skills. But too many of the participants were unreliable, failed to show up for training, arrived late, failed to call in when they were not going to be at work, could not take constructive criticism, and lacked initiative in some cases they were dishonest.
Employers really want both. They want someone who has character and competence. Not either/or. “Don’t make me choose between them,” a friend said. “I will not do it, because I expect to hire both in the same person.” The character/competence combination is not a new topic.
As far back as the Old Testament the double-barreled concept of character and competence has been linked to the broad world of effective leading. Nobody knows this better than King David, who captured in the Psalms his thoughts on leadership. If David were here today—and the Wall Street Journal scored an exclusive interview with him—here’s what he might say about the Power of One, specifically talking about character and competence:
Interviewer: So, David, how old are you now? And what have you been doing lately? We heard a lot about you a few years ago when you were killing giants and hosting victory parties. And while you were King we always covered the palace. It seems like you were always on the front page with a different story. Catch us up.
David: Yes, I am getting into the years but I’ve had a good life. I’m proud of most things in my life but still have a couple of scars that sting my conscience from time to time.
Interviewer: You have a very colorful resume. You’ve been a shepherd, a fugitive, a writer and musician, a military general, and even a king. How has your leadership philosophy changed through the years?
David: Naturally, I’ve grown more capable and mature through the years. But for the most part the way I handled the sheep is the way I handled people.
Interviewer: What do you mean?
David: There are two parts to effective leading. It takes heart and it takes hands; meaning character and competence. As a matter of fact, during one of my writing phases I wrote a number of songs. Psalm 78 captures this idea perfectly.
I remember sitting out on a rock one afternoon reflecting on my life and the lives of the people who were under my care. I ended the song with a statement of my leadership intent. It was my Power of One manifesto in ballad form.
“He chose David his servant and took him from the sheep pens; From tending the sheep he brought him to be the shepherd of his people…. And David shepherded them with integrity of heart and with skillful hands he led them.” (Psalm 78:70-72)
Interviewer: Which is more important: the heart or the hand? The character or the competence?
David: You can’t divide them. To separate them would be like saying which is more important, lungs or brain? It takes both to be alive and influential.
Interviewer: OK, I see. Will you tell us more?
David: Sure. Every person has two things to bring to the job. They must exhibit the skills necessary to do the job, and they must bring character
When I was a military general I needed someone to go out on missions that would take a couple of days. This person’s job was to secretly penetrate the enemies’ territory and gather information on how many soldiers they had, the kinds of weapons they used, and how much food they’d stored up. These issues meant the difference in winning or losing many troops. I needed someone who could count accurately, see clearly, and remember the right things. That’s the hand, or competence, I’m talking about.
One thing some of my men failed to understand is that you not only have to have competence to get a job, but you also must stay competent to finish the job. .Lifelong learning is a really big thing with me.
Interviewer: I think I understand your commitment to competence. How about the other leg of the idea? Tell us a little bit more about character.
David: Sure. Let’s take the same examples I gave you earlier. I have to be able to trust the men I send on scouting missions. Specifically, I wanted people I knew would return from a mission, not get lazy or discouraged and give up. And I couldn’t send someone who was loose-lipped. These missions were top secret.
But, you understand, character without competence just won’t do. Some things are meant to be combined, not separated. That’s how I feel about character and competence. We get our best imprint when they are both into play.
Did you have any idea this kind of emphasis was going on thousands of years ago? Rather surprising isn’t it. But every society rides up and down with the trends and styles that shape everything from our cloths to how we structure our companies. The good news is that Attila the Hun is out. The Jimmy Hoffa style of management is not good today, “I do unto others what they do unto me, only worse.”
“In a new era for business, CEOs face a new mandate. Glamour and glitz are out. Transparency—in terms of ethics, values, and goals—is in.”—Executive recruiters Heidrick and Struggles
King Solomon of ancient Israel, reputed to be the wisest man who ever lived, said it this way: The ways of right-living people glow with light; the longer they live, the brighter they shine. But the road of wrongdoing gets darker and darker—travelers can’t see a thing; they fall flat on their faces.
So what exactly is character? Character is the sum of my behaviors, public and private, consistently arranged across the spectrum of my life. Character comes from the Greek word describing a marking and engraving instrument. An artist wears a groove on a metal plate by etching in the same place with a sharp tool. Character, essentially, is a habit. I forge my character as a set of distinctive marks that, when taken together, draw a portion of who I really am.
The combination of character and competence is the one-two punch in modern business life.