Which is most important? Character or Competence

Business Coaching, Education, leadership, motivation, staff wellbeing, team building

(Or why 74 million Americans voted for Trump)

Character or competence? I wonder what your instinctive reaction is… “Depends on the context” you might say?

    • In a friend?
    • In a teacher/ mentor?
    • In a boss?
    • In a political leader?

Of course, ideally the answer is Both. But in reality we have to make value judgments in our interactions with people and society which can have far reaching consequences. In our personal relationships we are likely to favour character… a friend you can’t trust, isn’t loyal and deserts you in a crisis is not any kind of friend you’d really go out looking for. And yet when it comes to choosing our politicians or appointing staff, for many people character ceases to matter.

The obvious case in point is the 74 million people who just voted for Donald Trump… again! This has baffled me and many others. Especially the fact that a huge proportion of his support base in the US are evangelical Christians. I have been unable to fathom why a Christian would vote for Donald Trump over, frankly, any other candidate on earth. As far as I can see, in character, behaviour and teaching Donald Trump is about as far removed from Jesus Christ as it’s possible to get! How can followers of Jesus also follow Donald Trump?

Then I discovered the answer!  I found it on an evangelical Christian website offering its followers advice on who to vote for. It did not advocate any one candidate by name but it did say something very significant. It said : ‘Vote the platform not the person’. It suggested that because all humans are flawed the most important thing is not the person but the policies they promote. And for evangelical Christians this comes down to the public stance taken on abortion, gay marriage, guns and Israel. Hence, it literally doesn’t matter if the person on offer is a lying, misogynistic, racist who separates children from their parents. What matters are these policies.

I disagree. Character matters. In our choice of friends and teachers and in our appointment of leaders, in whatever context, character is more important than competence. And character is more important than those issues too. In fact it was Jesus himself who said that the most important law is the law of love.

The other significant group of Trump supporters are those who trust his competence with the economy, which of course translates into real jobs and food on the table. There is plenty of support for this approach here in the UK. Margaret Thatcher articulated the capitalist principle well (quoted accurately recently in The Crown). She said, “No one would have remembered the good Samaritan if he had merely had good intentions; he had money!”

Again I disagree. The phrase ‘good intentions’ sounds weak. But in actual fact good intentions, backed up with action, are what change the world. The Samaritan in the story made history not because he had money but because he defied all the prejudices and systemic cultural norms of the day to engage with and alleviate the suffering of a fellow human being from a shunned religious group. He defied religious policy and prevailing beliefs to show love. The religious leaders who had already passed by that day also had money but their prejudices and fears prevented them from using that money for good.

There is a moral vacuum currently being exacerbated in many of our systems and power structures. “So long as they get the job done, what does it matter how they go about it?” I would argue that this is dangerous. This leads us to an ‘ends always justifies the means’ ethic that legitimates trampling over whomever gets in our way so long as the outcome is in our own interests. It is individualism turned into narcisism. If it’s good for me it’s good.

Sounds ok …. Until the shoe is on the other foot and you’re the one being trampled on.

Martin Luther King Jr said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Bottom line – the number one ethic we must keep asserting is not a new one but it has stood the test of time: The Golden Rule, “Treat other people as you would like them to treat you.”

Character matters. This is about playing the long game. It’s not whose policy might help me in the short term or what might be best for the economy right now… the long term effects of a fractured society, of growing disunity, of broken families, broken friendships and broken promises; the long term effects of sowing hate and exacerbating inequality, of not listening to the cries of the marginalised and disenfranchised… the long term effects of all of this are massive. And economically massive too. Climate change is the obvious example… short term profit and exploitation now sending us multi billion pound clean-up bills after hurricanes, forest fires and floods. The capitalist ideology is flawed and no longer tenable. The human and financial cost is going to be unprecedented.

We need to choose to care: for every person, of every colour and creed, in every part of the world. Even for Donald Trump!

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