Character vs Competence

These two skills-to-be-developed have been on my mind of late. Ever since I heard a SITC lecture by Os Guinness in which he mentions that character – referring to a virtuous character, consisting of traits such as honesty, loyalty, patriotism – is considered unimportant by many today who see competence as all that is necessary in leaders.

In posting the ‘Character vs Competency’ thought as my facebook status, the first repsonses questioned whether the two should be considered as opposing concepts, if they do not enhance one another rather?


“Its like the chicken and egg thing! Cant have the one without the other.”

“…why “VS” though? Surely both at the same time is first prize? Are you thinking of the situation where if you can’t have both and you are forced to choose only one of the two, which one is most NB?”

“Character first, but competency breeds excellence. A good/strong character will per definition hunger for competence – thus, inseparable if character is put first.”


I presented it as ‘vs’ as a way of expressing the two traits being considered but also, because there exists this notion that competency is enough, as Guinness pointed out in his lecture.

I tend to agree that character is to be the foundation guiding competency, being the moral foundation from which power is exercised. The All Blacks, New Zealand’s national rugby team, is statistically the most successful elite sports team in any code and revealed some of their secrets to success which seem to support this notion. One of these secrets is the recognition and implementation of a Maori concept known as whanau, which means ‘extended family’ and is symbolised by the spearhead. “Though a spearhead has three tips, to be effective all of its force must move in one direction. Hence the All Blacks mantra ‘No D*******s’, a term shamelessly stolen from the Sydney Swans. The All Blacks select on character as well as talent, which means some of New Zealand’s most promising players never pull on the black jersey – considered d*******s, their inclusion would be detrimental to the whanau.” Similar conversations are happening around the sacking of Kevin Pietersen, a very competent and experienced English cricketer. Is it because he was not good for the whanau or is it because of reasons currently unknown to the public?

I recently came across a statement by James Madison, fourth President of the United States and chief architect of the U.S. Constitution, saying, “We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government; upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God”. It could be argued, however, that one of the major contributors to many social ills today is that fact that people demand the right to be autonomous yet are unable to practice self-control; thus, want to be left to freely exercise their will while lacking character.

But which is more attractive to us and why? Character or competence? Not in retrospect but while it is being exercised. Which will make us oversee a lack in the other? Sport is such a useful example, so let’s think clichés like a ‘Tiger Woods’. We very easily forgive bad character as competence overshadows it. And besides, we are interested in his ability to hit a golf ball and display the nerves and concentration to do so consistently and under great pressure. We are not interested in what happens in his bedroom. Are we also not interested in what happens in the bedrooms of Bill Clinton, Jacob Zuma and Francois Hollande, as long as they are competent? But they are leaders in decision-making positions; of course we want to know whether we can trust their character or not; their character trickles down to all the rest of us. Am I busy comparing apples with pears here? Do the character traits of sport stars or entertainers, who are extremely influential culture shapers, not trickle down to the rest of us too?

Do we ever find that incompetence is overshadowed by an excellent character? Perhaps someone like a ‘Pierre Spies‘ (South African rugby player) serves as a good example. He has become an ‘incompetent’ Springbok player over the years but portrays great character (thus far), yet, we do not hesitate condemning him to the ash heaps, simply because he sucks at Duane Vermeulening his way around the field. We miss the fact that the Bulls’ season seemed to crash last year when he as their captain got injured, despite the fact that his own performance weren’t worthy to have him re-selected as starting Springbok eighth man. Being a nice guy surely won’t win you any trophies and that’s what these guys are paid to do but are we not over-celebrating competence while under-celebrating character? I often see how people I would typically consider ‘(at times childish) troubled individuals’ (or “d*******s” in New Zealand) are hailed for how ‘brilliant’ they are (be they sportsmen, musicians, actors, businessmen etc.) while the mediocre ‘good guys’ are often ‘useless’ or ‘pathetic’ or ‘should be killed’.

Why is this so that competence excuses bad character more easily than the other way around? I suggest: Competence entertains us, character challenges us. The former is often more attractive, less confronting. I used oversimplified examples perhaps but I believe my general point may stand.  Or is it simply a result of our entertainment and consumer culture in which these ‘characters’ function?





“If you are smart but do not have a strong character, you cannot do much.” -Nicolas Chamfort


“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” –Abraham Lincoln


“It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.”-Mark Twain


About Servaas Hofmeyr

For life through Truth.
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