I visited with a friend over dinner the other night. He is an attorney. A really good one. He works for a prestigious firm and does some of their most important work for its biggest clients. He was talking about leadership.

"Law schools are producing some sharp graduates these days and sending them our way," he said. "As you can imagine, we get lots of applications from the best and brightest. I don't think it would ever be the case that we worry about one of our applicants knowing the law or being able to pass the bar exam. But we are really having a hard time finding people we want to hire."

"Why is that?" I asked.

"We have a hard time finding people who are leadership caliber," he continued. "We need people who will step up and step out. And they are getting harder and harder to find. Either that or we are looking in the wrong places!"

The more we talked about the leadership issue, the more engaged we both became in the conversation. What does it take to make a leader? What are the qualities to look for? What are the qualities to cultivate in your own life?

You obviously look for core competencies in a leader. She must have appropriate background and training. He must have some assessments that say he can do the job. It is always better to have someone who has already proved himself in a similar role. All these things point to aptitude and know-how.

It is harder still to find someone who sees the big picture and is forward-looking in handling his responsibilities. Leaders have to fix messes and keep a close eye on hitting productivity and profit targets. But they have to be more interested in keeping the company, family, or church on track with its long-term goals. They have to be visionary persons who can communicate their vision.

Okay, those two are obvious and easy. A leader has to possess basic competence and vision. But my friend was emphatic about the third item. No, it wasn't third except for the sequence of discussion. It is, according to him at least, the first and most critical item. He was adamant that the thing most often lacking in potential leaders is personal integrity. Common decency. Good character.

Leadership is a matter of being before it is a way of doing. Politicians, evangelists, athletes, bankers, actors, CEOs – all of them had good-to-excellent skills and a sufficient supply of vision and ego to get to their leadership positions. But we have witnessed hosts of them melt down before our eyes because of a lack of principled character that would let them use their positions responsibly.

They are getting harder to find!
All the knowledge, skills, charisma, looks, and imagination in the world can't make up for a lack of character. The wise man said it long ago:

People with integrity walk safely, but those who follow crooked paths will slip and fall (Proverbs 10:9 NLT).