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The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

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Crooked Timber | Antony Billington

‘Hire for character, train for skills.’ That line – and its variations – has become something of a mantra in many workplace contexts.

Of course, on its own it says very little about how companies or organisations should apply it to their recruitment processes. It also seems to suggest that character and skill are mutually exclusive. Why not go for both?

Even so, the significance of character has become a topic of discussion in many circles – among politicians as well as philosophers, for educationalists as well as for employers. Cultivating virtues such as honesty, fairness, and self-control are increasingly seen as a way of addressing many of the challenges facing society today.

‘Character’ is a way of referring to certain qualities that mark people out. They have to be consistent enough in someone to be counted as traits, and they need to run through every aspect of life. Those of us concerned with working out our discipleship in the whole of life are unlikely to disagree: if I’m kind to my colleagues at work but an ogre with my spouse and children at home, I can’t claim to be kind.

People of distinctive character in an office or a shop or a department can set a certain tone for how the workplace operates. Working in a trustworthy manner, showing genuine respect for others, exercising resilience in the face of difficulties, taking responsibility for actions – all contribute to the development of trust within the workplace, and make a positive impact on employers and employees, colleagues and clients. Over a period of time, people of character may even set a business or organisation apart from others.

Small wonder, then, that character education is increasingly seen as the best preparation of young people for life in modern Britain, with calls for children to develop ‘grit’ – confidence, perseverance, resilience – in order to equip them to meet the challenges of future life. How this is to be done, and whether or not it places an unrealistic demand on educators are moot points. Also debatable is whether ‘grit’ is still about those qualities which look more ‘successful’ – whether in education or at work – rather than traits such as selflessness, humility, and generosity. When you ‘hire for character’, what kind of character are you looking to hire?

In his illuminating book, The Road to Character, David Brooks makes a helpful distinction between ‘résumé virtues’ (the skills you bring to the marketplace) and ‘eulogy virtues’ (the ones that are talked about at your funeral).

According to Brooks, we live in the culture of ‘the Big Me’, where success is achieved through competition with others, where the rules of life are those we make for ourselves, where the self is defined by tasks and accomplishments. Instead, he says, painting an alternative ‘moral ecology’, those to be admired are honest about their weaknesses (whether selfishness, pride, or cowardice), but their character is built precisely through confronting weakness. They are humble, self-aware, other-centred, and ‘become more disciplined, considerate, and loving through a thousand small acts of self-control, sharing, service, and refined enjoyment’.

Brooks calls this the ‘crooked timber’ school of humanity, the recognition that we are richly endowed yet deeply flawed. He writes as a cultural and political commentator, not a theologian, but his unashamed use of words like ‘sin’, ‘righteousness’, and ‘redemption’ resonate with a Christian perspective, as does his declaration towards the end of the book that ‘we are all ultimately saved by grace’.

Whether or not he speaks more than he knows at this point, this is the ultimate answer to the issue of character and its formation – the need for a rescue that comes from elsewhere, outside our own capacity to make something of ourselves. Christianity is not alone in producing people of moral character, but it is alone in offering good news of free grace. And it’s that grace which not only brings about a new standing in Christ, but the empowerment to become leaders who reflect in our own character something of him.


Antony Billington