I know some really great leaders. Leaders with leadership talents that would wipe the floor with any politician, yet they lead few people. I also know quite a few “leaders” that are really leaders by title only, with little to no actual leadership ability.
I’ve often wondered what it is about the great leaders that make them so far and away better than everybody else. What are the traits, characteristics and habits that make great leaders so great?
I know I’m not the only one that has thought about this subject, vast libraries could be compiled about this. And while I know that the plural of anecdote is not data, I’ve observed some very specific things in all the best leaders I know.
But first, a word on leadership. Everyone has some leadership skill, for good or ill. Even if you have zero ambition to become a CEO or politician or to take on any other stereotypical leadership role, you owe it to yourself to hone your leadership ability.
It’s because, point one: great leaders lead themselves well first. Great leaders make the best followers. They are amazingly self-aware, self-aware enough to know the things they do not know. To peer into the minds of those around them in any situation and get an idea of how others perceive them. To know their own strengths and weaknesses. They know how to lead themselves well.
And there isn’t a leader on the planet that wouldn’t love to have followers that lead themselves well. So even if the highest role you ever accomplish is “individual contributor” … developing your leadership ability is tremendously valuable.
There really are no straight followers in this world. Just varyingly successful leaders.
Number two, great leaders guard their hearts. I had this more specifically written in my notes as: “Great leaders let neither praise nor criticism into their hearts.” Take the feedback, digest the feedback, and use the feedback if appropriate. But don’t let that seep into your heart. Don’t let people’s opinions of your performance change your opinion of yourself.
More broadly, I think great leaders just generally guard their hearts well. I love how Psalm 4:23 puts it: “ABOVE ALL ELSE, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life”.
“Above all else” … in other words, THIS IS REALLY REALLY REALLY important.
With the wellspring thing, I picture a water well out in the middle of some desert. You wouldn’t pour your old bleach, paint or other debris into your well. You’d be in a lot of danger. In the same way, the heart is the spring of your life. What comes out of your life is based on what comes out of your heart. Guard your heart. Be careful the things you allow to take over and take charge.
Point three: great leaders are always on purpose. They’re constantly reevaluating what they’re doing, and how it relates to the broader goal. Great leaders stay on purpose.
I was reminded of this last week when I was walking with another student ministry leader who saw a kid and said something slightly snarky about something he was wearing. Without even thinking, I added on with my own two cents, then immediately regretted it. I knew this particular student is particularly sensitive about how others perceive him, and every kid is sensitive to when people, especially leaders, call them out for being slightly different.
Fortunately he didn’t think much of it because he realized we were teasing him out of love, but it reminded me why I don’t even remotely measure up to my own list of great leadership qualities! Both of us leaders got off purpose. My personal mission is to help turn outsiders into insiders, and I forgot that.
Speaking of mission and being on purpose, great leaders have clear values. Even (maybe especially) if it isn’t a fully articulated set of statements engraved into a stone plaque in their house, all great leaders clearly have values. What they value is evident based on what they do, much more so than what they say.
I have one over-riding and primary value personally: love. Everything else in my life is subsumed by this one thing.
Other leaders will value other things. But great leaders have clearly communicated (even if that communication is by action only) values, and their actions are aligned with what they value.
Point five: great leaders give up things they love for things they love even more. I got this pretty well ingrained into my head as it’s a core value of LifeChurch.tv. To see the entire church rally around this idea and apply it to everything they do. You’d see everything from something simple like core members attending an inconvenient service to free up room for a visitor during the larger services, to major sacrificial giving to help give more stuff away. Everyone was united on this idea that while we may love our comfortable service, our comfortable friends and our money, we love seeing outcasts find Jesus far more.
It changed the way I saw money. Now instead of that new computer, or a new car, or a bigger amount in my bank account … all things I love … I put it to work doing things I love even more.
What are you giving up? Why? Are you giving things away so you can see something you love even more grow?
Try it. It will change the way you view giving. Promise.
Point six: great leaders are all about the mission. Sub point: Great leaders don’t think about themselves! They elevate and publicly praise the work of others. They do what’s best, even when it conflicts with what’s best for themselves. They do what’s right, even when it’s really hard.
Great leaders put the mission above their own contribution. I think in student ministry, this is the particularly rare breed of leader that is not threatened by other leaders interacting with “their” kids. This is another one that is hard for me. I’ve worked hard on my own soul on this one, because it’s far more important that the kids I’m connected best with are connected well with other leaders. It’s particularly hard to hand off kids to other leaders, but that’s a success. Particularly since my mission, to help turn outsiders into insiders, revolves around integrating kids out of my sphere of influence into other’s.
Point seven: great leaders delegate authority and responsibility. I’ve seen delegation go wrong very badly many times, and you probably have as well. Average leaders delegate tasks. You do this, this and this. Terrible leaders will delegate the responsibility (I hold you responsible for these outcomes) without the authority (but I won’t give you any way to change those outcomes).
Great leaders avoid this trap and delegate effectively. They delegate authority instead of tasks, and follow up by delegating the responsibility to keep that authority in check. They delegate because they know they can’t and shouldn’t do it all, and they delegate to develop those leaders below them.
Great leaders delegate things with care. They understand the strengths and giftedness of their followers and delegate appropriately. Great leaders, being self aware, also understand their own giftedness and delegate away tasks that they are not gifted at to followers that are.
Bad leaders delegate things so they can do less. Great leaders delegate things so they can do more.
Point eight: great leaders don’t just have followers. They have leaders. Many of the people who follow great leaders are not just followers. Or if they are, they won’t be for long. Because great leaders attract other great leaders. Great leaders also recognize leadership ability in others and develop it effectively, building into the leadership culture of an organization.
If you have great leaders in your organization, the best thing you can do is to pair new people with the great leaders. Terrible leaders will be repulsed from the great ones. Followers will be used effectively. And those with great leadership abilities will flock to the great leader to learn how to lead, and the great leader will develop and train them.
I call it “infection”. Great leaders are infectious. They have an odd combination of ability, accomplishments, authority, and humility. This is mesmerizing and people will flock to it or away from it, for sure.
Point nine: great leaders start with the end in mind. This principle rocked my world when one of my leaders introduced me to it.
The big idea is that great leaders always know that there will come a time when their leadership tenure ends, for whatever reason. What then?
All leaders are ultimately judged by what was left when they left, not by what they did. Great leaders start with the end in mind. We saw this with Jesus in a really big way. We saw him start his ministry in a really weird way: he carefully selected those he would someday hand the whole thing off to. He trained them to take his place the entire time he lead them.
We just accepted a whole round of new student ministry leaders and I got to interview several of them as they came in. We have some really truly great new leaders, and one of the most common questions they had for “veteran” (ha!) leaders like me was: “What if students have questions I can’t answer?”
Everyone asked this question. My answer was that you start with the end in mind. Regardless of where you start with these kids, there will come a time when you aren’t there any more. That’s the end you have to keep in mind. It may be when they move to college, it may be when they decide Christianity is bunk and stop coming, it may be when one of their parents gets a new job and they have to move half-way across the country.
But an end is coming. And what do you want the end to look like? Do you want them to have become so dependent on your answers that they walk away from the faith two weeks into their freshman College Philosophy class because the professor is asking questions and they never learned how to wrestle with getting answers because you were always providing them? That’s great if your goal is to become an esteemed and important leader, but not if you care how your journey ends.
Or do you want them to be strong and to endure because they’ve wrestled with even harder questions before? That you taught them how to stand on their own two legs and how to deal with those inevitably difficult questions?
Begin at the end and work your way back. Great leaders start with the end in mind, and they never forget it.
Point ten, the point I almost could have left off: GREAT LEADERS UNDERSTAND CHARACTER IS OPTIONAL.
I don’t think you got that. Go back up there and read that sentence again.
Let me restate it more strongly:
YOU DO NOT NEED ANY CHARACTER WHATSOEVER TO BE A LEADER.
Character, ergo, is optional. Do the other 9 points and you will be a great leader, so far as I can tell. Ignore character, and it won’t limit your effectiveness. If anything, great moral character might hinder your progress far more than it helps it.
You know this already, if not intuitively then just by history. It probably would only take you twenty or thirty seconds, tops, to come up with a list of a half dozen or so leaders that were extraordinarily effective and lacked any character at all. Sadly, many you’d likely name would probably be Christian or church leaders.
The way Andy Stanley puts it is that a leader’s natural talents, abilities and opportunities will inevitably propel leaders well past the point their moral character can sustain them. INEVITABLY.
Because once you’re accustomed to a certain measure of success, success becomes expected. And the opportunity to continue having success will come up when you have the choice of cutting some small ethical corner. Then the monster is born.
It’s vicious. It’s why we wake up one day to seemingly great Christian leaders having affairs and doing all kinds of crazy things. We ask how it could have ever ended up that bad. And the truth is, it never started that way, it always started with one small cut corner and grew extremely gradually from there.
To put it bluntly (because why should I stop being blunt now?) … if this potential does not terrify you, you probably aren’t ever destined to become a great leader. Go back, re-read it, then go read some stories about leaders that fell by their own lack of character. Then re-read them until you’re terrified of it happening to you. YOU NEED TO BE AFRAID OF THIS.
Great leaders understand character is optional. Great leaders put themselves on guard. Great leaders expose their sins to light early and often to prevent them from growing. Great leaders build accountability into their lives. And great leaders are terrified of the times that they might get this wrong.
I pray daily on my commute to work. I have a list of names of guys in my youth group I unapologetically pray for more influence with. Then when I finish, I pray desperately that the Lord would help me not to blow this up. Not to mess it up. Not to let my many secret sins and weaknesses grow. Not to let me be another leader that let his secret side grow out of control, explode and blow up the lives of everyone he cares deeply for.
Perhaps the most important trait in a great leader is that they know that character is optional. And they do something about it.