Character Traits of Great Leaders

Leadership 2

I have been studying  leadership lately. Pastors do not get leadership training in seminary, but we should. We are leaders in our churches, denominations, and communities. Many of my mistakes in ministry have been leadership mistakes. There is a lot of bad teaching on leadership out there. Also I realize the church is not a business. But great leadership, whether in war, sports, business, politics, or the church, exhibits certain key character traits that do not change from sphere to sphere.

Here are my favorite definitions of leadership.
Harry Reeder :A leader influences others to effectively achieve a defined mission together.
The Army: The Army defines leadership as influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation, while operating to accomplish the mission and improve the organization.
Kevin Kruse: Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others towards the achievement of a goal.

I like the Army’s definition  because of the last three words, “improve the organization.” The goal is not simply accomplishing a mission, but accomplishing it in such a way that the organization is not hurt.

Here are some character traits of great leaders I have pulled from several books. None of this is original to me.  This list is not comprehensive. I am sure I missed some things. Also any great leader will do some of these things better than others. You might be great at communication and poor at lifelong learning. But in all areas we can improve to lead our congregations or organizations better. 

  1. He understands that we live in a fallen world and work with fallen people, including himself. The leader’s vision of the ideal can cause them to forget that mistakes will be made by all men involved including the leader. Objectives will not all be reached and some will be reached slower than expected. A realistic perspective on this will keep the leader from being frustrated.
  2. He understands that he is the leader and is responsible for the people under his care, the decisions that are made, and the outcome. A great leader does not blame his subordinates for failure. He absorbs the blame and does not make excuses.
  3. He wields power for the good of his people. A leader has power and authority. He can use force when necessary. A leader who pretends like he is not in charge is lying and probably wants the glory if things go right, but none of the responsibility if they go wrong. The issue is not power, but use of that power for good. A leader uses his power to serve and sacrifice for those under him.
  4. He will look after and care for his people. He will model Psalm 23 and be a good shepherd who leads his sheep to still water and green pastures. This is why Hitler was not a good leader, though he had many followers. He destroyed his followers.
  5. A leader must be a fighter. He must fight for his people and he must fight to reach the objective and fulfill the mission. A leader is a warrior. He is not quarrelsome or prone to anger. But he knows this world has bad people in it and any objective will only be achieved by fighting through obstacles. He fights off those who would harm his people. This can be other employees are who destructive to the organization. It could be customers who are trying to take advantage of employees. It could be a cruel subordinate who is hurting others in the organization. It could be a member of the church who is teaching lies. It could be a dangerous friend his teenage son keeps talking to. A leader must fight and protect.
  6. In most cases, he will not demand respect and trust, but will earn it. His character, vision, and methods will make his people love him. He will lead not by force, manipulation, lies, or physical coercion. Great leaders lead because they have earned the loyalty of their subordinates.
  7. He will push his people without destroying them. A good leader tries to reach the objective, but also knows that the people in his organization are the key to that. He presses them, encourages them, rebukes them, but does not tear them into pieces. Nick Saban, the head football coach at Alabama, is a great example of this. He is exacting and hard. He will get upset with his players. But he is not there to destroy his players. They know this and love him for it. The best leaders are the ones who demand a lot, but do so out of love for their people, not a desire for glory or to reach the goal at any cost.
  8. He is self-disciplined. He is not given to passions such as drunkenness, uncontrolled anger, etc. He is in control of himself. Robert E. Lee said, “I will not consent to put someone in control of others who is not in control of himself.” Part of this self-discipline is organization.
  9. He conducts all his duties and conversation with honesty. He speaks honestly and forthrightly, but not with cruelty. He does not lead by manipulating the data or his subordinates. Those directly under him know exactly what is going on. They are not kept in the dark. He does not lie, cheat, or steal. He does not shade the truth. He does not withhold important information. He is a man of integrity.
  10. He will work hard his entire life. He is indefatigable. A good example of this is John Piper who is putting out books and videos after most folks have called it day.
  11. He gets the rest he needs, but not to be lazy, but rather to recharge. Most Christians today need to work harder on #10 than #11. Most of us do not work hard enough and get more rest and relaxation than we need.
  12. He will be clear about the mission and objective. He knows where he is going and what he is trying to get done. He knows the target.
  13. He refuses to get distracted from the objective. Once the mission is understood, he pushes for it and does not swerve to the right or to the left.
  14. He is a good communicator. He will set before his people clearly, frequently, and with passion the vision for his organization. Vision and objective are not the same thing though they do work together. Vision is the “why.” Objective is the “what”. The “what” is let’s win the battle. The “why” is because we love our families. A good leader uses the written and spoken word to motivate and persuade his people. He uses the vision to fuel his organization’s drive for the objective.
  15. He will eliminate those from his organization who lack character, competency, and/or do not share the vision. He will put trusted, competent men who share his vision in key positions and let them loose. A good leader will get rid of people. Some men are incompetent. Some men are not on board with the vision of the organization. Some men lack the character necessary to do the mission in the right way. Those men must go. Why? Go read #2.
  16. He will be courageous and bold. Risk is part of leadership. If you are afraid of failure you cannot lead. If you want to control everything, you cannot lead. Leadership requires extending your neck. Here is one of the main reasons many men are not good leaders. They live in fear. A good leader takes calculated risks and expects his subordinates to do the same.
  17. He admits mistakes and adjusts course when necessary. This does not mean changing the objective. The objective does not normally change, but the methods might. A good example from Scripture of this is David and the ark in II Samuel 6. The objective did not change (getting the ark to Jerusalem), but the method did.
  18. He has a humility that comes from the pursuit of the mission instead of self-glorification. How can a great general, athlete, pastor, or politician remain humble? He does this by remembering the mission and the people carrying out the mission are the most important thing not him. This will also allow him to take advice from others, listen carefully, praise his team when they succeed, and learn. John the Baptist is the great Biblical example of this where he humbly stepped aside when his role was over because he knew the mission was more important than he was.
  19. He will assert himself when that is best for the mission and the team. Near the end of the Civil War Robert E. Lee took more direct control on the battlefield. Why? All his great commanders were dead. He needed to be more up front. A good leader lets his subordinates run the show, but when necessary he leads more directly.
  20. He will be cool under fire. That does not mean the lack of fear. But it does mean he has a firm resolve to not turn back. Leadership is not tested in the classroom, but on the battlefield and in the midst of day to day life. Many men know the basics of leadership, but cannot stand the smoke and flames.
  21. He will be gracious in defeat and victory. He will not humiliate his enemies when he is victorious. Neither will he become bitter when he is defeated or when the other guy gets the glory. Note that great leaders lose. They do not win every time.
  22. He will have been a good subordinate and will continue to be one where needed. A good leader is one who has been a good follower. Often a man is both leader and subordinate at the same time. A man who cannot follow should not lead. Too many men who want to lead have never learned to follow.
  23. He will not look to magic solutions to rescue him from problems. A good leader squarely faces the problem before him, assumes responsibility for the problem and begins working to fix the problem. He does not sit around hoping for someone else to rescue him or his organization. For example, if a man is in debt he does not tell his family he is hoping for an unknown rich uncle to die and leave him an inheritance. He looks at his income, expenses, etc. and develops a plan. A military general does not assume he will get reinforcements. Good leaders know that success depends on them.
  24. He is a lifelong learner. I have heard, though I could not confirm, that John Knox learned Hebrew at the age of 40. If so, this is a good example of being a lifelong learner. Good leaders never quit learning and studying. They read, listen, watch, and observe in real life great leaders.
  25. A good leader knows what skills are required of him and constantly works to become more competent in those areas. Over the years, I have narrowed down what is required of me as a minister: knowledge of the Scriptures, theology, prayer, preaching, teaching, one on one shepherding, writing, and developing leaders. I have learned to not waste my time on secondary skills. What is necessary for you to do your job well? Learn those skills.
  26. He has a succession plan. He knows he will not be around forever. He works hard at developing more leaders. The Bible clearly indicates this pattern from Moses to Joshua, Elijah to Elisha, Jesus to his Apostles, and Paul to Timothy. In most cases the mission will outlive the leader. He needs men who will fill his slot and keep the mission going.
  27. A good leader knows all of this takes time, a lot of time. It takes time to win the respect and trust of subordinates. It is takes time to develop a good team. It takes time to accomplish major objectives. It takes time to become a good leader. He knows that great organizations are built over decades, not weeks. Therefore he pushes towards the goal with patience, but resolve.