We’ve all considered the question, ‘Are good leaders born or made?’ It can be argued to some extent that when it comes to leadership, ‘you either have it, or you don’t.’ However, I believe that most leaders, given some honest feedback, encouragement, and experience, can improve even in areas that are viewed as weaknesses.
Solid leadership requires good judgment. Solid Christian leadership demands personal discipleship and prayer as well. So many times I see and hear leaders complaining about the push-back and lack of support they get from those they are elected, appointed, or called to lead. And, to be fair, sometimes those followers are just grouchy or plain mean. More often, however, I think they are responding understandably to the seeming inadequacies, incompetence, and insincerity of those who seek to lead them.
All leaders hit walls from time to time. Christians are no exception. That is to say that they realize their own limitations and ineffectiveness. Unfortunately, those limitations are often realized, if not magnified, by others around them as well. As a minister and therapist, I am a huge proponent of family systems theory, which teaches that even one small problem in an individual can create chaos and confusion for every other member of the family. When you carry that principle over to a more concrete system — an amusement ride, for example — it’s easy to see how one loose screw or one weak link could jeopardize the security, integrity, and functionality of the entire operation.
Lucky for us all, we do not bear the burden of perfection. On the other end of the equation though, we must find within ourselves the grace to extend to those around us who are equally imperfect. Viewed in this way, I believe that challenges, even failures, can provide great opportunities for the kind of self-evaluation that can right wrongs, turn corners, and calm the turbulence of dysfunctional teams and organizations. We’ve seen such scenarios play out through the years in sports, politics, business, and church life — sometimes on TV and sometimes much closer to the action.
So what makes the difference between an exhausted and ineffective leader and an effective one? I think it all comes down to wisdom and a teachable spirit.
Consider these 10 attitudes and practices of wise leaders:
- Be intentional about developing personal character and core competencies. Wise leaders always seek to get better at who they are and what they do. A key struggle for me in this area is optimism. And I don’t think I’ll ever excel at it, but I can get better. (You see how naturally that comes for me, right?)
- Frequently and consistently communicate a clear vision or way forward. Whether in politics, church leadership, or business, people will give their time, energy, and money only to those who can articulate a plan to get from where they are to where they want to be.
- Earn your own stripes through commitment and hard work. Don’t expect people to follow you just because of your given title, position, or years of experience.
- Actively listen to and respond to the views, values, and expressed opinions of those you lead. Such intentional efforts help people feel valued and appreciated. A leader’s openness to others can be a real difference-maker in times of turmoil.
- Invest time getting to know people on a personal level — their families, interests, hobbies, and dreams. No matter how great our differences may be, we almost always find commonalities when we take the time to look.
- Use sound judgment in decision-making, appropriately relying on help from others. You don’t have to have all the answers or make all the decisions by yourself. Surround yourself with bright, hard-working others, and find wise guidance. Proverbs 11:14 tells us there is safety in a multitude of counselors.
- Take personal responsibility for mistakes and missteps — and accept the consequences as opportunities for personal growth. Everybody messes up sometimes. Make a conscious effort to view failures as learning opportunities.
- Demonstrate a willingness to get your hands dirty and work alongside your people — even when you don’t have to.
Humility is a wonderful quality that helps others see you as human. Even Jesus, the King of Kings, displayed this tender and refreshing quality during his earthly ministry. In the ultimate display of humility, God became human, and as the apostle Paul notes, ‘became obedient to death, even death on a cross!’ (Phil. 2:8).
- Practice honesty and integrity in word and deed. Remember that trust is foundational to all healthy relationships. Your word is your bond. Your integrity is reflected not only in the big stuff of life and leadership; it’s reflected in the little things as well — like punctuality and follow-through. Essentially, barring actual emergencies, we should honor our commitments, even if something better comes along after the fact. We’ve all been on the opposite end of a broken commitment and know first-hand how deeply the feelings of insignificance and disrespect can penetrate the soul.
- Establish systems of personal accountability and evaluation, and cooperate fully with those processes. Wise leaders understand how important this is on so many levels.
Whether you’re an elected official, a pastor or church staffer, a small business owner, or a CEO in a Fortune 500 company, these principles hold true time and time again. The old saying is accurate: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” I’d add to that — if you shove his muzzle under the water, you’ll surely get kick-back — and maybe physically hurt in the process. But regardless, he still won’t drink, if for no other reason than to spite you.
Today’s culture is absolutely fixated on leadership. However, not every person is called to lead or gifted to lead, at least not in his or her current capacity. Many leaders today seem more interested in being followed than in leading well, with wisdom, integrity, respect, hard work, and self-sacrifice.
Perhaps the saddest part is that some leaders have to learn that lesson the hard way, through the pain of personal rejection. Trust me. I know. Because I’ve walked this lonely, wretched path myself and have the scars to prove it.
If you are in a leadership role today, think back through my bulleted list and ask yourself, “Am I a wise leader?” Or perhaps rephrase the question: “Am I growing in wisdom as a leader?” That just might be the most important question of all. And if you really want to know, ask several of those who are supposed to be following you — not your yes-only, rubber-stamp people, but the ones who can offer the gift of honest feedback without fear of reprisal.
The bottom line is this: If you want to be effective and wise as a leader, then you must be willing to hear the truth, process the truth, and make adjustments based on the truth. Your success — and, in most cases, your livelihood and that of your family — depends on it.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION!
What are some of your personal observations regarding leadership? What things would you add to my list? Share your own thoughts on how you see these leadership attitudes and practices impact people. Please be sure to note whether your primary leadership experience is in business, government, church, etc. I love hearing from you!