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8 Ways to Develop Character Traits of an Effective Leader

  • Whitney Hopler Contributing Writer
  • Updated Jul 21, 2015
8 Ways to Develop Character Traits of an Effective Leader

Editor's Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of Joseph M. Stowell’s new book Redefining Leadership: Character-Driven Habits of Effective Leaders (Zondervan, 2014).

No matter how much authority your position gives you in your organization or how many leadership principles you implement, you still may not actually be an effective leader. True leadership success depends on something simple, yet profound: the kind of person you are.

It’s your personal character that will either inspire people to respond to your leadership or undermine your efforts to lead them. Jesus Christ modeled the type of character that people need to lead successfully – and you can rely on him to help you develop those same character traits. Here’s how:

Choose character-driven leadership over outcome-driven leadership. The world’s default type of leadership is the outcome-driven style, which focuses on motivating others to achieve great organizational outcomes. The power of outcome-driven leadership is leveraged by the authority of leaders’ positions rather than the credibility of their lives. In contrast, character-driven leadership (which Jesus calls you to) focuses on leading an exemplary life that influences and empowers those within the sphere of your authority to achieve great outcomes personally, spiritually, communally, and organizationally.

Choose to be a follower first, and then a leader. You must first focus on following Jesus before you can lead other people well. Rather than just following your own instincts in leadership, decide to follow Jesus’ will, ways, and wisdom. Keep in mind that Jesus always leads from and through his character, which includes attributes such as: just, loving, merciful, gracious, forgiving, serving, enduring, generous, and tolerant. Invite Jesus to challenge you about who you are and how you lead. Ask him to change your thinking about leadership so that you can approach it from His perspective. Let him transform you in the areas of self, ambition, authority, power, and expectations. Pursue a closer relationship with Jesus constantly, which will empower you to grow into a strong leader who can serve others effectively.

Choose to lead as Jesus leads you, even when it’s counterintuitive or countercultural. Expect that what Jesus leads you to do won’t always make sense to you or fit in well with cultural expectations. Pray for the faith and courage you need to follow Jesus’ guidance no matter what.

Overcome obstacles that are holding you back from becoming the person Jesus intends you to be. Ask Jesus to reveal unhealthy attitudes and behaviors in your life, such as: pride, a lack of courage to take risks, an unwillingness to forgive someone who has hurt you, an unwillingness to apologize to someone whom you have hurt, or attraction to personal gain and fame that you aren’t willing to let go. Confess and repent of any sins you identify. Then move forward in the power that Jesus will give you to replace those unhealthy attitudes and behaviors with healthy ones.

Lead by moral authority, not just positional authority. While you may sometimes be able to get people to follow your leadership simply from the platform of your positional authority, you’ll be much more effective leading by moral authority. Inspire people by living with authenticity and integrity as a follower of Jesus. Be humble and honest about your mistakes and flaws, and repent when you’re wrong. Forgive people who have wronged you. Choose to treat people with respect and kindness no matter what – even when doing so means sacrificing successful outcomes. Generously affirm and encourage others. You’ll motivate people to succeed the most when you inspire them through moral authority.

Be a shepherd. One of Jesus’ names is the Good Shepherd, because of the way he leads people with love and wisdom. You, too, can lead like a shepherd, by making decisions based on what is best for the people who follow you. Do your best to protect, provide for, and prosper the people whom Jesus has called you to lead. Listen to people and respond to their needs. Humbly rely on God to empower you to deal well with each situation, rather than relying just on your own efforts and forgetting how much you need God to work through you in leadership.

Lead with the right thoughts in mind. Since how you think determines how you lead, it’s crucial as a leader to replace unhealthy thoughts that don’t reflect reality with healthy and accurate thoughts that come from God. Pray often for the Holy Spirit to renew your mind. Read and meditate on biblical verses often so your mind will absorb them well. Healthy leadership attitudes include: cooperating with people instead of competing with them, focusing more on what you can give to others than on the perks and privileges of leadership you can get for yourself, repenting of pride and self-centered ambition so you can fully surrender to God’s plans and purposes, serving others by focusing on their needs over your own, humbly obeying God’s guidance, and refusing to exalt yourself right now while waiting for Jesus to reward you for your good work as a leader.

Develop core leadership competencies that reflect the Beatitudes. In Jesus’ most famous speech, the Sermon on the Mount, he described the kind of attitudes people should adopt to enjoy God’s fullest blessings. These “Beatitudes” are marks of effective leaders as well. They include being: reliant on God, repentant for sin, meek (which encompasses being gentle, kind, humble, considerate, courteous, and forgiving), righteous (a passion to do what’s right), merciful, and pure in heart (basing your leadership decisions on the main motive God wants you to have, which is expressing love for him and the people he has made).

Adapted from Redefining Leadership: Character-Driven Habits of Effective Leaders, copyright 2014 by Joseph M. Stowell. Published by Zondervan, a division of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Grand Rapids, Mich.,    

Dr. Joseph M. Stowell serves as the President of Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Joe also works with RBC Ministries, partnering in media productions, outreach to pastors, writing, and a web ministry called Strength for the Journey. His books include The Trouble with Jesus, Following Christ, Simply Jesus and You, and Radical Reliance. He earned degrees from Cedarville University and Dallas Theological Seminary. Joe and his wife Martie are the parents of three adult children.

Whitney Hopler, who has served as a contributing writer for many years, is author of the Christian novel Dream Factory, which is set during Hollywood's golden age. Follow her on Twitter @WhitneyHopler.

Publication date: August 14, 2014