How Good Leaders Become Great


How does a North Carolina country boy travel to 185 countries, preach to 215 million people, write thirty books, bend the ear of presidents, and land on the list of Ten Most Admired Men for five decades?

How does Mother Teresa, a woman who describes herself as "God's pencil," write an epic story of compassion, mercy, and grace? How do leaders go from good to great? What does it take?

First, a word about greatness! To become great for greatness sake is simply pride hiding behind a mask. God told Baruch:

And do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not! Jeremiah 45:5

 Leadership greatness is about God's work for God's glory. And yet, we know that God honors personal responsibility:

  • We hear the words of Solomon: Do you see a man skillful in his work, he will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men. Proverbs 22:29
  • We listen as Jesus commends the men who skillfully multiply their talents.
  • We see the lives of great leaders of history and great leaders for God: Augustine, Luther, Calvin, people who maximized their talents to bring God glory and advance God's kingdom.

So greatness for greatness sake -- No! But greatness as great stewardship, greatness to advance the kingdom, greatness for the glory of God -- Yes!

This post is about how we get better for God. The list you see is extensive, but not exhaustive. I began to think through the Scriptures and reflect on the ways God worked through his people. In some ways, this is an introductory biblical theology on the factors that lead to leadership effectiveness. Skim the list if you must, but at some point slow down and digest these thoughts:

1.    Learn from others, but be yourself.

Great leaders of God are great stewards of the gifts and talents God has given them!

2.    Say, "Yes" to God

Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Paul, Jim Elliot. The Who's Who of Christian Leadership is dominated by people who have said, "Yes" to the call of God on their lives.

3.   Rest in God's sovereignty

If you can begin where Joseph ended, you will go a long way to leading well. Joseph's story begins in panic--at the bottom of a ditch (Genesis 37). It ends in peace--on the top of the world (Genesis 41). Why? Joseph learned to rest in God's sovereign plan: As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.[1]

4.   Bloom where you are planted

Greatness never looks great at the outset. The mighty Mississippi begins at Lake Itasca in Minnesota. In the same way, track the headwaters of great leaders, and you will discover the ordinary and obscure. Joseph bloomed in prison. David bloomed on the pasture. We must bloom where we are planted. God will bring the promotion in his time.

5.   Run from temptation

Would Joseph have been the same man--the same leader--had he succumbed to the advances of Potiphar's wife? Or would "giving in" mean "game over"? God is our redeemer. He forgives and restores. But biting temptation's hook is a sure way to land belly up on the shore of broken dreams.

6.   Guard against hubris

In How The Mighty Fall, Jim Collins defines hubris as "excessive pride that brings down a hero, or alternatively ... outrageous arrogance that inflicts suffering upon the innocent."[2] Stare into the prison cells of those held captive by Hubris: There is Rehoboam . . . he lost a kingdom. There is Nabal . . . he lost his life and his incredible wife. There are the Kings of Israel . . . too proud of self to bow to God.

Who helps you to keep hubris in check?

7.   Stoke the fires of character and competency

And David shepherded them with integrity of heart (CHARACTER), with skillful hands he led them (COMPETENCY). Psalm 78:72

I see this same theme in Paul. He admonishes the Ephesian elders: Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. Acts 20:28 Pay careful attention to your life (character), pay careful attention to the flock (competency). Elsewhere, Paul counsels Timothy, Watch your life (competency) and doctrine (competency) closely. 1 Timothy 4:16

8.   Listen to great music

David, one of God's greatest leaders, was called, The sweet psalmist of Israel (2 Samuel 23:1). Moses and the people sang a song to the LORD after crossing the Red Sea. God gave us a book of songs (Psalms). We ignore music to our peril. Who can't find heart for the journey by listening to Josh Garrels, "Father Along"? Who can't have her spirit's revived by listening to Matt Maher's, "As It Is In Heaven." Who can't be stirred to live for the One who matters by dwelling on "Be Thou My Vision"? Great people think on great things!

9.   Learn from every leader

Common grace is the teaching that the goodness and kindness of God extends to all people. All people feel sunshine, receive the rain, and can learn from and about creation. In Manual Of Christian Doctrine, Louis Berkhof writes, "It is the affection the Creator feels toward the frail creatures he has made ... it is sometimes called His love of benevolence or His common grace, to designate the fact that its bounties are undeserved."[3] This grace results in great minds and great books about leadership. To ignore the outstanding teaching of leaders who don't know God is to ignore God's kindness to them in his common grace.

10.   Listen

The book of Proverbs is the admonition of a father to his son. The recurring theme, "listen my son" is the leader's work. Peter Drucker advised, "Listen first, talk last." Listen . . . to teachers, to followers , to critics, to other leaders!

11.   Work Hard

At the end of the day, there really is no substitute for hard work. The words of Proverbs: "All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty."[4] The words of Paul: "the one who leads, with zeal."[5] The words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

The heights by great men reached and kept Were not attained by sudden flight But they while their companions slept Were toiling upward in the night.

12.    Say the hard words

Reading the prophets; I learn that leaders must say the hard words to people. We don't do this joyfully, but with a heavy heart and a redeeming hope.

13.   Play to your strengths, partner to your weakness

1 Samuel 14, recounts the story of Jonathan's quest to defeat the Philistines. Jonathan took a hill, in part, because he had an armor bearer who was with him "heart and soul."[6] Jesus sent out his disciples two by two for a reason.[7] Paul had more than 40 traveling companions. Great leadership is not a solo act. Play to your strengths, but partner to your weakness.

14.  Know where your Power Source lies

When Saul was anointed king, Samuel told him, Then the Spirit of the LORD will rush upon you, and you will prophesy with them and be turned into another man.[8] J. Oswald Sanders notes, "We would be strangely blind not to see this obvious requirement for spiritual leadership."[9] Do you begin your day in dependence on God or self?

15.   Answer the question, "Whose glory am I seeking?"

Paul was not leading to win a popularity contest, but to honor God. Leaders battle pride daily! It is God's name, God's kingdom, and God's glory we are advancing, not our own.

16.  Read deeply. Read widely.

Leaders are readers! The man God used to shape Christian work and Christian thought was apparently a life-long learner and a life-long reader. What else can explain Paul's ability to quote the poets (Acts 17), carry on dialogues in the lecture hall of Tyrannus for two years (Acts 17), or request books and parchments on death row? (2 Timothy 4:13)

17.   View your leadership as an act of service

Frederic G. Gais asked, "Is there anything the church knows about leadership that nobody else knows? The leader is a servant." Jesus came "not to be served but to serve"[10] He wrapped a towel around his waist, washed feet, and told us to do the same.[11]

18.   Rest

I appreciate the words of J. Oswald Sanders in Spiritual Leadership, "'The world is run by tired men.' Perhaps an overstatement, but there is a grain of reality here. The demands of leadership war down the most robust person."[12] Jesus called his disciples to "come away and rest for awhile."[13] Sabbath rest and spiritual leadership walk hand in hand.

19.   Pray

Samuel Chadwick notes, The one concern of the devil is to keep saints from prayer. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work, prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, mocks at our wisdom, but trembles when we pray."

20.   Get up when God wakes you up!

Okay, this one isn't in Scripture, but it is a lesson I am learning. I started this post at 2:30 this morning. I woke up. Ideas came. I wrote them down. I've learned over the years, that when God wakes me up, it is for a reason, and yes, I need to get up right then!

Becoming great is not about greatness for self, but greatness for God. May God give you grace and strength to become great for Him!

This week we are exploring the leadership axiom: Every Leader Is A Limited Edition Of One. To find out more, click on the one of the links below:



[1] Genesis 50:20 [2] Jim Collins, How The Mighty Fall, page 29. Collins borrows from J. Rufus Fears, Books That Have Made history: Books That Can Change Your Life. [3] Louis Berkhof, Manual Of Christian Doctrine, page 23. [4] Proverbs 14:23 NIV [5] Romans 12:8 ESV [6] 1 Samuel 14:7NIV [7] Luke 10:1 [8i] 1 Samuel 10:6 ESV [9] J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership, 79. [10] Mark 10:45 [11] John 13:1-16 [12] J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership, page 119. [13] Mark 6:31