As a seminary professor, I work with young leaders. They have passion, vision, energy, and zeal. They understand the importance of social justice and global outreach. In both the church world and the business world, I have met young leaders who give me hope for the future.
I have learned the most, though, from leaders who have been long-term leaders. To be honest, I have seen far too many young leaders quickly lose their integrity and sacrifice their leadership influence. Too many start well but do not end well.
That’s why I so enjoy talking to leaders who have led for years, if not for decades. Admittedly, these findings are anecdotal, but here are ten common characteristics of those long-term leaders from whom I have learned.
- They begin with a determination to finish well. I have not yet met a leader who led well over the course of time by accident. Instead, they decide up front that they will run the race with the end goal in mind. They establish appropriate boundaries to maintain their integrity, and they continually push themselves to improve.
- They always have a vision bigger than they are. Regardless of their age, these leaders do not settle for maintenance mode. Their vision is so big – so “God-sized,” in theological terms – that relaxing makes little sense as long as more remains to be accomplished. Nor do these leaders ever want to fail morally or ethically; their task matters too much to let that happen.
- They take care of themselves spiritually. I realize this point sounds cliché, but it is nevertheless valid. These leaders understand that what they do behind the scenes matters. They read the Scriptures, pray, study, worship, fellowship—and lead out of the overflow of their walk with God.
- They take care of themselves physically. Again, this point is obvious yet significant. The long-lasting leaders I have met eat properly, exercise regularly, and sleep well. They cannot avoid the effects of aging, but they don’t contribute to poor health by making bad decisions. I confess I have much to learn here.
- They invest in their family. My experiences reveal a common pattern: leaders who last are good spouses and parents. They work hard at their profession, but not at the expense of their family. Indeed, their relationships keep them grounded; nothing they gain through their work is worth harming their loved ones.
- They treat people well. To put it simply, these leaders are nice people. They respect others, including those who disagree with them. They are seldom rude or impatient. Long track records of strong, healthy relationships give them credibility as they lead over many years. Some of these leaders are so kind that I have never heard a negative word about them.
- They share the workload. These leaders delegate well without shirking their responsibility to lead through influence and vision casting. They have learned that failing to share the work is not only exhausting, but it is also arrogant. In fact, it is nothing less than idolatry of the self.
- They do not let discouragement set in. It’s not that they don’t get discouraged; it’s just that they don’t wallow in that emotion. They deal with fires of conflict before they become consuming. They do not like failure, but they know failure is seldom the end of the story. Sometimes, accountability partners have permission to challenge them when they seem emotionally down.
- They have genuine friends. Their friendships may not be numerous, but they are nevertheless real. Because they have friends, these leaders know they always have a support system. Regardless of what leadership challenges they face, they know they are not alone.
- They have learned to laugh. Some of the best long-term leaders I know are also the ones who most readily laugh. Somehow, they are deadly serious without taking themselves too seriously. They can put their followers at ease even while they cast a vision with life-changing ramifications.
I’m grateful for what I’ve learned from leaders who last. Give us your insights so today’s young leaders might remain strong leaders for years to come.
What have you learned from leaders who have led well for years?