Ten Characteristics of Leaders Who Last

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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?

 

26 Comments

  • Tom Estes says:

    Thank you, Dr. Lawless for this great reminder. It’s amazing to me as we search for deep truth that the deepest truths tend to be founded in simplicity. As a young pastor (34) of a church in need of a turn around, I pray that God will help me learn to live out all of these characteristics.

    Thanks again.

  • Dean Deguara says:

    Leaders who last make good personal financial decisions! I think one of the top reasons for leaving the ministry is the mishandling of personal finances. In some cases it may be because they didnt make enough, but mostly I believe its a mismanagement issue and not understanding a ministers finances.

  • I have been in the pastotal ministry and director of missions ministry as well as church planting ministry for over thirty three years. I can validate that anytime I ignored any of these principles it was to my detriment. however as I have followed these principles not only do they benefit me but they also benefit others to whom and with whom I minister. I teach a class on principles of leadership at a local seminary and I have brought in all of these principles at one time or another.

  • Forrest Long says:

    This spring marked forty years since I began in pastoral ministry. Those years have seen a lot of changes in the church and in ministry, but I believe the list of things you have laid out have always been important for anyone in pastoral leadership. Thanks for sharing.

  • Steve Pryor says:

    Great list. Applies to non – Church leadership roles, as well.

  • Ryan says:

    I would add the words of a wise and seasoned pastor which he shared with me before I took my first church: “Serve the church that God has given you, not the one you wish you had.” These were obvious words of wisdom in the area of contenment in ministry. Great encouragement in this post. Thanks!

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      Ryan, I once heard a seasoned pastor say it this way: “Many guys are pastoring three churches: the one they left, the one they’re serving, and the one they want to serve.” You’re correct that strong leaders serve the church where they are.

  • Leonard Prater says:

    I needed this reminder today. Thank you!

  • Travis Tyler says:

    Dr. Lawless,

    Thanks so much for this post. It is a very helpful reminder to leaders in all walks of life. I know watching my mentoring pastor, who has been in ministry for over thirty years the calling of a Pastor is so important. There have been so many Monday morning blues, where I desperately wanted to quit. Days where I thought, this is a ministry of Jeremiah, preaching without any repentance. And yet here I stand, I can do nothing else. There is something within me as a pastor, that holds me to the Word and enduring. It is something, that does not originate nor flow from within me but to me. It must be the Lord’s call! Without the call, a pastor will not last in this great task.

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      Travis, I agree that calling is important for pastors. I tried to write these characteristics in such a way that they would apply to leaders beyond the church as well–“in all walks of life,” as you note. Thanks!

  • Thoughts you have shared with us are So true . Its applicable to people from different backgrounds. Whats important and people generally fail to understand these days is that “Happiness is a way to success and the other way round”.

  • Chuck,
    Thanks for your observations regarding effectiveness and longevity in ministry. After 45 years in ministry I have watched ministers and lay leaders alike self-destruct over the years by ignoring the essentials of lasting leadership. Over the years I’ve had the privilege of interviewing leaders like Warren Wiersbe, John MacArthur, Adrian Rogers, Jimmie Draper, Jerry Vines, Waylon Moore and many more and the great ones always have a deep sense of humility as well as a deep commitment to empowering people around them. They are also consumed with a desire to grow as a person and leader.

  • Halle Hall says:

    I believe these are great attributes to apply to life and leadership. I am thankful for these! Thank you so much.

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