17 Character Traits of Effective Leaders

Lead Like It Matters to God

In your book Lead Like It Matters to God, you highlight seventeen different character traits that are important for leadership. In today's current climate, are there two or three traits that seem to be of critical importance right now?

Richard Stearns: Perseverance, Vision, and Encouragement. In this particular season of uncertainty, disruption, and anxiety, leaders have the challenging job of calming, encouraging, and motivating their teams despite their circumstances. In the midst of such daunting challenges a leader who can persevere with unwavering belief in a positive future can also help their team to believe there are better times ahead. Perseverance can be contagious.

Then casting a compelling vision of what's possible and how to achieve will lift the eyes of the organization to a more desirable future state. The leader must own and sustain this vision by constantly painting the picture through their words and actions.

And lastly, simple encouragement along the way really helps keep people motivated. Take time to recognize and praise team members when they make a good contribution. Call them personally to affirm how important their work is. Help them to believe that their work is crucial to the team's success. Encouragement has a great return on investment.

With COVID-19, many companies have a workforce that is now fully remote and working from home. In what ways do you believe leaders must adapt and change to continue to lead well virtually?

Stearns: Shifting to a virtual workplace poses some real challenges for leaders. There are two critical ingredients that aren't easily transmitted virtually—culture and relationship. The workplace culture of an organization is critical to its identity and its flourishing. And culture is often created and sustained through both formal and informal human connections in a workplace. But how does that happen when the workplace is gone?

Human connections and relationships in a workplace are critical to the fabric and health of an organizational culture. Leaders must find creative ways to build and strengthen culture online—celebrating victories, recognizing individual achievements, inspiring with vision. Work cannot be allowed to devolve into hour upon hour of mind-numbing technical drudgery. Finally, leaders need to have regular one-on-one talks with individual members of the team—not to review their to-do lists but to check in on them personally, affirm them, and encourage them along the way.

Human connections and relationships in a workplace are critical to the fabric and health of an organizational culture.

What is the one thing about leadership you wish you knew when you began your career?

Stearns: I wish I had better understood the power of encouragement to motivate others, lift performance, and help the people around me realize their full God-given potential. That simple insight, though it may seem obvious, is one of the most powerful motivational tools at our disposal. The best leaders know that regular affirmation and encouragement, not criticism, is what helps the people on their team develop confidence, improve their performance, and lean into their gifts and abilities. Encouragement energizes people while criticism often demoralizes. A leader who understands the power of encouragement and affirmation will see a huge return on investment, paid back in improved performance, motivation, and loyalty.

Looking back at your impressive career, who would you say influenced your leadership style the most?

Stearns: We are not born fully formed as great leaders. The best leaders grow and evolve over many years of experience—watching and learning from others above them, around them, and below them. But learning from others requires enough humility to admit that everyone from the janitor to the CEO may have something worth emulating. I learned not to try and emulate someone else's style of leadership because we each have our own unique style. You want to be the best you that you can be. But you can and should emulate the positive values and principles that you admire in others. How do they treat others, are they people of their word, are they forgiving, are they good listeners, and do they work with excellence? Imitate those qualities when you see them demonstrated.

The best leaders grow and evolve over many years of experience—watching and learning from others above them, around them, and below them.

Your career afforded you the opportunity to lead in both secular and Christian companies. What insights about leadership did you gain in both types of work environments? Were the insights the same or different?

Stearns: There are many commonalities between for-profit, not-for-profit, and Christian organizations. All three involve carrying out a mission, managing people, and hitting financial targets. Most of the nuts and bolts of leadership are the same. But Christian and nonprofit organizations have an edge in motivating staff because of their unique and compelling missions—curing cancer, fighting poverty, educating students, etc. Those inspirational causes really help to inspire staff to work with passion. For-profit organizations don't always have such motivational missions and so they often invest more to motivate staff through financial incentives and career advancement.

Christian and nonprofit organizations have an edge in motivating staff because of their unique and compelling missions.

If I were to summarize the most profound difference, I would say it this way: In a for-profit organization, the end goal is money or profit. Everything else (books, automobiles, retail stores, software, etc.) is simply a means to that end. But in a nonprofit organization it's just the reverse. The end goal is usually cause-related (improved health, reducing poverty, protecting the environment, etc.) and money is just a means to that end. It's a profound and fundamental difference that requires very different leadership approaches to motivating staff, establishing goals, and communicating with constituents/customers.

What lessons do you hope readers learn from your book Lead Like It Matters to God?

Stearns: I hope readers will take away at least five key points from the book.

  1. Christian leaders are called to be different—their leadership is their witness to the truth of the gospel. The 'one job' of a Christian leader is to be an ambassador for Christ as described in 2 Corinthians 5:20 "as though God is making his appeal through them."
  2. Achieving success in the secular sense can become a form of idolatry for Christian leaders. In the words of Mother Teresa, "God has not called us to be successful; he has called us to be faithful."
  3. God is much more concerned about how a Christian leader leads than what that leader achieves. In other words, we tend to put the highest value on the outcomes of our work, but God values our motives more. We value the what of our work, but God values the why and the how. We prioritize the destination, but for God it's all about the journey. We reward success, but God's bottom line is faithfulness.
  4. The beauty of becoming a values-driven leader is that embracing positive values does not require you to master any exceptional new skills or techniques. Values-driven leadership is more about character than capabilities, more about being than doing, more about pleasing God than people.  
  5. Leaders who embrace these characteristics will lift not only their own performance but also the performance of their teams. Putting faithfulness above success will ironically make a leader more likely to achieve success as they honor God with their character and trust him for the outcomes. And not only do people want to follow a leader who consistently demonstrates a godly character—every organization wants to hire leaders like this because of the positive culture they create.

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