The vital characteristic for leaders

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In seven international research projects, across a 36-year period, with thousands of participants from a broad demographic, Kouzes and Posner have found that the key stand-out characteristic that people seek in a leader is HONESTY.1 Honesty is rated as being far more significant than any other factor. People will follow and trust a person, when they do what they say they will do. A quality leader clarifies shared values, and lives by them. People seek that type of integrity. In other words, leaders “can’t preach cream, and live skim milk”. They must be honest in their core.

How does this apply in the church? Here are some suggestions. Leaders, and prospective leaders, need to:

  • have a reputation for honesty in financial dealings–in both their personal and public life.
  • be compassionate and kind to all2—whether they be poor, uneducated or theologically different to you. When people are in grief, the church should be open to all in need—like Jesus, the greatest Leader was.3 Consistency to all demonstrates honest compassion. As Chaucer wrote, when describing the pilgrimage to Canterbury and viewing the friar as “a wanton and a merry”, he commented on the priests that, “if gold rusts, what then will iron do?”4 Leaders must model compassion. Otherwise, one cannot expect the constituency to embrace that essential Christian quality.
  • have integrity in relationships—without a hint of immorality (Ephesians 5:3). Faithfulness to a commitment is integral to being honest.
  • honestly affirm others–that’s what inspiring leaders do. They are not flatterers. They are genuine in their encouragement. Christ’s leaders know that they “have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers” (1 John 3:14), and I would add “and sisters”. That means honestly expressing equality in employment for both sexes. It does not mean being political on the Church’s global arena. 
  • be honest to the public, as well as to the church community. Confession is not a weakness. It is a strength. 

Leaders, and prospective leaders, need to:

  • interpret Scripture using credible hermeneutical principles. Leaders can’t claim to be Protestant by declaring “Sola Scriptura”, and not live by that. Biblical truthfulness must trump our traditions.
  • have a strong work ethic. They are “diligent” (Romans 12:8). That expresses an honest commitment to the cause they espouse.
  • confront problems, in order that people and the future may be better. That takes courage, and all do not appreciate it. But leaders worth following, “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
  • be honest about their own sinful human condition–in common with the rest of humanity, identifying with Paul of Tarsus (1 Timothy 1:15).
  • confess both their need of Jesus to save them, and express their confidence and joy that he has.5 

Leaders, and prospective leaders, need to:

  • have a priority of purpose for their life. As Paul declared to the Elders at Ephesus, “I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race, and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24). Christian leaders are sincerely committed to declare that priority. It is not a matter of being appointed to a leadership position. It is a matter of having deep within, an honest priority of purpose.
  • be honest about what the Holy Spirit has produced in their ministry. Trustworthy leaders do not have an inflated perspective of their own talent. It is the Holy Spirit that gives success. Honour Him.
  • value the church, but acknowledge that it is “enfeebled and defective”.6 Acknowledge that the church has and does make mistakes. 
  • speak positively, yet honestly, about their fellows. Trusted leaders do not belittle others to gain a good position for themselves. The ninth commandment of the decalogue makes this plain for everyone (Exodus 20:16). They “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility they consider others better” than themselves (Philippians 2:3). What is expected of all, must be modelled by leaders.
  • honestly depend on others to solve problems. Trusted leaders value their team’s ideas to solve problems. Jesus’ model is “team”. We are not adequate by ourselves—His disciples say “we” not “I”. Trusted leaders honour their team. If decisions are made with their team, they don’t walk out of a meeting and make a decision that is contrary to that of their team. They know that the church is “the body of Christ,”7 and that they are one part of it. Hence they value the diversity of spiritual gifts.

Kouzes and Posner say that “honesty has been selected more often than any other leadership characteristic . . . as the single most important ingredient in the leader-constituent relationship”.8

Therefore, let’s honour what is most important in the characteristics of Jesus’ leaders, in order that our churches may be robust in integrity, and our administration personnel may be inspiring. 

When this happens the world will be attracted to follow those who lead honestly, like Jesus.

1. Kouzes and Posner, The Leadership Challenge, 7th edition, 2023, John Wiley & Sons Inc, New Jersey.

2. Colossians 3:12; 1 Peter 3:8,9.

3. Matthew 9:36, 14:14, 15:32, 20:34; James 5:11.

4. Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, General Prologue, written between 1387 and 1400.

5. Philippians 3:7-4:1; 2 Timothy 4:7,8.

6. EG White, Ms 155, 1902.

7. 1 Corinthians 12-14, esp 12:27.

8. Kouzes and Posner, The Leadership Challenge, Ibid, 2002 edition, p27.

This article was inspired in response to the ADVENTIST WORLD articles on Leadership, on January 14. The author felt a key characteristic was omitted and deserved highlighting.

John Denne is a retired pastor/pastors’ mentor, former ministerial secretary and church ministries director. 

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