Essential Characteristics of Effective Leadership (May, 2012)

Essential Characteristics of Effective Leaders: A Leadership Framework

Leadership takes many forms. From a CEO of a Fortune 500 company to a Little League coach, leaders are among us taking all shapes and sizes. Although we might not see each particular person in an environment that allows their true abilities to shine, we cannot dismiss them as gifted or talented leaders.

Does contemporary leadership look similar to ancient biblical leadership? I’ve developed a basic framework for what lies at the core of effective leadership while trying to answer that very question. It is my belief that leadership is comprised of five essential elements. This framework consists of five components, and these five components are: passion, initiative, creativity, courage, and humility.

This paper will look at the importance of each quality, and how they all meld together and make up the essence of a quality leader. In addition, I will look at how these gifts being used in diverse settings to help prove that leadership may look different in diverse settings, but is made of the same essential elements.

Passion

I believe passion is, undoubtedly, the most crucial element of quality leadership. Passion manifests itself differently in differently people, so it is crucial to not judge one person’s appearance of passion compared to your own. However, when it is a passion that makes a difference, you will be sure to recognize it.

Passion can present itself in everything from joy to suffering. A leader will use this passion to motivate them, and help motivate those around them. John Dickson, in his book Humilitas, defines leadership as “the art of inspiring”[1]. If someone is truly passionate about something, this will be obvious to those around them, and will inspire them to make strides toward their goal. For example, the 1972 Miami Dolphins did something that had never been accomplished in the National Football League to date- they finished the regular and post seasons with a perfect record of 17-0, including an impressive win at Superbowl VII[2]. This triumphant feat was led by head coach, Don Shula, with an impressive coaching staff working under him. Coach Shula, in order to coast through the season without a loss, had a perfect storm of gifts and talents in his midst, to be sure. But one thing that Coach Shula could do better than any other coach in the NFL that year was inspire his 49-man roster and his coaching staff to play and coach to the best of their ability. He embraced John Dickson’s definition of what leadership is, and ingrained a winning mentality into his players and staff, so much so that his players were inspired to overcome all odds, injuries, and set backs, and finish the football season undefeated.

Coach Shula had many other factors contributing to that 17-0 record, but passion lay at the core of his motivation. When a leader can share a love and care for something so deeply that it is feeding those around them with the same fire for success, the sky is the limit of what can be accomplished.

Using the New Testament example of Paul, many of the letters he had written to numerous and diverse communities were filled with this passion for the Gospel. He wrote to encourage and strengthen the communities that were seeking quality leadership in times of need. People translated his passion into applicable inspiration, and worked to share and love the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Many people have different words for this passion that we experience. I use a communal “we” because everyone is passionate about something. Depending on who you talk to, this passion could be discussed in terms of fire or spirit. Many Christians may claim that their passion comes from the Holy Spirit, who gives them strength, and guides them towards vocations that they are gifted for. Many non-Christians may claim that things in their past, family history, or other external factors trigger their passions. Being the person I am, and coming from a Christian perspective, I believe the Holy Spirit is in everyone, whether they are able to name it or not. It is when we are able to embrace this passion, and use it to inspire those around us that, together we are capable of doing great things.

Initiative

“Great artists ship.”  This quote by Steve Jobs has become a building block for many entrepreneurs, and used fiercely by Seth Godin in Poke the Box[3]. People of any shape, size, age, or capacity are capable of coming up with ideas, but it’s those who take the initiative to ship their ideas who truly mark themselves as an effective leader. And sometimes, the simple act of taking initiative to move an idea forward is all you need to start a revolution, whether you intend it or not.

A little initiative can go a long way. In his book Axiom, Bill Hybles emphasizes the importance two things: first, having the right people around the table. Second, “hiring 10’s” (Note: Both of these ideas will be covered more in-depth in the “Humility” section of this paper)[4]. Being a productive and effective leader is not something one person can do on their own. They must be able to surround themselves with a diverse group of people with different talents, gifts, and skills. At the same time, this group of people must be dedicated to their craft to the extent that they will be an asset to the table, and not a distraction. By doing these two things, making you sure you have the best group of diversified talent, you’re setting yourself up for success. Effective leaders are able to do this at the start of a project to encourage progress.

One person who shows the characteristic of initiative in scripture is Jairus, who we know as the synagogue leader whose daughter is gravely ill. Knowing his daughter hasn’t much time, he journeys to find Jesus, and begs him to come heal his daughter. In an attempt to get away from an argument of “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”, the fact that we are told that Jairus is a leader in the Jewish community is very important to realizing the power of initiative. Knowing Jairus went to Jesus as a church leader helps us create a lens through which to read this story.  Is it easier to read the story knowing Jairus is a leader, and seeing his initiative playing out, or would it be more effective to watch Jairus take steps towards getting his daughter healed, and then finding out he’s an established leader? Both of these points are irrelevant to this fact: Jairus is a prominent community member, who has been entrusted to a leadership position. Because of this small step in the direction of solving a problem, he is able to reach Jesus, and his daughter is healed.

Initiative doesn’t always come directly from the will of the person who is taking ownership of it. Initiative can also be the effect of God speaking to someone. For instance, the prophets were called to go to God’s people and share a message with them. This happened at the urgency and direct word of God (“And the word of the Lord came to Elijah…”). The same can be said for those who are working in transforming congregations. By undergoing a discernment process, and being open and listening to where God is leading the church, we can be safe in assuming that the Holy Spirit will continue to guide, shape, and form church leaders into who the church and God need them to be.

Leaders come in different shapes and sizes, but one thing that unites them is their initiative. Having initiative doesn’t always mean that one person is going to take the reigns of a project, but it shows they have the means to get it started, and that they value their own input enough to know they are valuable. Good artists create, but as our friend Steve Jobs said, “Great artists ship.”

 Creativity

Although a fairly relative term, creativity is the third crucial characteristic quality and effective leaders posses. Creativity doesn’t necessarily come in one form. Many times, we think creativity is only something artistic, and we quickly count ourselves out, when in reality, creativity is something the is seen in everything from God’s act of creation to developing a strategic plan for a business or church in decline.

Up to this point, we’ve discussed the crucial elements of leadership being passion and initiative. Let’s say that you have been in your place of work for three years. You enjoy your job, and are constantly looking for ways to become more involved in some of the changes going on. You’ve heard water-cooler chat about the fact that the smoking area outside of the building is troublesome for the people in your company. But that’s it- you’ve heard complaining, and no action is being taken. This issue of second hand smoke is very close to you because your brother was recently diagnosed with lung cancer, after being a bartender for 25 years in an establishment that allowed smoking; he has never smoked a cigarette. You now use this passion on the subject to think of ways you can help a change be made. Once you come up with an ideal plan of forging ahead, you now take the initiative to create a “Workplace Environment Committee” made up of your co-workers to tackle issues such as this one. What happens next? You and your team need to be creative in thinking of ways to implement your plan. This is where the gift of creativity will benefit you, and everyone you are in contact with. Most of all, your gift of creativity will effect the hundreds, maybe thousands of people you work with.

Creativity can sometimes experience pushback from the practical people we encounter. The thing about creativity is that it colors outside of the lines in shades of red, green, orange, blue while many times, practicality is about black and white, and remaining in the boundaries that have already been established. Creativity isn’t there to break the rules, but test those boundaries.

When God embarked on the miracle of creation, the first boundary God met was the existence of nothingness. Talk about a boundary! But God tested that boundary, and chaos of nothingness, and the first step he took was to create something. He created light out of darkness. Land and water. Fish and land creatures. Male and female. God’s creativity kept coloring outside of the lines that had been placed by none other than God himself. Then God did the unthinkable- he let us be creators with him. The beauty of this is that God had given us something to work with, but has let us continue to push those boundaries. God will let us know when we’ve pushed too far.

Nadia Bolz-Webber, the pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado once preached a sermon at Luther Seminary where she said that God created something out of nothing, so we need to allow ourselves to be nothing in order to let God do something. If we continue to allow God to create something in us out of our nothingness, we will be able to use his something to create more somethings. The one requirement is that we open ourselves up to as much chaotic beauty as possible in order to let ourselves create in the ways God has equipped us.

 Courage

While compiling the pieces of this leadership framework, I had debated putting courage in this position on my list. Eventually, I became ok with it, and now I know why. Courage is something that doesn’t come easily. For example, if I were to trade places with an avid rock climber, and that avid rock climber would have to go sing in front of 500 people at King of Kings Lutheran Church for a Sunday morning worship service, each of us would tell the other, “Don’t worry about it! It’s so easy!” However, I can almost guarantee that neither of us would feel that way when the time came to execute each of the projects we’d been given. What this illustration is meant to portray is that courage is going to look different to everyone. However, when put into a situation where you’ve been given leadership of a project, if the task is to play out to its fullest potential, chances will have to be taken, risks will have to be made, and risk taking requires courage.

The biggest thing people are afraid of when taking on a new challenge is failure. This is why courage is a part of this discussion at all. The reality of failure hangs in our faces, and sometimes the fear of failure can be crippling to us in whatever it is we’re doing. In Poke the Box, by Seth Godin, he is not too timid to make the claim that most initiatives fail[5]. If they didn’t, the world would be a chaotic mess of options, programs, skydivers, and a new “Worlds Largest Ball of Twine” ever other week. Accepting failure as a possible result, and in most cases, a reality, is not being pessimistic, but instead encountering the possibilities. Fearing failure, instead, is counterproductive. Imagine what we wouldn’t have if Bill Gates was afraid Microsoft was going to fail. What would we do on Sundays in the fall and winter if Robert Goodell, the NFL Commissioner, was afraid people would stop watching football. Instead, the world has been given one of the richest men in the world, and a sports league worth nearly $30 billion.

Moses was given a gigantic task from God. God said, “Go get the people out of there!” Moses said, “Yeah, I’m tired today. Can I think about it in a week, or …never?” (This may be paraphrased, but I’m pretty sure it happened just like that). Moses was afraid at multiple points during this adventure of freeing God’s people from Egypt. Being courageous does not mean you’re not afraid. It means you’re willing to overcome that fear for the good of a greater purpose. Moses was afraid the first time God spoke to him in the bush. I’m sure he was afraid the first time he had an encounter with Pharaoh. I’m sure he was scared witless when he came to the Red Sea, only to see that a large army was close behind. The key to this Exodus story is that he took the time to dig in deep, and find the will to be courageous enough to God to help him. Courage doesn’t come for free. Courage comes with faith, experience, and a belief that what you’re going to do is better than what you’re already doing.

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.” This quote from Ambrose Redmoon is the quintessential summary of what courage looks like for someone who is a leader. You don’t have passion, initiative, or creativity unless you see that there is something better than the reality of right now. The will to overcome the self and stare the better in the eye with a realization that failure could be immanent is what courage of a leader looks like.

 Humility

When John Dickson opened up his keynote speech at the Willow Creek Association 2011 Global Leadership Summit, he explained that he had been chosen to speak on humility. Next, he voiced that usually the person chosen to speak on humility is the one who is the least qualified. Everyone had a good laugh, but he had point. Although, after hearing him speak, and reading his book, I could think of no one else to attack this topic with more humility, patience, and grace.

In his book Humilitas, Dickson defines humility as, “the choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself.”[6] Let me be clear- humility does not mean becoming a doormat for people to treat you however they please, or use you for their own advancement. Instead of humility, that would be considered utter humiliation and there is a difference. Humiliation involves lowering yourself, dehumanizing yourself, and underestimating your gifts, talents and contributions. Humility, instead, involves the lifting up of your gifts, but empowering those around you with those gifts.

Bill Hybles touches on a couple key ways effective leaders allow this to manifest in his leadership book Axiom. Bill is the senior pastor and chairman of the board at the Willow Creek Association. First of all, Hybles says that a good leader will get the right people around the table. What he means is to make sure, when you are in a leadership role, that you have not only a diverse group of people in your circle, but also that you’re entrusting tasks to people with gifts that will benefit your cause. For example, if you’re looking to jumpstart an ailing children’s ministry program, make sure you have someone knowledgeable in children’s ministry, and all ages that entails. Be sure you have someone who can manage that group, and handle administrative issues. Make sure you’ve gotten someone who is good at rallying volunteers for teaching. Then make sure that your teachers are well equipped. If instead you use the same group of people that you’d see on an adult education, or music ministry team, these people might not have the right gifts for the task at hand. That’s not to say these people are not gifted, it means that their gifts lie somewhere elsewhere, and there they can be used[7].

The counterpart to this idea of having the right people is to, in Hybles’ words, “hire 10’s”[8]. This idea of hiring tens simply means that if you’re going to hire an accountant, make sure he or she is the best accountant you can find. If you’re going to hire a barista for your church’s cafe, make sure it’s the best barista you can find. Many people are good at many things, but not many people are great at many things. Make sure you’re finding out who you have that is great, and that they are are being placed where they can be doing great work. One of the most humble steps you’ll ever take is to realize that you’re not great at everything, but everyone is great at something, and you’re taking the initiative to find those who can do certain things, and getting them plugged into where they are needed. Ability demands respect. Although you might be sitting at the head of the table, to recognize that you have a table full of ability and to honor that is a trademark of a remarkable leader.

Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” No one can do an entire job alone. Looking back at Jesus’ ministry, even he didn’t rely on himself to get everything done. He surrounded himself with a very unlikely, but qualified (or so he thought) team. Each of the twelve disciples was equipped with different tools and gifts that Jesus needed in order to make his ministry complete. Granted, Jesus is a special case, being the Son of God, and in all reality could have done it alone if he wanted to. But Christ called numerous men and women into community with him in order to minister to the public for three years. Then, Jesus did what many of us would be afraid to do, and left the work up to this relatively unfit group to go out into all the world and make disciples of all men. That call still stands for the church today, so they must have done something right.

 Conclusion

I will never claim that effective leadership is equal to positive or morally upstanding leadership. Looking at examples of negative leadership, I would claim that these same five foundational ideas lie at the core of that leader’s ability. Unfortunately, my ideas of “effective” leadership are not synonymous with “positive” or “uplifting” leadership. Leadership will continue to change from situation to situation. A president will lead differently than the chair of a hospitality committee at the small church down the road. A high school band director will lead differently than the conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra. But what lies at the core of each of these people are passion, initiative, creativity, courage, and humility.

God sent the Holy Spirit to work among us and develop and teach us how to use our gifts. While we use these gifts to embark on a journey to find where we are called to serve and to lead, being able to name those things we first feel passionate about, and then wish to take courageous and creative initiative with, the Holy Spirit works in us and moves us to that place of humility.

No leadership quality is more important than the others, but it is when they meld together that it creates the essence of what true and quality leadership stands for. They will always manifest differently, but it is when God has moved us to the place we can finally let ourselves be the people he’s created that they shine brighter than ever before.


[1] Dickson, John. Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.

[2] “1972 Miami Dolphins: The Perfect Season”, http://www.72dolphins.com/default.php (April 2012)

[3] Godin, Seth. Poke the Box: When was the last time you did something for the first time? United States of America: Do you Zoom, Inc., 2011

[4] Hybels, Bill. Axiom: Powerful Leadership Proverbs. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008.

[5] Godin, Poke the Box: When was the last time you did something for the first time (Footnote 3)

[6] Dickson, John. Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership (Footnote 1)

[7] Hybels, Bill. Axiom: Powerful Leadership Proverbs (Footnote 2)

[8] Ibid

Written by Brigitte

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A 20-or-30-something single woman living in the city. Entrepreneur, amateur baker, and wannabe photog. Lover of people, sports, and justice for all.

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