The Defining Characteristic of Authentic Leadership

  • 3 December 2015
  • Randy Wollf

Character is the defining characteristic of authentic leadership (quote by Thomas Sergiovanni)

“As a leader, the greatest gift you give people is who you are becoming in Christ. People follow you for who you are more than what you do.” 

Dallas Willard

I am learning that others will often follow me because they see something inside of me that they appreciate. Wayne Cordeiro has said, "You teach what you know, but you reproduce what you are." 

As Christian leaders, we want to reproduce qualities that reflect God. In Ephesians 5:1-2, Paul tells us how we can bear that kind of fruit: "Follow God's example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." 

Following God's exemplary character helps us to grow in godliness and reproduce those character qualities in others. Yet, what does it mean to follow God’s example?

It means to love others because God is love. Jesus' willingness to die on the cross speaks of his love for the Father and us, as well. Following in Jesus' footsteps involves a moment-by-moment lifestyle of sacrificial love.

It means to be holy even as God is holy. Today, the word "integrity" catches something of what it means to be holy. As Christ followers, we strive to be beyond reproach―to live consistently according to the high standards outlined in Scripture.

God's example of justice sets a standard for us to act justly and to love mercy. As we pattern our lives after God's justice, we will treat others more fairly. We will seek to help the oppressed and change systems of oppression. 

God's wisdom inspires us to seek wisdom; to pursue it at all costs. How can we make the best decisions as leaders without God's wisdom? In Proverbs, we learn that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. As we submit ourselves to the Lord, He will help us make wise choices―something that affects every aspect of our lives.

Following God's example also means being humble. Jesus set an example of humility when he washed his disciples' feet. This was a task well beneath Jesus, a rabbi and teacher in Israel. Yet, his example calls us to serve others humbly regardless of our position and status. 

Aristotle said, "Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others." How can we truly love in a sacrificial way if we do not have courage? How can we address injustices without courage? How can we live holy lives in a society that mocks holiness without a courageous spirit?

I would agree that courage is very important. However, we also need God's help to follow God's example. As we surrender ourselves to Him, as we are continually filled with the Holy Spirit, we can increasingly follow His example. As we do so, we will grow in godly character and others will want to do the same.

As Thomas Sergiovanni has said, "Character is the defining characteristic of authentic leadership."

What are your thoughts on the importance of character? Which character qualities do you think are most important for Christian leaders? I invite you to send me your thoughts as I continue to research and write on the importance of character within leadership. 

Randy Wollf is the Director of MinistryLift and Associate Professor of Practical Theology and Leadership Studies at MB Seminary.