A friend asked me to speak to his middle school class about leadership and character. And I realized how I wish I’d learned these lessons when I was their age.

Maybe you’ll agree that we’re never too smart or experienced to consider what I told those eighth-graders that day.

 “Leadership and character can be boiled down to two words,” I began. “Be you. (If you want to text this, go with B U!)” Here’s what I mean:

• To be a leader, be the person you were created to be.

When I first started preaching, I tried to imitate all my favorite preachers. Then one day it hit me: God already created them to be them. He created me to be me.

It’s OK to emulate someone you admire. By all means, work as hard as possible to achieve great things for God. But it’s not OK to imitate other leaders. If you do, you’ll become just a cheap knock-off, and you won’t lead like God has created you to lead.

To be their leader, people need you to be you.

We see it all the time. Leaders compromise who they are because of what they think others want them to be.

But here’s what I’ve discovered: when I’m comfortable in my own skin, I’m subtly leading people around me to be productive in theirs.

And I’ve learned something else (it took me a lot longer than middle school to figure this one out). Those uncomfortable with me being me are often uncomfortable with being themselves. I cannot make them be them, but I can determine how I become me.



• Character is bred from who you are off the platform.

Too many leaders have forgotten this, and this is why it’s more important to talk about character than leadership.

A friend told me about a Christian author who was the guest speaker at his church. The man was arrogant, demanding, and self-referential backstage, but when he got before the crowd, he turned on the charm in a speech filled with Jesus talk.

When that kind of disconnect happens with Christian leaders, they are not being true to who they really are. They’re lying—probably to the crowd, and most likely to themselves. And they’re setting themselves up for a fall.

• Character is built when you own who you are.

Sometimes I shake my head at all the phenomenal leaders God has put around me throughout my life. They’ve invested in me. They’ve helped make me who I am, and they’ve helped me embrace who I am.

I think of Jim Thomas, a retired Marine preaching to a church of 60 in the middle of an Illinois cornfield when he hired me to be his youth minister 20 years ago. It wasn’t long before he encouraged me to answer a call from Mike Baker to serve at Eastview Christian in Bloomington/Normal. “You need to move on,” he told me. “You’ll accomplish more there than is possible here.” I’m not sure I’d be preaching today if he hadn’t invested in me so long ago.

And I think of the encouragement I received from an elder in my church just this year. “I want you to be you,” he told me. “You have a unique voice. Don’t let anybody change that.” I’m not sure I’d be preaching tomorrow without the support of leaders like him standing with me now.

• Character sustains leadership.

You can lead while nursing character flaws—awhile. But eventually poor character will discredit your leadership.

Meanwhile many with skill deficiencies have risen to effective leadership on the foundation of their consistent character.

Nurture your character, and your leadership capacity will grow. It doesn’t work the other way around.


What would you add to this list of character and leadership traits to sustain longterm health?