When Leaders Get It Right

Becoming a Life-changing Leader with World-changing Impact


by Dr. Bill Donahue

News stories tend to focus on destructive and tragic events in our culture. When it comes to leaders, we like to point out where they got it wrong. Politicians behaving badly, pastors talking arrogantly, athletes living shamefully – all these provide journalists with more than ample fodder for “BREAKING NEWS” at almost any moment of the day.

But when leaders get it right (and many do!), a lot of amazing growth and change happens. We need to tell more stories about great leaders who get it right! We need to share these stories with our teams, our friends and ourselves!

The Impact of a Leader Who Gets it Right

There is a ripple effect when church leaders humbly but decisively choose to lead and live in the ways of Jesus, treating others with respect and honor. Because when a leader gets it right…

Energy flows to creating solutions and rather than making accusations

Team members feel empowered rather than overpowered

A compelling shared vision replaces a crippling ego-driven “visionary”

Conversations are truthful and gracious, instead of ruthless and tasteless

Tough decisions are boldly faced and not cautiously feared

Movement is fostered by a mission, not forced through manipulation

Justice is rightly pursued, not wrongly ignored

People feel honored and valued, not shamed and used

Success measures how people are treated, not just how profits are made

Workers are promoted by quality performance, not a deal-making cronyism

We need more leaders who get it right, whose “front stage” life is the same as their life behind closed doors. Lance Witt in his book, Replenish, describes this difference by comparing the leader you see on the front stage versus what is going onback stage” where character, the soul and the real personality are seen.

We need real leaders whose performance “backstage” – off camera, away from the excitement and spotlights – is congruent with what we see up front. Some are pressured to perform even though their souls are damaged, and they cover their broken parts. Others are just meanJekyll and Hyde” types, who exude joy publicly, but are awful to work with, toxic to their staff and self-centered, ego-driven tyrants.

No one really wants to be that kind of leader, or to be around that kind of leader. We want to be people who live well and lead well, and who change others’ lives in positive ways.

But, as one pastor said, “It takes a changing life to change a life!”

7 Keys to Life-Changing Leadership

I need a life that is growing and changing before I can guide others to do the same. Here are some areas to focus on.

1. Connect with Christ (1 Tim. 6:11)

Paul encouraged Timothy to pursue a Christ-centered lifestyle. From Christ we draw strength and hope, confidence and cleansing. We lead best from an inner life that is growing and developing in intimacy with Christ. “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ,” said the apostle (1 Cor. 11:1).

When I was a young leader in Philadelphia, I met a pastor who was in his 60s and had only been a pastor a few years. As a former Philadelphia police officer, he had seen the best and worst of humanity. For many years his heart had been hardened until Christ got a hold of him. When he retired, he headed into pastoral ministry. Here was a tough, rugged guy who bore the scars and carried the wounds of three decades of inner city police work.

But there was something about him that attracted me to him. It was his love for Christ. I remember him standing in our home, talking to my parents, and saying this phrase each time he referred to Jesus. “My Christ’” he would say…”My Christ.” I wanted that kind of relationship for my life as well.

2. Guard Your Character (1 Tim. 4:12)

“Guard your heart with all diligence,” says the proverb, “Because from it flow the springs of life.” Paul encouraged Timothy to set an example to the rest of the body and to practice it himself. You and I must guard our hearts from deceptive thoughts, wayward actions and destructive attitudes.

We need to practice self-examination and peer examination. The first requires a look inside yourself to see where there is drift from God’s desires. When we find things that are destructive to the soul, we confess them and move on. The second, peer examination, requires us to trust others with our hearts, taking risks to say, “I will allow you to look into my life and tell me what you see.” That’s courage.

3. Confirm Your Calling (2 Tim. 1:6-9)

In Jeremiah 20:9, the prophet feels compelled by God to continue preaching the difficult message he knew he had to bring to the people. Listen to his words:

“But if I say, ‘I will not mention him or speak anymore in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed I cannot.”

Check yourself regularly, and rekindle the flame of your calling. Whether it’s preaching, or teaching, or executive leadership, or the ministry of prayer, or bold evangelism, or the simple daily work of disciple-making, clarity about your calling is essential.

4. Develop Your Competence (2 Tim. 2:15)

During the “empowerment” movement in the workforce of the 1990s, Rich Teerlink, CEO of Harley Davidson, knew people needed more than just being empowered. He said, “When you empower dummies, you get dumb decisions faster.” He wasn’t being rude. He was being real. A person who lacks competence will make lots of mistakes…very costly mistakes.

What are you doing to grow in your leadership skills? Are you attending conferences, reading books, interacting with better leaders, analyzing the effectiveness of your leadership and identify areas for growth?

5. Honor Your Compatibility (2 Tim. 4:5)

Have you ever copied the actions, words and style of another leader, in order to be like that leader? In this passage Paul says, “Fulfill your ministry.” Not someone else’s ministry. Not a ministry you’re not very good at. Not a ministry you wish you had.

Align your gifts, experiences and skills with the most effective ministry that fits those abilities. God wants to use you in the way he made you. Are you wired to work with children, but keep trying to work with adults? Are you called to a ministry of prayer, but are trying to be an evangelist because “that’s where the action is.” Honor God by honoring your compatibility.

6. Maintain Your Commitment (2 Tim. 4:2)

Jesus said to his followers, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God (Luke 9:62).” Those were hard words about full devotion to an audience that did not understand the cost of following Christ. Leaders prove their love for Christ by their commitment to his followers (John 21:15-19).

Like you, I can get discouraged. With God’s help, some prayer partners and the courage given through the Holy Spirit, I am able to stay the course. We often give up just when the blessing of God is about to flow in a mighty way…but we lose heart. Be an example to others who want to quickly throw in the towel. Your perseverance is their motivation!

7. Increase Your Capacity (1 Tim. 4:16)

Some leaders flame out; some wipe out; but all occasionally wear out. We lose our energy to continue the ministry. Our tanks are empty, our hearts are heavy and our souls are weary. Here are three ways to refuel and replenish, and to guard one of our most precious resources—US!

Create Margin: Put space in your calendar for silence, solitude, prayer, joy and rest. Guard these times as though you are overseas and unavailable.

Set Boundaries: Let your YES be yes and your NO be no. Determine what you will focus on and what you will say no to. God will use others to solve the problems and help the people that you cannot. Trust Him.

Replenish Your Reserves:Set time aside to do things that bring joy to you and fill you up. Try walking, reading, golf, a nice dinner, sitting by a fire, a ballgame with your kids, or just resting under a tree with a nice glass of sweet tea (for my southern friends).

If we leaders have increased integrity and healthier souls, not letting the front stage make us posers, we will get it right. If we manage our own lives well and tend to our relationship with God, we will get it right.

And when we leaders get it right…great things happen. It truly is amazing. And the stories of transformation … oh, the stories are incredible! They probably won’t make headlines on the evening news—but they’ll make headlines in heaven, and help change the world forever.

And that’s the real story.

Dr. Bill Donahue, Ph.D., is a popular conference speaker, prolific author and leadership consultant. A graduate of Princeton University, Bill also holds a Ph.D. in Adult Learning from the University of North Texas. He is an Associate Professor at Trinity International University in Deerfield where he develops emerging leaders. He also serves as President of the LeaderSync Group, Inc. where he provides strategic consulting and leadership development for key leaders and their teams.

Bill has authored over a dozen books and resources including the best-selling Leading Life-changing Small Groups and co-authored Coaching Life-Changing Leaders with Greg Bowman, and Building a Life-changing Small Group Ministry with Russ Robinson.