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What makes a leader great? Look for these 5 biblical qualities

Steve Yount, a senior fellow with the Denison Forum, is a former newspaper editor and public-relations executive working with Christian ministries.

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A closeup of a statue of Abraham Lincoln, focused on his hand with his face in the background
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We think of leaders as strong people, and they usually are, but qualities like strength, courage, and decisiveness alone do not make a great leader. 

In fact, it’s actually Christlike qualities that elevate a leader to greatness. 

When the Son of God became a man and launched the most influential movement in history, he embodied a new kind of leadership: servant leadership. He made himself vulnerable to a host of temptations and trials in the service of others. 

Our country’s greatest leaders have focused on others, sometimes to their own detriment. In doing so, they fostered an almost sacred bond with the American people. 

As one of the most important elections in history approaches, with key races up and down the ballot, we can draw lessons from the Bible and American history in evaluating the candidates. 

Here are some important, yet often overlooked, leadership qualities: 

Humility 

Jesus humbled himself by becoming a man, died on the cross in service to others, and “God exalted him to the highest place” (Philippians 2:6–9). Humility is the path to greatness in the kingdom of God, but it’s the road less traveled in politics. 

“The humility requisite for our leaders is difficult,” said David Iglesias, director of the Wheaton Center for Faith, Politics and Economics. “The mere act of running for office takes outsized confidence, which is a mere stone throw from hubris. Running for office draws people who typically do not view humility in high regard.” 

Yet in David Rubenstein’s new book, How to Lead: Wisdom from the World’s Greatest CEOs, Founders, and Game Changers, leaders mentioned humility again and again. President George W. Bush said it’s the most important quality for a prospective president. “It’s really important to know what you don’t know and listen to people who do know what you don’t know,” he said. 

After President John Kennedy was assassinated, the new president, Lyndon Johnson, retained many of Kennedy’s advisors and asked them for help. 

“Checking his storied arrogance, softening his tone, he conveyed a deep humility, sharing his doubts, continuously requesting patience, advice, and assistance,” Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote in Leadership in Turbulent Times. “‘There is much I don’t know,’ he would say. ‘You must teach me.’” 

Few people have embodied humility more than Abraham Lincoln. 

“He shared credit with ease,” Goodwin said in a TED talk. “He assumed responsibility for the failure of his subordinates. He constantly acknowledged his errors and learned from his mistakes. He refused to be provoked by petty grievances. He never submitted to jealousy or brooded over perceived slights.” 

Yet those who interpreted Lincoln’s humility as weakness erred. In November 1861, he paid a late-night visit to Gen. George McClellan, head of the Union Army. McClellan, who had been out, arrived after Lincoln had been waiting an hour and retired without seeing the president. 

When an aide pointed out the insulting behavior, Lincoln responded, “It was better at this time not to be making points of etiquette and personal dignity.” Only when Lincoln lost faith in McClellan’s ability to win the war, a year later, did he fire him. 

Resilience 

Jesus fasted for forty days and nights in the wilderness before being tempted by Satan. Christ’s greatest victory, the resurrection, came after his greatest trial, the crucifixion. 

Theodore Roosevelt overcame childhood asthma to become a symbol of the robust, outdoor life. As a young man, his wife and mother died in the same house on the same day. Battling depression, he threw himself into physical activity, spending two years at his ranch in the Dakotas. He emerged from the experience stronger in body and spirit. 

“I would not have been president had it not been for my experience in North Dakota,” he said. 

When Franklin Roosevelt was thirty-nine, he contracted polio, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. He spent several years convalescing before reentering politics. 

Lincoln was a one-term congressman who had lost two senate races before being elected president. 

Anybody that is really a successful leader, I think, has failed in life, and you have to persist after your failures,” Rubenstein said on Face the Nation. “But failure gives you some humility.” 

After the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, Kennedy wondered, “How could we have been so stupid?” But the lessons he learned enabled him to stare down Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and avoid war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

Empathy 

The New Testament is full of stories showing Jesus’ love, compassion, and empathy. 

Once again, Lincoln personified this quality. “He possessed an uncanny ability to empathize with and think about other people’s point of view,” Goodwin said. 

In Leadership in Turbulent Times, Goodwin wrote that Theodore Roosevelt developed empathy through experiences like visiting the tenements of New York. 

Polio left Franklin Roosevelt, who was a child of privilege like his distant cousin, a changed man. “He had developed a powerful new empathy, allowing him to connect with all manner of people to whom fate had also dealt an unkind blow,” Goodwin wrote. 

Even military leaders, who would seem to symbolize authoritarian rule, need empathy. Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling wrote in an article for CNN that empathy “is one trait I’ve repeatedly observed in the best leaders.” 

Civility 

Jesus associated with the outcasts of his day, the tax collectors and prostitutes, and preached in the Sermon on the Mount that we should love our enemies (Matthew 5:43–48). 

Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, one liberal and the other conservative, nevertheless had a close friendship, partly because of their love of opera. 

In The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency, author John Dickerson praised President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, and House Speaker Tip O’Neill, a Democrat, for maintaining a cordial relationship despite their policy differences. O’Neill visited Reagan in the hospital after he was shot, prayed with him, and kissed him on the forehead before leaving. 

“Politics is politics,” O’Neill said. “We may disagree during the day, but come six p.m. we become friends.” 

Dickerson explained, “Ronald Reagan used to say liberals weren’t bad people, it’s just that their ideas were wrong.” 

As the Civil War neared its end, Lincoln struck a note of reconciliation in his second inaugural address, which is considered one of the greatest speeches in American history. With numerous references to God and the Bible, he called for “malice toward none” and “charity for all.” 

At a White House reception afterward, Lincoln asked Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass what he thought of his speech. “Mr. Lincoln,” he responded, “that was a sacred effort.” 

Communication 

Jesus said, “Follow me,” and people did. He could mesmerize thousands on a hillside or a solitary woman at a well. He was a master storyteller, using parables to illustrate important truths about the Christian life. 

“The ability to lead . . . gets down to the ability to persuade,” Rubenstein said. 

During the Great Depression and World War II, Franklin Roosevelt instilled confidence in the American people with his fireside chats on radio. Roosevelt and Lincoln were great communicators, but they also knew how to listen to public opinion. Lincoln waited to issue the Emancipation Proclamation until the most propitious time. 

Roosevelt gradually inched the US toward involvement in World War II, realizing the country was not ready for war until being attacked at Pearl Harbor. Goodwin said that the “reciprocal connection between Roosevelt and the people he served lay at the heart of his leadership.” 

Who should have “the hardest job in the world”? 

If there is one theme that runs through all these leadership qualities, it’s service to others, but other qualities like integrity, honesty, and vision should come into play when picking a candidate to support. 

Yet even those are not enough to make a decision, and the stakes multiply many times when it comes to picking a president. It is, as Dickerson called it, “the hardest job in the world.” 

We also should examine the candidates’ records, but even that is not enough. A leader’s actions are an important indicator of future behavior, but they may not reveal personal growth or new ideas. 

We should carefully, prayerfully consider all these things, and then humbly cast our vote.

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