overlooked practices

Ever wonder what separates great leaders from poor leaders?

Ever wonder whether you’re developing the practices and qualities of great leadership?

I’ve met more than a few ineffective leaders who have great intentions, but just haven’t developed the skills and attitudes that separate great leaders from poor leaders.

So what separates great leaders from not-so-great leaders?

There are many things, but these 12 overlooked practices stand out to me as often-missed qualities and characteristics of the best leaders I know.

The good news is none of them are genetic. They mostly consist of attitudes and disciplines.

Change your attitude, gain some discipline, and you can become a far better leader too.

12 Often Overlooked Practices of Great Leaders

For the sake of helping all of us lead better, here are 12 often overlooked practices great leaders develop.

Great leaders:

1. Make complex matters seem simple

This is much more difficult than you think. As Woody Guthrie is quoted as saying, “Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple.”

Great leaders stick with a problem or idea long enough and engage it deeply enough to clear away the fog and reduce the concept to its simplest forms so anyone can understand it.

This doesn’t mean they dumb it down. Rather, it means they make the concept accessible. And because it becomes accessible, more people are helped, and more people follow.

For a sermon: If you can’t say it in a sentence, you shouldn’t say it. I realize that’s difficult, but here’s the process I’ve been using for years to reduce complex ideas into single sentence summaries.

And when it comes to something larger than a 30-60 minute talk (like a project or initiative), work on it long enough to develop a 30 second elevator pitch (here are some quick hints at how to develop one). Again, if you can’t say it in 30 seconds, you probably don’t understand the problem clearly enough to proceed.

And even if you don’t, no one else will understand it clearly enough to follow.

2. Fight for clarity

In leadership, confusion reigns until someone makes things clear. Clarity is what great leaders bring to the table.

I find one of the best ways to become clear on issues is to ask questions, pull away to think and pray about it, sometimes for days or weeks and then take the idea back to the team for more discussion. Usually, clarity emerges out of the process.

But clarity doesn’t happen automatically. You have to fight for it.

3. Refuse to make excuses

Ever notice that the best leaders rarely make excuses?

In fact, the leaders who make the most progress make the fewest excuses. And the leaders who make the most excuses make the least progress.

This is one of my pet leadership themes: You can make excuses, or you can make progress, but you can’t make both.

4. Think abundance

A scarcity mindset will kill your organization or church over the long haul.

Yes there are seasons for restraint. Yes, every organization needs a bean counter.

But if you think small you will stay small. If you think it’s not possible, it won’t be.

5. Regularly sift through key priorities

It would be amazing if you could set your priorities once at say, age 22, and just cruise through life without readjusting them.

It just doesn’t work that way.

Great leaders are continually assessing and reassessing how they spend their time, energy and resources.

I realize that every 3-6 months now, I have to rethink who I’m meeting with, how much time I’ll make available for certain activities, and rethinking our organization goals and progress.

6. Think won’t, not can’t

How you speak to yourself matters.

Rather than saying “I can’t” (even internally), great leaders instead say “I won’t”.

That small change moves them from realizing they could do something, but have chosen not to. While you may not always say that out loud in front of people (it’s rude), telling yourself you won’t reminds you that you had a choice and exercised it.

While that might seem like a small difference, it’s the difference between people who let life happen to them and people who make life happen.

7. Master self-discipline

Self-discipline is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.

Self-discipline is simply taking responsibility for your actions, health, attitudes, schedule, words, mistakes and decisions.

To not do so makes you…irresponsible.

8. Think we, not me

Truly great leaders die to themselves.

As Jim Collins has so surprisingly and famously demonstrated, the greatest leaders in the corporate world are…humble. They are determined, but they’re not selfish. Jesus would agree.

They believe in a cause greater than themselves and serve the organization or cause they’re a part of. They don’t expect it to serve them.

If you want to be great, die to yourself.

9. Decide to work for their employees

One day you’ll be such a great leader everyone will serve you, right?


The greatest bosses realize their employees don’t work for them, they work for their employees.

If you show up with a ‘how can I serve you?’ attitude, you be a far more effective leader.

10. Get started early

This one’s simple. Just set your alarm earlier.

For whatever reason, early risers do better in life. They’re happier, healthier and more productive.

Get a jump on your day, and you get a jump on leadership and life.

11. Arrive on time

Great leaders are rarely late. This is another simple leadership discipline that can get you far.

Show up on time. Show up prepared, and you will be ahead of most people.

12. Practice self-care

The best leaders take time off. They don’t work 24/7.

They realize they have limits and they respect them.

As I outlined here, almost every leader will either practice self-care, or will revert to self-medication.

Don’t believe it? Ever notice you eat worse when you’re under stress? That you swap out exercise when your schedule fills up in exchange for more caffeine?

If you answered yes, you’re self-medicating, and it takes down a huge slice of business leaders and church leaders.

What Do You Think?

There are many more characteristics, but these are 12 I think deserve more daylight than they usually get.

What would you add to the list?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

12 Often Overlooked Practices Great Leaders Develop That Poor Leaders Don’t


  1. Brian McMichan on September 26, 2020 at 10:06 pm

    8, 10 and 12 … get a tick BUT there is no mention of ….
    Zech 4:6 …. Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit says the Lord of hosts.
    Rom 8:13 For if you live according to [the dictates of] the flesh, you will surely die. But if through the power of the [Holy] Spirit you are [habitually] putting to death (making extinct, deadening) the [evil] deeds prompted by the body, you shall [really and genuinely] live forever.
    Rom 8:14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.

    ….. all of which were leadership skills of Jesus Christ.

  2. Noah on September 14, 2020 at 6:38 pm

    That’s insightful, thanks

  3. Noah on September 14, 2020 at 6:38 pm

    That’s insightful, thank you

  4. Janneke de Blois (from the Netherlands) on September 12, 2020 at 1:51 pm

    Thanks, Garey !

  5. Janneke de Blois on September 12, 2020 at 1:50 pm

    Thanks, Garey !

  6. Janneke de Blois on September 12, 2020 at 1:48 pm

    Thanks Garey !

    Janneke de Blois
    (from the Netherlands)

  7. Chuck on September 12, 2020 at 5:53 am

    Let’s try that again. I meant to say….

    Zoiks! When I think of where I was in 2015 vs now….

  8. Max Cavie on January 6, 2017 at 7:21 pm

    Thanks, Carey! I especially appreciated the section on self care. Sometimes it seems as if exhaustion is a badge of honor, and it is not. I appreciate it whenever you share about your experiences with burnout and the things that lead to it. I am not burned out but, as a middle-age or so female who leads special needs ministry, in the past month and a half, I have been diagnosed with significant high blood pressure, angina, and bronchitis. In addition to ministry, we have a teen with autism at home and another daughter getting married this year. Gotta work on that self care so I can stay in the game to care for others! Can you recommend specific podcasts and info you have written that might be helpful? Thank you!

  9. Derek McLennan on January 6, 2017 at 12:45 pm

    Thanks, Carey!

  10. Kirby on December 21, 2016 at 4:35 pm

    According to #10 I’ll never be successful. Too bad. Oh well.

  11. Jeremy Amick on January 16, 2016 at 3:26 pm

    Can I add one more possibility to the list? Do something (strategically) to build the ministry team (paid and unpaid) everyday. Look for teachable moments to highlight biblical principles. Encourage team members regularly and specifically. Set aside moments for advising. Invest deeply in a few people who are multiplying disciples. A leader should be able to point to one or more of these activities on a daily basis.

  12. John Moryl on September 12, 2015 at 6:28 pm

    I think this should be common knowledge. Why don’t more people recognize how simple it is to lead well?

  13. American White Dude on July 26, 2015 at 11:11 pm

    Reading this I realize he rarely bases his ideals on Scripture, and I’ve heard better advice from 10 minutes of Dr. Phil. Bizarre that churches are buying into this as useful…

    • Dan Lacich on January 26, 2016 at 6:57 am

      American White Dude, All truth is God’s truth. It doesn’t have to be a quote from Scripture to be true. Additionally with just a passing glance I can see the Scriptural principle behind at least half of these points.

      • Jeff Ecklund on September 12, 2020 at 9:17 am

        True. Wisdom doesn’t always require a bible verse!

  14. David Drury on June 4, 2015 at 3:44 am


  15. Chuck on June 3, 2015 at 8:29 am

    5 and 6 own me. Great job. But i might suggest that #1 be re-titled “Call a spade a spade” or something like that. I agree that people exaggerate, over-dramatize, and do other things to complicate things. But at the other end, people and problems are not always processes that can be centrifuge down to something small and simple. The key i think is having the savvy to recognize what can vs can’t be simplified. I think that’s no small task but it’s necessary.
    I believe your point is very valid and well taken just not universally applicable. Cheers!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on June 3, 2015 at 2:35 pm

      Great points Chuck. And I’m NEVER DRAMATIC. (Kidding).

  16. Bob Sutton on June 1, 2015 at 8:09 pm

    Very good list Carey! I need to work on the self-care, so thank you for that reminder!

  17. christoph on May 27, 2015 at 4:33 pm

    Yes great stuff. To make preachers reverse #1 when they preach, make simple truths complex

  18. Bob Tiede on May 24, 2015 at 7:39 am

    Great List! Great Leaders also “Ask Questions” instead of “Giving Orders.”

  19. Shayla Moss on May 23, 2015 at 8:51 am

    As I was reading this I realized how much it is relevant to school leadership as well. At my school our current principal lacks about 8 of these 12 qualities. Therefore, enrollment has dropped considerably, employee morale is very low, parent involvement has significantly decreased, and student behavior issues is at an all time high. Unfortunately, some individuals are given the title “leader” and have every good intention, yet lack the training and experience to tackle a very challenging position.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on June 2, 2015 at 4:33 am

      Leadership is universal. Sorry to hear about your school!

  20. 5 for Leadership-May 23rd - Gary Runn on May 23, 2015 at 6:48 am

    […] 12 Often Overlooked Practices Great Leaders Develop That Poor Leaders Don’t  “Ever wonder what separates great leaders from poor leaders? Ever wonder whether you’re developing the practices and qualities of great leadership?” This is a great post from Carey Nieuwhof and practical for any role of influence you may have. […]

  21. R on May 21, 2015 at 1:36 pm

    Missed the most important thing: they treat employees like people, not like resources to be used up.

  22. Terence Clark on May 21, 2015 at 6:35 am

    Potentially good leaders sometimes choose the wrong people in their inner and closest team, seeking those who will not challenge or disagree, or bringing family members on at the expense of others, of course leaders need those around them who have the right attitudes but must be confident enough to promote the right challenging people into the right positions.

  23. James Grieme on May 18, 2015 at 1:18 pm

    I like the fact biblical principle is clearly used and without providing the “chapter & verse” which many who are unchurched or unfamiliar would find a distraction. A very nicely balanced analysis of leadership, humble service and dilligence. Well done!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 18, 2015 at 4:59 pm

      That’s the idea James. I don’t always hit it, but that’s the goal. Thanks!

      • James Grieme on May 18, 2015 at 5:12 pm

        I don’t expect you to go see it, but the blog I do has the same basic premise. No churchyard language, no references but an apologetic approach to the truth! You have a new fan!

    • Gary Davis on May 18, 2015 at 9:41 pm

      When did ‘truth”(God’s Holy Word), become a ‘distraction’?

      • Carey Nieuwhof on May 19, 2015 at 4:52 am

        I don’t think that’s James’ point. Of course the word of God is not a distraction. It just often gets misused as much as it’s well used.

      • James Grieme on May 19, 2015 at 5:45 am

        It’s not my point. My point is not using God’s Word as pearls before proverbial swine (no disrespect). I do not use biblical reference while doing funerals for those who are lost but I do clearly give the plan of salvation.

        • Gary Davis on May 19, 2015 at 3:01 pm

          2 Timothy 2.15 ( hoping I didn’t misuse this passage).

          • James Grieme on May 19, 2015 at 3:39 pm

            If my audience knows the Bible (e.g. Sunday morning) then I tell them the reference. But I do many funerals of people who are list like the proverbial goose in a snowstorm. The references aren’t inspired. Only the Word and Truth. They know I’m a pastor-dude, I show them the Bible. I merely give them a “reason” for belief in Yahweh-God as Peter instructs (1 Peter 3:15). Blessings.

  24. Larry Knight on May 18, 2015 at 12:25 pm

    Great Stuff…the self care hits me hard. I always need to grow tin this area. It doesn’t take long in leadership to run across leaders who are way out of stride and end up loosing all of their leadership credibility. Thanks for the great stuff

  25. Austin Y. Szu on May 16, 2015 at 11:49 pm

    I LOVE this!! but I would have loved to see you incorporate Scripture into these =)

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 18, 2015 at 8:31 am

      Austin thanks! I usually steer away from scripture because I see it so misused by leaders to ‘prove their point’. I think these principles are scriptural and I’ll trust readers and leaders to see that. Occasionally if I’m teaching on a principle derived directly from a verse, I’ll include it.

      • Austin Y. Szu on May 18, 2015 at 10:13 am

        you’re welcome and thank you for replying. I understand your point of Scripture being overused, misused, and often out of context. I probably am guilty of using some Scripture out of context on my own blog, but I usually try to be careful with the Scripture I use. But I did see these points as being Scriptural, so mission accomplished on your part, and that is probably what prompted my desire to see a Scriptural connection. Again, wonderful post! I’ve shared this on my Facebook and I look forward to browsing your other articles

  26. […] 12 Often Overlooked Practices Great Leaders Develop That Poor Leaders Don’t — Carey Nieuwhof […]

  27. Mike Berry on May 14, 2015 at 10:25 pm

    Love this Carey! Especially #2- “Confusion reigns until someone makes things clear!” Great stuff.

  28. joshpezold on May 14, 2015 at 7:13 pm

    Great article Carey! I especially love #1 and #5. I would add that great leaders regularly seek wisdom from mentors. Great leaders understand they don’t know everything (humility) and seek out mature mentors regularly. The best leaders I know surround themselves with the best people and give them credit often. Thanks for the article and keep writing!

  29. Will Lee on May 14, 2015 at 9:15 am

    Carey, is the heading for #9 worded correctly? The content is spot on, but the heading for that one is a bit confusing.

    Numbers 1, 2, and 12 are absolutely critical for me right now. Thanks for these! I’m going to print these out and post them on my wall.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 14, 2015 at 9:28 am

      Thanks Will. You’re right. It was confusing. Went through 3 version of it but you landed me on a new one. Fixed. Maybe practice #13 is ‘think through something a little more before you post it. ” Appreciate the encouragement question Will!

      • Chuck on September 12, 2020 at 5:51 am

        Zouks! S was hen I think of where I was in 2015 vs now. I’d add. #13. Embrace and explore necessary change (don’t fight it.). Timely then and now!!

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