If you’re going to make it in leadership over the long haul, you need a strong inner circle.

And that’s exactly what many leaders don’t have.

inner circle

Too many leaders I talk to are isolated, a bit lonely and as a result, are frustrated.

When leaders don’t have a cultivated inner circle, their frustration comes out in unhealthy ways:

They suffer through unnecessary discouragement.

Many quit too soon.

Their complaining places undue stress on their family (your spouse was not designed to hear every frustration every time).

They end up carrying a load that’s far heavier than it needs to be.

Left unchecked, the lack of a healthy inner circle can lead to things like substance abuse or even an emotional or physical affair.

Cultivating a great inner circle of key people who love you, support you and tell you the truth is key to overcoming all of that.

But the question is, how do you develop one?

It’s taken me a few years to figure out the inner circle I need, and while all of us will have slightly different needs, I think a lot of the principles transfer.

I love the people I consider to be in my inner circle. They are a gift from God. And without naming names, here are the categories those people fall into.

Three Essential Ingredients

1.  An inner circle of people who are aligned around the mission, vision and strategy of your organization and who possess ample character, competence and personal chemistry. 

Yep. That’s seven characteristics in one sentence. I know. But each one is essential. When I have had leaders around me who miss one of those characteristics, the team feels it and so do I.

Aligned with the mission, vision and strategy simply means that people around you need to be the most aligned and passionate people in the organization about what you’re trying to accomplish. If they are not passionate about your collective mission vision and strategy, they shouldn’t be in your organization (there are lots of other churches with different strategies). Now—don’t miss this—because there is alignment around what matters most, you are free to disagree.

This is not a yes culture, this is a healthy leadership culture. And you will discover that you enjoy hanging out together, even when you disagree.

If those aligned people also display deep character, competency and chemistry, you have a winning combination. They’re smart, have exemplary character and they you like being around each other (that’s what chemistry is), you have a recipe for a fantastic inner circle.  We have enjoyed all seven ingredients with our elders, staff, leadership team and many of our key volunteers. That is a winning team.

The upside? You’ll be able to discuss church issues and disagree without being disagreeable. You’ll have people you love to work with and can talk to about 90% of the issues in your life. And work/ministry will be fun and deeply rewarding most days. A disunited team can never lead a united mission.

A disunited team can never lead a united mission. Click To Tweet

2. A few friends who accept you for the person you are, not the position you hold. 

You just need friends who see you as you, not your title. I have a few of these. We go biking, we hang out, we laugh. And often we don’t talk about church life, which is perfect. I have a few friends in this category I just call on bad days to talk things through. It’s necessary and so refreshing.

You just need friends who see you as you, not your title. Click To Tweet

3. Peers who are managing the same leadership and life issues you are. 

This one’s vital. Miss it and you miss the 10% that makes all the difference. You can’t go to your board or staff with every issue you’re facing. It’s not always appropriate or even fair to them.  That’s why I always have people who are managing a similar leadership load and life that I am. This is where I can air my deepest frustrations and they can air theirs. And we usually end up laughing about it in the end. And somehow just talking about it feels better.

Senior leaders, you can't go to your board or staff with every issue you're facing. It's not always appropriate or even fair to them. You need...friends. Click To Tweet

So that’s how I’ve put together my inner circles. As long as I have a few from each group in my life, my leadership is healthier (and so is the church). If I’m missing some for a season, it leaves a significant hole.

The one thing I didn’t mention, of course, is a good Christian counselor. He or she can help you so much. But you still need a great inner circle to keep you going day to day and week to week.

Self-care is way more critical than you might think

So how do you cultivate a deeper life that makes sure you don’t succumb to moral failure, pride cynicism or some of the other issues that take out leaders or cap their leadership (and life)?

A big part of the battle is overcoming the things that get in the way. Talk to the leaders you admire, and you realize they’ve had to battle cynicism, fight off or avoid burnout, wrestle down their pride, and stare the emptiness of a life devoted to self in the face.

I write about all of those things and how I’ve battled through them in my own life in my book, Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges That No One Expects and Everyone Experiences. 

In the book, I show you how to battle to the other side of cynicism and reclaim hope, how to move through burnout and figure out how to stay out of it, how to avoid moral compromise and find fulfillment in success rather than the emptiness so many leaders find.

Join the 12,000+ leaders so far who have picked up a copy of Didn’t See It Coming and are realizing the way it is isn’t the way it has to be. I’m praying this book does for your soul what the journey has done and is doing for mine.

What do you see?

What have your experiences been with cultivating an inner circle? What’s worked? What hasn’t?


  1. Emmanuel Paul on April 3, 2021 at 3:30 pm

    I need a mentor too or a good circle

  2. Ken Woods on December 14, 2018 at 3:28 pm

    Awesome insights Carey, I had a thought come to me as I was finally getting to this saved post… if a person does not really fall into one of these above three categories of inner circle compatriots… then we should be careful how much weight we give their thoughts, criticisms, or input. Trusted inner circles are critical as we deal with self reflection, second guessing even our own decisions and when we take shots from the outside from people who may have a different agenda… especially as we make so many decisions while pursuing goals over the long term! Thanks again, this was gold, I will be sharing these thoughts!!!

  3. Stan Starkey on November 23, 2018 at 6:15 pm

    I have adopted an age component in the circle of people I have drawn into my life. I try to have someone of my grandfathers generation – some great people have been in that place, but now that circle has been closed and at 60 I find myself missing that voice. I have another, about the age of my father, and though I have lost him, God has blessed me with some choice men who have blessed me with their wisdom and perspective. My next addition is one who is ten years older than I am. He is my early warning system who see’s the next thing coming and helps me figure out what to do (like when that energy drop comes in your early fifties). I then have the guy who is my age. We can relate and we can walk through the things that are on our doorstep – we are kind of comrades in arms. My final guy is ten years younger than me. I am his early warning system and he reminds me of the past and enthuses me with excitement and passion… keeping me from feeling too old. All of these men know me, my history, my wins and my losses. They speak truth in love and they ask great questions. I really don’t hear them telling me what to do – but they remind me what I know already and may be forgetting – and they keep an eye on the vanquished enemies of the past – vigilant that they will not crawl back out of their defeat. I owe them much and love them for their place in my life and ministry.

  4. chilenas en fifa 16 on November 1, 2018 at 7:24 pm

    El único fracaso con las mujeres del que debemos tener miedo y huir de él
    como de la peste es la inacción.

  5. […] If you’re a regular reader, you know I’m a big fan of every leader (and person) having an inner circle of wise counsel (if you don’t have one, here’s how to set one up). […]

  6. kidmin chick on July 22, 2014 at 5:08 pm

    I understand the need for a mentor. Where does a woman in ministry find one? I’m surrounded by men (who are awesome collegues btw – but finding a circle of women in ministry leadership has been challenging . . . ideas?

    • Darlene on September 8, 2019 at 11:07 pm

      Would love to know as well. Thx

  7. Volodia Baran on June 12, 2014 at 10:24 am

    some time ago I understand the need of that kind of people in my life and for my leadership as facing hard time now on my position. feel discouragement, problems in pursuing goals, lack of team effort etc. this particular article and many more help me to go over this. greetings from Ukraine

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  12. Brent Dumler on October 13, 2013 at 8:18 pm

    The ultimate down side to not cultivating a healthy inner circle is that ministry suffers. Kingdom work is delayed or fractured when we are not in a healthy place personally. Being proactive about creating this inner circle is not just about the obvious benefits for us, but we owe it to our churches. Great content, Carey.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 14, 2013 at 9:03 am

      As always thanks Brent. Speed of the leader, speed of the team. Bingo.

  13. Larry Armstrong on October 13, 2013 at 8:25 am

    Yep, having an inner circle a good thing. God has always provided me a circle of friends, my own personal hedge. Has not always been the same people, Different circumstances/places different people. They just show up. In the past had tried to organize my own mentoring/discernment circle; that always failed…miserably and I got pretty frustrated. took me a while to realize that there had always been a group of people surrounding me. In my current situation all are at a distance. They have been crucial in helping me sort through the troubles, discouragement, and many other issues that would have caused me to give up. What I struggle with now is a sense of being isolated, alone not knowing who I can trust or safely reach out to. Bad experiences in the past has taught me the need for caution.

    In the meantime as I get settled into a new Ministry in this very isolated and foreign place keeping in touch with my inner-circle-at-a-distance has been critical. They allow me to safely vent/rant/cry while at he same time provide the necessary spiritual direction that is sometime a bit more blunt than I like.

    Thank-you for what you are doing, God bless you for your good help and advice.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 14, 2013 at 9:02 am

      A number of my mentors/inner circle live hundreds of miles away too. You’re right Larry, they don’t all have to be in your neighbourhood.

  14. Chris Shumate on October 11, 2013 at 8:27 am

    Carey, for me it is a person that challenges my thinking, even when they agree with me. My #1 mentor will throw so much stuff back at me to challenge me and how I think. He wants to know I can defend what I believe, doctrinely and philosophy and politically speaking. He is relentless until he feels I have convinced him and could convince others of my position, even if they disagree. More times than not, he agrees with me, he just wanted to push my button, I mean help me grow by stetching.

    He will be honest and tell me when I am over the top on something too.

    I always trust his judgment. If my mother asked me, “If C.H. told you to jump off a bridge into the Tennessee River, would you jump?” I would consider it because of his judgment I am sure it would be a good idea.

    Only kidding, I am not that crazy, but you get the idea.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 14, 2013 at 9:01 am

      Mentors are amazing that way. Thank you Chris!

    • Bob on March 16, 2020 at 11:28 am

      Would be nice to have someone that agrees lol

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