5 Character Tests Every Great Leader Passes

The longer I lead and the more I see, the more I’m convinced that character ultimately determines a leader’s true success.

Moral failure takes out more leaders than it should. But real success is deeper than just avoiding the ditch.

So where does the deepest level of leadership success come from? Ultimately it doesn’t come from a leader’s skill set; it comes from a leader’s character.

Your character determines your true capacity.

Why is that?

Character—far more than skill set—determines how deeply and passionately people follow you. A leader with character is a leader worth following.

A leader who lacks integrity may have followers, but he’ll never gain their full trust or their hearts.

After all, we all know highly skilled leaders who are never truly embraced; they’re merely tolerated.

Character, more than anything else, draws the hearts of people to your leadership.

The greatest leaders are highly skilled people whom other people love to be around. They’re people others admire, not just because they’re smart, but because they’re the kind of person other people want to become.

character testsSo how do you know whether your character passes the test?

In my view, the greatest leaders I know pass all five of these character tests many others fail.

1. Handling success

Often people will ask you how you handled your last failure. And that’s not an entirely bad question.

But how you handle your success is a far greater test.

Failure is, by nature, humiliating. It crushes pride.

Success does the opposite. It naturally inflates a leader’s pride. It’s intoxicating.

It takes both great self-awareness and great self-control to handle success. To not let the reports of your own brilliance or accomplishments go to your head.

The very best leaders remain humble, grounded and even self-deprecating. They don’t claim every perk of office and regularly help people who can’t help them back.

They avoid the gravitational pull of self-focus and, instead, stay focused on the mission before them and before everyone.

The ultimate test of a leader’s character is not failure, it’s success.

2. Being misunderstood

At some point, every leader will be misunderstood.

People will say things about you behind your back (or to your face) that aren’t true. People will judge your motives and get it wrong.

Sometimes you’ll only be allowed to say certain things in public, not because you’re being secretive, but because revealing all the information would make others look bad or would be breaking confidence. So instead, you look bad.

That’s just the territory of leadership.

Leadership is a bit like parenting. You have to do the right thing even if it’s not the popular thing. I’ve been there many times as a leader (and as a parent).

Great leaders have forged enough character to overcome the incessant desire to be liked. (Here are 3 hard but powerful truths about likability and leadership).

They are prepared to be misunderstood for a season, knowing that usually the truth comes out in the end.

And even if the truth doesn’t emerge in a particular instance, great leaders know that the overall track record of their leadership and character will speak for itself over time.

3. How it’s going at home

Success is intoxicating. And leadership is rewarding.

People generally do what you ask them to do. Results can be measured. And progress is steady. Sometimes its even exponential.

If only it was that easy to home.

Many leaders who are successes at work end up being failures at home, and that’s not success.

Your spouse isn’t impressed with your stats. Your kids don’t care about your awards.

They just need you.

They simply want you.

Too many leaders impose the high standards they carry at work on their family at home.

Your family doesn’t work for you.

They love you (or at least they used to). And they want you to love them.

4. Who you are when no one’s looking

What is character?

It’s who you are when the spotlight’s not on you.

The best leaders are the same on stage or in the boardroom as they are in a private meeting.

They’re the same when they’re with one person as they are when they’re with a thousand.

And the truly great ones are the same when absolutely no one is around.

As John Wooden famously said, he true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.

5. Helping people who can’t help you

If you’re not careful, the more successful you become, the more likely you will be to spend time only with those who can help you get to the next stage of whatever you’re trying to do.

You almost naturally become a social climber.

The greatest leaders will resist this pull. It’s not that they won’t spend time with other people who are as successful or more successful than they are. It’s that they will still spend time with people who aren’t.

The greatest leaders regularly find time to help people who can’t help them back.

And not just as a charity project…but because it’s just who they are.

They’re not so impressed by themselves that they can’t spend time with people who might not be impressed with them.

They’re not so caught up in what’s next that they can’t spend meaningful time with someone who isn’t on the same journey.

Sure…they’re still strategic with their time, but they have a deep sense of grounding that reminds them that life is indeed about others, not just about them.

What Would You Add?

The great leaders I know pass all five of these character tests.

What are you seeing? Is there another character test you’d add to this list?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

5 Character Tests Every Great Leader Passes


  1. Darren Raley on October 1, 2015 at 8:07 pm

    Great leaders take all the blame and give away all the credit.

  2. Bud Brown on September 2, 2015 at 9:24 am

    I’d add an additional character trait of truly great spiritual leaders: The ability to manage pride. The biblical word is archaic and little understood today, “meekness.”
    Unmanaged pride attenuates our leadership in all manner of ways:
    – It interferes with our ability to hear and receive valid criticism
    – It reduces the likelihood that we’ll lead necessary change in the face of opposition
    – It makes it difficult for us to learn new skills and master new practices
    – It tempts us to want to please our congregation with our preaching
    – It leads to inflated ego when our church does well and misery when it does poorly.

  3. Hawkeye on August 30, 2015 at 6:06 pm

    A true leader will not assume that they are irreplaceable. We can all be replaced, even the most respected leader. God does not require my skills or unique giftedness as indispensable elements for Him to accomplish His purposes in this life. He chooses to use those individuals who place themselves wholly in His service. The moment we start think that our individual value proposition is somehow unique and irreplaceable, that’s the moment we will be weak and a moment where we can fall.

    A related issue is that a leader may overvalue their skills and gifts thereby placing an exaggerated value on their own opinions and conclusions. They may unwittingly insulate themselves from the input of the body by trusting their own powers of observation, decision skills, discernment and wisdom above that of others. There is no “one of us who is smarter than “all” of us.

  4. Dawn Dais Wagner on August 29, 2015 at 2:47 pm

    The words you speak. From the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks, and your words truly reveal your character. Read this week “what others say reveals what’s in their heart. How you respond reveals what is in your heart.” Are you loyal? Do you unite or divide people? When you’re offended do you make others offended? Do you cover the weaknesses of others or expose them? One can find a thousand people who say they’re a believer and even function in the gifts. But what you DO with what you KNOW is a more accurate litmus test of character.

  5. Deborah Ike on August 26, 2015 at 4:26 pm

    This is excellent! Our culture gravitates toward dramatic, celebrity personalities but when we get serious about who we want to listen to character is what we truly want.

    This relates to points you’ve already made, but another test is whether the amount of respect a leader’s followers have of him increases or decreases the closer they get to his inner circle. Some leaders look like great from a distance, but if you get in close sometimes you find it was all a really good smokescreen.

  6. Mike Unverzagt on August 26, 2015 at 12:33 pm

    Dealing with offense.

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