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5 Key Principles Every Leader Should Master

If you were to focus on just a handful of key principles to master in leadership, which would you focus on?

I get asked almost every day for advice, and I’ve written hundreds of posts on this blog filled with principles.

Here are 5 principles I think about almost every day. The first three relate to the personal health of the leader. The final two are two of the key concepts that I think should drive much of what’s happening in church these days, but often don’t.

Like most worthwhile principles in leadership, these are easy to understand and much more difficult to implement.

But if you do stay focused on these 5 things, I believe you’ll see a marked improvement in your leadership and character. And that can only be a good thing.

I’d love for you to add your suggestions and top learnings to the mix in the comments below.

1. Your competency will take you only as far as your character will sustain you

As a young leader, I was 100% convinced that competency was the key to effectiveness in leadership.

I no longer believe that’s true.

Sure, competency is important. Incompetence doesn’t get you or your mission very far.

But competency isn’t the ceiling many leaders hit. Character is.

Why is that?

Well, all of us can name highly gifted pastors, politicians, athletes and other public figures who failed not because they weren’t competent, but because they weren’t up for the job morally. An addiction, an affair, embezzlement or honestly sometimes just being a jerk caused them to lose their job or lose their influence.

This is why I’ve come to believe your competency will take you only as far as your character will sustain you.

So what do you need to do to ensure you character doesn’t undermine your talent?

Work twice as hard on your character as you do on your competency.

I know that’s difficult to do but do it.

Cultivate a daily habit of prayer and scripture reading. Go see a counsellor before you need to. Have great people around you who have permission to tell you the truth. Do the soul work you need to do to animate your other work.

It doesn’t matter how talented or gifted you are if you disqualify yourself from leadership.

2. Abandon balance and embrace passion

So maybe you’ve been trying to find work life/balance. Welcome to the club. Almost everyone in leadership would advise you to lead a balanced life.

I’m not so sure that’s good advice at all.

What if that’s the wrong goal?

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think everyone should work 80 hours a week.

But here’s my struggle.

I think we find many circles in our culture where balance has become a synonym for mediocrity. Don’t work too hard. Don’t be intentional about your time. Just be balanced.

Here’s what I’ve seen.

Most people who accomplish significant things aren’t balanced people. They’re passionate people.

They are passionate about their:






In fact, they’re often even passionate about their nutrition and their rest.

They never see work as a job…they see it as a calling. As a quest. As a mission.

They can’t wait to get up in the morning and attack the day.

When they engage relationally, they’re fully present.

When they’re with their family, they’re with their family. They give everything they have to everything that’s important to them.

So do a variety of things (work, play, family), but allocate your energy so you can do everything you do, including rest and relaxation, with passion.

I love what John Wesley said:

“Light yourself on fire with passion and people will come for miles to watch you burn.”

I never want to lose my passion. In fact, I’m praying that it intensifies as I grow older in everything I pursue.

Don’t let balance become a synonym for mediocrity. Balance is a retreat. Passion is an advance. So passionately pursue all you do.

If you’re intrigued by how to better manage your time, energy and priorities, I’m opening the High Impact Leader course for new registrations again in mid-May 2017.

It’s a 10-unit video course designed to help you get time, energy and priorities working in your favour.

If you want to get on the inside track of the launch of the High Impact Leader, sign up here for the wait list and get some bonus resources as well!

3. Pursue health

So many leaders struggle with staying healthy in leadership… spiritually, physically, emotionally, relationally and financially.

One way to look at leadership is to see it as a series of deposits and withdrawals.

All day long as a leader, people and the mission make a series of withdrawals from you: someone needs to meet with you, another person needs counseling, a third needs advice, a fourth wants to get that report done asap.

If you think of your life as a leader like a bank account, the problem eventually becomes the ratio of deposits to withdrawals. Over the long run, if you make more withdrawals than deposits, you go bankrupt.

That’s exactly what happens to far too many leaders.

The withdrawals that happen to you in life and leadership are inevitable. You can manage them well or poorly (which is something we’ll help you master in the High Impact Leader course).

Here’s the thing, though: the withdrawals never go away.

It’s your responsibility to make the deposits.

This means applying the spiritual disciplines, physical disciplines, financial disciplines and the discipline to get the help you need to resolve your emotional and personal issues.

Here’s a question I’ve learned to ask myself and I would love every top leader to ask themselves daily: am I living today in a way that will help me thrive tomorrow? Spiritually, physically, emotionally, relationally, and financially?

If not, why not?

Since I started asking that question, I’m far healthier. It’s a recipe that works. Start using it.

4. Understand that attendance no longer drives engagement, engagement drives attendance

It’s interesting to me that we didn’t get to a strategy insight until the fourth insight. The top three pieces of advice are all heart and character issues, which is exactly as it should be.

But in the church, the strategy you apply matters too. So here we go.

As North American culture becomes more and more post-Christian, declining attendance has become a universal phenomenon (here are 10 reasons why that’s happening).

The current approach to church has largely been driven by getting people to attend. The idea is this: get them in the door, and hopefully at some point, they’ll engage in the mission.

But in an age where fewer and fewer people are motivated to attend church at all, that’s a bad strategy.

Instead, if you want to see your church grow, stop trying to attract people and start working on engaging people.

Why? Because engaged people attend.

The more engaged you are in the mission, the more likely you’ll want to be part of the church.

In the future church, only the engaged will attend. So do what you can to drive engagement.

Want more? Here are 7 ways to drive engagement.

5.  Play favourites

My guess is you spend 80% of your time trying to help your struggling leaders get better.

They’re producing maybe 20% of your results, but you’re devoting 80% of your time trying to motivate them, get them to show up on time and get them to do what they said they were going to do when they said they were going to do it.

What if that’s a colossal mistake?

What if you spent 80% of your time with the leaders who give you 80% of your organization’s results?

That’s what the best leaders do: they spend 80% of their time with the people who give them 80% of their results.

What do you do with the bottom 20%? Let them go or let them figure it out on their own. Or limit your involvement to 20% of your time.

Your best leaders get better with time and attention. Weak leaders never do.

So try it…spend 80% of your time on the people that produce 80% of your results.

I know… you’re pushing back. I get that. You think this isn’t a Christian thing to do. I’m not sure you’re right.

You’re afraid that playing favorites isn’t biblical.

Just the opposite. Not playing favorites makes you unfaithful.

I know, I know….what?????

Moses tried to treat everyone the same, and it almost killed him and wore out the people he led (just read Exodus 18).

The solution? Moses had to learn not to treat everyone the same.

He appointed leaders of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. The result was that Moses met the people’s needs and he got to lead for the rest of his life. His leadership (finally) scaled.

If you start to look for it as you read, you’ll see organizational principles throughout Scripture (how did Israel become a great nation after all?)

For example, even in the New Testament, Jesus and early Christian leaders didn’t treat everyone alike.

Jesus walked away from people who needed to be healed to get food and rest.

Jesus organized his disciples into circles according to potential impact…groups of 70, 12, 3 (Peter, James, and John) and 1 (Peter) and intentionally spent the most time with those inner circles.

The early church reorganized and moved their principal teachers and preachers away from daily tasks and appointed new leaders, which fuelled new growth.

Loving everyone the same does not mean treating everyone the same way.

So if you want to be more biblically faithful, start treating different people differently.

What do you think?

Those are my top 5. What are yours?

Scroll down and leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you!

And if you want more, I outlined 7 critical issues every church needs to deal with in my latest book.


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  3. Adrian Bonin on November 6, 2017 at 11:45 am

    Hey Carey, thank you once again for a great article and some important things to consider. Something that I keep thinking about is your statement that good leaders need to: “Work twice as hard on your character as you do on your competency”. This has been challenging to me as I have been on a binge of reading and learning and growing to develop my competency and my leadership. Do you have any suggestions for books, resources, or suggestions to help me as a young leader to work on developing my character? Thanks again and God bless!

  4. Week 25 Inspiration 2017 - Bogdan D on June 22, 2017 at 12:04 am

    […] Incompetence doesn’t get you or your mission very far […]

  5. Nate Gustafson on April 26, 2017 at 8:15 pm

    Two takeaways that stood out to me in this post: 1. HEALTH of the leader. As you’ve emphasized so many times, the health of the leader at the top of the organization flows through to the rest of the people in the organization. 2. ENGAGEMENT includes moving people from a passive audience to an active army building a Church that the gates of Hades will not overcome. Thank You!

  6. […] This article originally appeared here. […]

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    […] 5 Key Principles Every Leader Should Master – Carey Nieuhof […]

  8. Earl Taylor on April 22, 2017 at 6:24 am

    I have been preaching this for some time to people in Christian camping circles. Balanced people never produce much that is significant. unBalanced people produce results. I appreciate your insight. Even quoted you in one of my books: Be The Director I Could Follow!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 22, 2017 at 6:38 am

      Thanks Earl. And congrats on writing a book!

  9. Weekend Picks ~ 4-21-2017 | Life on the Bridge on April 21, 2017 at 7:45 am

    […] 5 Key Principles Every Leader Should Master –Carey Nieuwhof Here are 5 principles I think about almost every day. The first three relate to the personal health of the leader. The final two are two of the key concepts that I think should drive much of what’s happening in church these days, but often don’t. […]

  10. Mike on April 17, 2017 at 11:15 am

    Hi Carey. Interesting post – I see some tie-ins from our previous conversation.

    From your perspective, does God value people differently based on what they produce?

    I totally get that as a leader of a business with a goal of making a product, you want to spent the most time empowering your most productive employees. Where I work we have a yearly ranking and reviewing session and continually cull the lowest performers to keep the workforce nimble and high-performing.

    As a father, productivity doesn’t factor into my mind when I spent time with my kids. I spent time with them because I love them, not what they do for me.

    Which relationship ought to be emulated by the church: a family or a business?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 22, 2017 at 6:38 am

      I think you raise a good point…but I keep being challenged by Jesus parables. The parable of the talents motivates me to do everything I can with everything he gave me. I think gifting has a purpose…and it’s not just for our benefit. So I try to use it and encourage others to use theirs. And I definitely think we’re all on a mission that is far bigger than just our individual wants and needs.

      • Mike on April 24, 2017 at 8:31 am

        Thanks for the reply, Carey.

        Totally hear what your saying from the whole talents thing in Matthew 25. And there’s also the vineyard laborers of Matthew 20 where each worker is paid the same wage regardless of how many hours they work.

        What I wonder is do we have to work to earn our place with God? Do we have to work to earn our place in the church?

        Maybe my question is a “both/and.” Maybe the kingdom of heaven is like a family business. You’re in it because you’re family. And the only way the business grows is when you work.

        • James Middleton on April 27, 2017 at 10:07 pm

          Hey Mike,

          I think this analogy is a ‘little’ closer to what I’d say.

          I think part of the problem comes when we see our relationship WITH God and our mission FOR God as being the same, being intrinsically linked. Though there are deep connections, they are not exactly the same.

          In your analogy, the members of the family business are family NOT because of what they produce…but simply because they ARE family. In faith, we are God’s family because we are his children through Jesus. He doesn’t value us because of what we do, he loves and values us because we are his (like a father does with their son)

          In the family business however, the family works together to BEST achieve the business goals, growth and productivity. In faith, the family works together to best achieve the goals of faith, being the mission of God that Jesus left the church behind to complete. If there wasn’t something for us to DO, we’d be in our eternal home now.

          How we go about achieving this mission doesn’t affect our relationship with God necessarily (we get eternity with him through Jesus, not works) but how well we achieve the mission does affect who ELSE is part of the family for eternity AND the rewards we receive for eternity (based on what we’ve been gifted, not just what we’ve done). This is why it is so important that we do the very best that we can for the mission of God.

    • Ps Ndlovu on April 22, 2017 at 10:24 am

      Hi there Mike, indeed some thought provoking pinpoints you are making.

      But I think spending time with the most productive will in turn fuel the required improvement on the slacking ones.

      Since the objective is to drive engagement, once those fueled followers capture your direction they are the ones who will bring about motivation to the others.

      I think Carey has it right.

      • Mike on April 24, 2017 at 7:47 am

        Thanks for the reply, Ps!

        I think I agree with you that passion is contagious. If one can be intentional about helping those with passion big things can happen.

        For me, where I have a little more pause is equivocating passion with productivity. To quote one of my favorite movies, the Shawshanl Redemption, “The world went and got itself in a big d**n hurry.”

        Sometimes I feel we in the West get so caught up in vision we forget to see what’s around us now.

        • Carey Nieuwhof on April 24, 2017 at 8:01 am

          Completely agree with you there Mike. It’s so good to slow down. Cut my speaking engagements back by a massive amount for the rest of the year. Going to take time to think and pray.

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