5 [New] Character Rules Every Leader Should Follow

Character has always been important, but it seems like it’s never been as important as it is now.

There have been far too many stories of church leaders, business leaders, politicians, athletes and other public figures whose private walk has not measured up to their public talk and whose integrity has been far less than expected or needed.

Especially if you’re a Christian leader, there should never be a gap between your private walk and public talk.

The people who know you the best should admire you the most, not be covering up for you or dismayed at what they know.

The problem, of course, is that that’s hard for us sinners. I’m not perfect. You’re not perfect. I’ve made plenty of mistakes.

But the longer I live, the more I’m realizing character is everything.

Competency may get you in the room. But character keeps you in the room. Above all, character endures. It’s what your family and friends remember about you (for better or for worse), and ultimately it gives you the moral authority to lead. Especially today, character matters most.

So how do you guard your character…in a day-in-day-out manner?

Here are 5 character rules every leader might want to follow:

1. Assume what you do in private will be made public

What if you lived in a way that you assumed whatever you did in private will be made public?

I’m not just talking about having an affair or other scandals that make headlines. I mean definitely don’t do that.

I’m talking about less headline-worthy but still-damaging things. Like treating your spouse or kids harshly. Or turning to porn or drinking to cope with your stress. Or anything else you’d rather not anyone know about.

What if you lived in a way that just assumed it’s only a matter of time until everyone knew about it?

That would change how you live, wouldn’t it?

When I first got into ministry I was a little fearful of the level of accountability that comes with the role.

Now, I’m grateful for it. Why?

Because honestly, it’s made me a better person. Not a perfect person by any stretch (ask my team; ask my family). But I’m a better person because of the higher level of accountability that come with pastoring.

Knowing I’m accountable and living as though whatever I’m doing might see public daylight is a good thing.

So ask yourself: if what you’re about to do was made public, would you still do it?

There are so many leader who wish they had asked that question and changed course. So ask it. Daily.

It’s an incredible check on your spirit and, ultimately, on your actions. Plus, the people around you will be so grateful.

2. Also, assume that what you say in private will be made public

This one’s even a little more nuanced.

As a leader, there’s a need to blow off steam…I get that. You face a lot of pressure every day and it’s not always easy to keep it together. Plus, it’s important to give vent to your feelings.

But are you doing it in a healthy way?

Ask yourself: how comfortable would you be if someone had the passcode to your phone and started reading, or was a fly-on-the-wall in your closed-door meetings?

Theologically, this principle shouldn’t be a stretch for any Christian leader. Jesus promised that whatever we said in private would be shouted from the rooftops.

That’s true in a way we’ll only really see in eternity, but we may not have to wait that long. We live in an age where every email and text has the potential of being made public.

A few months ago, I had a situation I was nervous and a little upset about that I wanted advice on.

I emailed some friends about it, one of whom happened to have the same first name as the person I was concerned about. I accidentally emailed the person I was concerned about with the email about my concern. You know how that goes: Gmail auto-suggests names, and I picked the wrong “Alex.”

That could have been disastrous if I had been careless with my words or been acidic in my tone.

But I wasn’t. I had been trying to live by the principle that what you say in private will be made public.

The Alex I was concerned about actually let me know I had sent my email to the wrong “Alex,” and there was no harm done. Because (in that moment at least) my email was professional, balanced and more than fair.

Some of you have accidentally discovered that what you thought was a private DM posted instead as a status update. Same thing. (I’ve seen this happen many times on social.)

Just assume that what you say in private will be made public. At work, at home, in life.

You’ll be a better person. You’ll have richer and less conflicted relationships. And you’ll sleep better at night.

Assuming what you say in private will be made public changes what you say in private.

3. Don’t say something on social you wouldn’t say to someone’s face

Social media makes us all a little bolder, and a little stupider.

There’s a weirdness to social media and any online communication that makes us think pot-shots are worth it, that hurting other people is fair game, and that public ridicule is in season.

Some of the most toxic things ever said to me have been said by people I’ve never met, never will meet, and who don’t really know me. Ditto for you if you’ve written anything. Just read the comments on this blog, my Amazon reviews or Podcast Ratings. We live in a one-star universe where people delight in tearing down people they don’t know and don’t care about.

Don’t get me wrong…the vast majority of interaction I have online is extremely positive. Good people gather online too. And sometimes the criticism is fair. I have a lot to learn.

But what’s missing online is actual human interaction. That look into another person’s eyes. That scan of their face that notes the hurt you just caused them. The realization that they’re a person just like you.

Look, I’m tempted to respond in kind—to get back at a critic. And then I think “no, there’s no point.

There isn’t.

The reason there’s no point to responding in kind is that first, you won’t win. You won’t win because nobody wins at that game. Nobody. They don’t. You don’t. The mission doesn’t. You end up behaving like a six-year-old who can only think about themselves.

Sometimes you do need to respond to someone. And when you do, don’t let your emotions get control of your fingers. Type prayerfully.

When you’re responding, imagine that you’re talking to the person face to face. And that you care about them. And that they’re made in the image of God.  You might even try to love them.

That changes a lot, doesn’t it?

Scott Sauls is one of the best I know at trying to find that voice on social media and in public discourse again and again. He’s worth a follow. It’s time to civil, again. (I interviewed Scott on this subject here.)

Just know this, leaders: you can disagree with someone without being disagreeable.

4. Ask yourself, ‘5 years from now, what will I wish I had done?”

I know there’s a lot of verb tenses in that question, but the question has helped me so much over the years.

Leadership is emotionally confusing. You get kicked a lot. You end up being misunderstood, and sometimes you are at a loss on how to respond to a difficult situation.

When you’re in that place, ask yourself: 5 years from now, what will I wish I had done?

I don’t know why, but that question is so clarifying to me. It makes me swallow hurtful words. It makes me search for the high road. And sometimes it makes me push an issue I am too afraid to push because five years from now I’ll know I wish I had done it.

When you don’t know what to do, ask yourself…5 years from now, what will I wish I had done?

5. Humble your talk. Accelerate your walk.

All of us in leadership can talk today at an unprecedented level.

Thanks to social media, blogs, podcasts and so many of the other channels at our disposal, talking about what we’re doing has never been easier.

Which surfaces the always-present tension of wanting to make things seem better than they are.

Big mistake.

 In an age where most people seem to be accelerating their talk more than they’re accelerating their walk, one of the best things you can do to increase your integrity is to humble your talk and accelerate your walk.

If you simply make your talk match your walk, the gap between who you are and who you want to be becomes smaller almost instantly.

Increase your walk. Humble your talk.

Want to improve your character as a leader?

I have a short video series where I share five habits that have helped me work on my character, covering everything from my morning routine to how to avoid moral compromise on the road when you’re away from your family and the people you care about.

These 5 habits are designed to help you build a better character that will help shape your legacy.

The 5 habits are:

  1. An Intentional Morning/Evening Routine
  2. Scheduled Rest
  3. Password Sharing
  4. Monitoring Your Public Talk
  5. Rules for the Road

I would love to send you these 5 videos (for free).

You can sign up to receive them here!

So What Helps You?

What’s helping you close the gap between who you are and who you’re called to be?

Leave a comment below and let me know what’s helped you through it all.

5 [New] Character Rules Every Leader Should Follow


  1. Neil M NORHEIM on July 6, 2020 at 7:36 pm

    Excellent observations. I read those on Saturday night, July 4 and immediately made room for them in my sermon from Nehemiah, chapter five for the next morning. Even though I had to rework my sermon and add to the Power Point presentation, it was well worth it as I was preaching about character and integrity. (I’m serving an interim ministry at Highview Christian Church in Washington, Illinois.)
    I routinely recommend that church leaders subscribe and pay attention to your blog.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 7, 2020 at 8:05 pm

      Thanks so much Neil!

      That’s so good to hear!

  2. Richard Dawson on July 2, 2020 at 4:36 pm

    Excellent guidelines Carey. Perhaps one more for the road… ‘Find a supervisor who will ask the hard questions about your behaviour and thought life at least once every 6 weeks.

  3. Rob Westwood-Payne on September 20, 2018 at 6:20 am

    I have long felt that character is the most important thing we can work on as leaders, especially Christian leaders. It ought to be a distinguishing feature! Thanks Carey for the reminder, and for these “new” character rules to remember. I continue to work on closing the gap between my public and private self, and these rules give me something more to work on. In Christ. Rob | http://www.equippinghispeople.com

    • Kathleen Kingsmill on July 4, 2020 at 11:04 am

      I more than agree. Amen to it all.

  4. krissamae on September 17, 2018 at 11:28 pm

    thanks carey, im a student and also handling a youth and kids in our church, it will help me alot, not just ministering other people but also to my private life, which is my family, im grateful to read your article , i will earn money to buy your books i know this worth investment.. 🙂

  5. Michael Schultz on September 17, 2018 at 4:54 pm

    Excellent & insightful! Thanks

  6. Mark Hadley on September 17, 2018 at 2:10 pm

    Excellent, thank you so much. These are very helpful reminders for me. I am deeply grateful for the ways God uses your life and gifts to minister to my heart. Grace and peace to you!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 17, 2018 at 4:23 pm

      Thanks Mark!

  7. Mike Duke on September 17, 2018 at 1:01 pm

    I’ve found examining personal character has helped make sense of it’s true origin. I have never found character “rules” to be very helpful. Rules have always been an implication of something I will inevitably break. So in regard to that argumentative text accidentally sent to the wrong person, the comments left on social media and those I’ve possibly dealt with harshly I’ve always felt it very important to remember I haven’t become somehow “holy” yet and my true personal intention was to help. How the person has received this I cannot be responsible as long as I can realize my real motivations. They often don’t see it the way I do but that’s okay. Absolutely nothing wrong with an agreement to disagree. In fact, there is nothing more respectable and honest. I could box myself up and ignore social media but there is always something to learn from each comment. I’ve learned much here. We may disagree but I’m okay with that. I’m learning. I’ve found that in every comment or opinion I may perceive as negative or unhelpful there is usually a statement of truth or lack there of. I find this forever interesting. I feel honored to have been allowed to post here. It says something about the moderator who is willing to allow different opinions. I say bravo! Because I may speak much here, please understand it does not represent my ministry. Outside of theology, I’m generally quiet and listen much more than I speak. I have never had anyone who was out to intentionally destroy my ministry but rather they generally felt unheard, misunderstood, hurt, ignored, angry, etc. It is always important to understand these all stem from emotion. Emotion misplaced can wreak havoc but simply listening goes a long way to erradicate it. Thanks again.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 17, 2018 at 4:25 pm

      I do tend to be more permissive than many. I may not agree with what you say from what I’ve seen of your comments Mike, but you’re not rude from what I’ve seen.. In my view, if you’re rude or abusive, you get deleted or banned. You’re not rude. You’re different. That’s just fine. 🙂

      • Mike Duke on September 17, 2018 at 10:46 pm

        Thanks so much Carey. I was so hoping I wouldn’t be misconstrued. That has never honestly been my intention. I can’t tell you how much my respect has increased as I know you completely disagree but still allow me to post. It is honestly quite an honor and I will never abuse it. You’ve spoken of hope and change and I learn each time. I’ve hopefully spoken of hope and my limited abilities and what I’ve learned through years of ministry. I hope it may help someone. I really don’t want to be a damper on anyone’s hope or change. Thanks for allowing me to pose questions to challenge all to never stop thinking. If we’re constantly thinking, our ministry burdens become a little lighter and a bit easier to bear. That’s why I’m here. You challenge my thinking. Thanks again so much.

  8. Dennis on September 17, 2018 at 8:42 am

    I try to filter social media comments by asking my self 3 questions before typing. 1) Is it true? 2) is it necessary? and 3) Is it helpful and/or encouraging? If the answer to any of those is “no,” then I need to reconsider my proposed comment or perhaps not comment at all. These days I feel I scroll past the comments section much more often than I did in the past . . . and it’s okay. In fact I can read social media posts more easily now, because I’m not even inclined to respond to many of them anymore.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 17, 2018 at 4:21 pm

      This is good! Thanks!

  9. Chuck on September 17, 2018 at 8:23 am

    This is a very nice setup for a study of James or Colossians.

  10. Richard G Powell on September 17, 2018 at 8:00 am

    My pastor says this consistently: Do not do, say or type anything you wouldn’t want showing up on the evening news.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 17, 2018 at 4:21 pm

      Ha ha. Well said!

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