What makes a successful leader successful?

And—here’s the next question— could you adopt any of their characteristics to help you become a more effective leader?

Sometimes it’s easy to think that some people were just ‘born’ successful or that they ‘have it’ and you don’t. For sure, some people are gifted communicators, visionaries or organizational wizards who seem to naturally know how to lead churches and organizations.

But the recipe for a leader’s effectiveness does not all lie in the gene pool.

The good news is there are common traits and characteristics that make highly successful leaders successful.

And the really good news is that these characteristics can be learned and then adopted by leaders like you and me.

I’m 200+ episodes into my leadership podcast (you can subscribe and listen for free here) and so far have had the opportunity to interview over 20 top leaders. Not only has this been a fun journey, but early on I started to notice common characteristics among all these leaders as we did the interviews.

The common characteristics are so simple they’re surprising, and you might be tempted to dismiss them. But they’re incredibly endearing. And I think they are in part what makes each of them effective in their own realm.

And there is absolutely nothing stopping you from adopting each of the characteristics in your own leadership starting today.


7 Surprising and Endearing Characteristics

So what do leaders like Patrick Lencioni, Nancy Duarte, Brian Houston, Levi Lusko, Andy Stanley, Kara Powell, Ravi Zacharias, Craig Groeschel, Henry Cloud and others have in common?

Of course they’re gifted speaker, writers, thinkers, strategists and more. But they also do the following 7 things very, very well.

And before we jump to the list, you can get the full list of leaders here and can listen to any or all of the interviews by subscribing to my podcast (for free) on:

Apple Podcasts


Google Play



Here we go:

1. They show up on time

I know a lot of leaders who manage far less than any of my guests who are always running late. Usually they talk about how busy they are and excuse it.

But not one of my guests has been late so far for their interview. They are precise. To the minute.

This challenges me because as much as I value being on time, I sometimes show up a few minutes past due. This might only happen a few times each month, but it’s still a failure on my part as a leader.

When you show up on time, you not only steward your time well, you steward other people’s time better too.

2. They do their homework

I make it habit to send out questions and an interview tip sheet before each interview.

Honestly, I never expected most of the leaders to read it. I know how busy they are and felt fortunate to get an hour of their time.

Every leader I interviewed had read the questions in advance. What blew me away is some of them took it further.

Andy Stanley made notes. So had many other leaders.

So just how busy are you again as a leader?

3. They call you by name

Many of the people in these early days of the podcasts are my friends and colleagues, but some truthfully I just knew well enough to ask to be on the show.

But what blew me away is how all of them called me by name, not just in the pre-recording set up, but during the interview.

It’s very endearing when someone knows and remembers your name.

As a leader it’s hard to remember the names of everyone you meet. But it’s so important. I wrote this post a few years ago about my struggle to remember names and outline some techniques I use to help me when I’m stuck.

If you want to be a better leader, remember names. And use them. It’s that simple.

4. They’re okay not being good at everything

You would think that some leaders are just naturally great at everything.

Not true.

I record many of the interviews via Skype (yeah, I know, it’s not 2007, but Skype is still widely used by podcasters for its audio quality). I was surprised by how many leaders had to get other people to help them get online (not everyone, but more than a few). Others used other people’s user names and got that person to get them online because they weren’t sure how to do it.

What’s interesting is they all seemed at peace with it.

No apologies. No trying to pretend like they knew what they were doing. Just an honesty and a gratitude for the friend or staff member who got them online, and then a focus on our conversation and the upcoming interview.

And maybe that’s a secret of their success.

When you try to be great at everything, you can end being excellent at nothing. The world is not going to stop spinning because you need a friend to help you do something you haven’t taken the time to master yourself.

They were just super cool not being great at everything. And I think that’s super-cool.

5.  They follow through. Fast

Sometimes there’s follow up to an episode. We’d cover something in the interview I wasn’t expecting to cover and after it was over, I’d ask whether they could provide the link or resource they talked about.

Follow through—and fast follow through—is a characteristic of almost every effective leader.

The lesson is simple. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. And when you promise, deliver.

6.  They take their work — not themselves — seriously

Every guest I’ve interviewed so far takes their work seriously, but not themselves.

It’s so refreshing to find leaders who are absolutely passionate about their mission, but who don’t take themselves that seriously.

This shouldn’t be a surprise, but it is. Jim Collins identified humility as the defining difference between a Level 4 and a Level 5 difference. The leaders who go the furthest, even in business, are the most humble.

Want to be a better leader? Take your work more seriously than you take yourself.

7. They’re incredibly down to earth

I often get asked, so what’s                          really like?

I love that question, because of the top leaders I’ve met and know, the answer is they’re incredibly genuine people who walk the talk and who are good to be around.

I was a little intimidated in some of the interviews, but the warm demeanor, kind words and down to earth approach of every guest was disarming and encouraging.

I’ve met some leaders of small things who take themselves too seriously and are anything but down to earth.

I think that limits your leadership.

The leaders I’ve interviewed all know where they’ve come from, realize that leadership is a stewardship and make others feel at ease.

What if you and I made others feel the same way?

Become the Leader You Admire

If you want practical help overcoming some of the biggest challenges leaders face (namely, your internal habits and your character), my book Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges That Nobody Expects and Everyone Experiences tackles the seven core issues that take people out: cynicism, compromise, disconnectedness, irrelevance, pride, burnout, and the emptiness of success and provides strategies on how to combat each.

I wrote the book because no 18 year old sets out to be cynical, jaded and disconnected by age 35. Yet it happens all the time.

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Here’s what top leaders are saying about Didn’t See It Coming:

“Seriously, this may be the most important book you read this year.” Jud Wilhite, Lead Pastor, Central Church

“Powerful, personal, and highly readable. ” Brian Houston, Global Senior Pastor, Hillsong

“Whatever challenge you’re facing, whatever obstacle you’re hoping to overcome, whatever future you dream or imagine, there is something powerful for you here.” Andy Stanley, Founder, North Point Ministries

“Uncommonly perceptive and generous…You have to read this book.” Ann Voskamp, NYT bestselling author

“Masterful.” Reggie Joiner, CEO Orange

“Deep biblical insight, straightforward truth, and practical wisdom to help you grow.” Craig Groeschel, Pastor and NYT bestselling author

“This book is sure to help you.” Daniel H. Pink, NYT bestselling author

Over the years, one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about being a public speaker is having opportunities to hang out with Carey…It’s not a matter of if you’ll run into these challenges; it’s a matter of when. Be prepared by spending a little time with a leader who has already been there.” Jon Acuff, NYT best-selling author

“Nieuwhof’s book provides expert guidance…with an accuracy that pierces the heart.” Nancy Duarte, CEO Duarte Inc.

“A refreshingly transparent guide for all leaders in a wide variety of industries.” Bryan Miles, Co-Founder and CEO, BELAY

You can learn more and get your copy of Didn’t See It Coming here.

What Do You See?

These are 7 characteristics I’ve seen in the high capacity leaders I’ve been around on my podcast in and in my leadership.

If you haven’t subscribed yet, it’s free. As in zero dollars free. Always.

Subscribe now via


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Meanwhile, what do you see in the leaders you admire?

What can we learn together on this subject?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

7 Surprising and Endearing Characteristics of Highly Effective Leaders


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  11. Anna Fillgrove on April 10, 2018 at 8:30 am

    I often share your posts with my co-workers on our Children’s Ministries Team. Today, I was struck again at how each of us has different strengths, which, of course, is great for ministry to our kids and volunteers. But we also are great models for each other, learning how to improve our leadership skills by observing one another.

  12. Christopher Sweet on April 8, 2018 at 12:55 pm

    One common trait I see in great leaders is a positive attitude (or spirit or demeanor). They don’t speak negatively of people. Even negative situations are spun in a positive or encouraging reply.

    • Anna Fillgrove on April 10, 2018 at 8:25 am

      Love this, Christopher. So true!

  13. theartist on April 8, 2018 at 12:12 pm

    Words AND tone does matter. How can a leader preach from the pulpit about the Theme of the month “Unity In the Body of Christ” while simultaneously hurling insults at “a chosen few” from the pulpit?

  14. Shaz Jones on December 2, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    Carey, I loved this article. It struck me as evidence of Luke 19:17 – being faithful in the little leads to leadership 🙂

  15. Jim Phillips on November 29, 2015 at 2:55 pm

    Why not just use what the Scripture tells us in I Timothy 3:1-7?
    “This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach;not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having hischildren in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.”

  16. Nina Schmidgall on January 25, 2015 at 7:53 am

    And, I happen to know, all of these also apply to you Carey! Thanks for being an incredible leader!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 26, 2015 at 6:42 pm

      Nina…I’m blushing. Talking about you and your church to some senior leaders today. Continue to love what God is doing through NCC through you and your team!

  17. PR on January 22, 2015 at 8:55 am

    you forgot…there are 8…and number 1 is “they teach the Bible…..” (don’t assume that everyone knows this)

  18. David Randall on January 17, 2015 at 6:16 am

    Thank you for producing this article and for all the work you put into it. It is so rich that I have read it several times and talked with other people about it. For me brings these thoughts to mind.
    I need God.
    I need to grow.
    I need others.
    I need to do what God made me to do for His Glory.

    I will strive to put these characteristics to practice in 2015.
    Thank you Carey

  19. Henry on January 13, 2015 at 10:36 pm

    I have learned and truly believe that humility is the greatest and most powerful spiritual virtue that any leader can effectively operate in. It keeps you in a place of patiently waiting for God to reveal and release His glory over your life.

  20. […] Click here to read Carey’s full blog post: https://careynieuwhof.com/2015/01/7-surprising-endearing-characteristics-highly-effective-church-lead… […]

  21. Ralph Fudge on January 12, 2015 at 9:25 am

    I preached on humility Sunday. I said it is the only way to give God all of the glory, which only He deserves. Proud people are trying to steal God’s glory.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 14, 2015 at 8:18 am

      Preaching on humility is great…and hard. 🙂

  22. Anna on January 11, 2015 at 1:58 pm

    I feel like all of these qualities are all achievable to everyone through personal growth. The opposite of each of these are all negatives or at the least have room for growth (1. They don’t respect others’ time, 2. They’re unprepared, 3. They don’t work to remember names, 4. Their weaknesses cause insecurity/anxiety, 5. They aren’t true to their word or are forgetful, 6. They think they themselves are a big deal, 7. They’re unapproachable.) They’re not about different personalities (although different personalities make some of these harder or easier to achieve). It’s about growing as a person in healthy confidence, humility, and maturity. It does take all kinds in this world, but I don’t see why all kinds can’t use all of these qualities. These traits simple describe a person who is self-assured, confident, mature and who values others. I love this list because it shows that simple things have a huge subliminal impact and that the “secret to success” is probably found more in being a humble, confident, self-aware, thoughtful person!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 14, 2015 at 8:14 am

      You’re right Anna. Simple things make a big difference. Thanks!

  23. Bob on January 7, 2015 at 6:31 am

    This is wonderful. These are great traits to aspire to, and I can see why these leaders excel at what they do. However, if you, like me, are dismayed by this list, consider another question: what do Jesus, Moses, David, Mary, Paul, Peter, Miriam, and Jacob have in common? Not much, and certainly NOT #1-7 in the slightest. And I think all wouldn’t be completely awful pastors, if it came right down to it (a little bit of litotes there) It takes all kinds to lead this world, is all I’m saying – and it’s an important point, because our modern “let’s make a list of qualities” culture says otherwise. 🙂 Peace!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 14, 2015 at 8:17 am

      Bob…thought about your comment for a bit. I think the difference might be between what is prescriptive and descriptive. The ‘challenging’ characteristics (Jesus excepted) of the biblical characters you mention describes their behaviour, but it does prescribe the trickery of Jacob as a way God wants people to live. The character traits I saw in the leaders I wrote about in many ways reflects the prescriptive attributes mentioned in the New Testament. For sure, we’re all a mixture of not-so-noble and better characteristics, but I want to be remade by the Holy Spirit and have my character refined toward the prescriptive qualities God brings about in people’s lives.

  24. Brian on January 5, 2015 at 9:57 pm

    Insightful observations, Carey. These are characteristics of all the great leaders I know, inside and outside the church. The point about remembering names is the most important. “I’m terrible with names,” so many people (including me) say. But you can’t use that as an excuse if you want to reach people. If you want to be an effective leader or evangelist for the Lord, remember people’s names. Period. It’s as important as remembering John 3:16. It unlocks doors. It makes people feel loved. Do whatever you have to do to remember people’s names. Write them down, store them in your phone, make homemade flash cards. Do whatever it takes. No one will follow someone who doesn’t even know his name.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 5, 2015 at 9:59 pm

      So true Brian. I agree! Do what it takes to make it happen.

  25. Shawn Welch on January 5, 2015 at 3:48 pm

    I was definitely convicted when you talked about they know people’s names. I have a very poor short term memory, but too many times I use that as an excuse instead of developing techniques to get better. Thanks for the great reminder that names are powerful.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 5, 2015 at 3:52 pm

      I get that totally Shawn. I heard another podcast last week where the guest said that those of us who forget people’s names is because we really don’t care (well, he used more colorful language than that). It was really convicting for me.

  26. wdavidrice on January 5, 2015 at 12:12 pm

    I would add that they all understand the power that their words hold; they choose their words carefully. You do a great job Carey of making the podcast feel like the listener gets to eavesdrop on a more intimate conversation between you and your guest. Yet we all know that your audience reaches far beyond that initial recorded conversation. In your questions you often try to get at some details (especially as it pertains to resistance to change that your guest has encountered) that your guests are reluctant to go very far into. The lesson from these leaders to me is to see that my words & my tone matters. They have weight; they affect those that I serve. It has taught me to be more careful w/ my words around those that I serve, both my staff and volunteers. Also, it has helped me see the importance of having a very small inner circle that I can “let loose” with more than I do w/ most other people. Thanks for this!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 5, 2015 at 12:43 pm

      Thanks so much for the encouragement…and I agree. Our words and tone matter.

      • Pastor Hal on January 8, 2015 at 7:40 pm

        Great framework and process Carrie. I like Bob’s comment…we are not clones…God has called each of us and will use us in His own unique way. He lovingly puts pillars and mentors (sometime but not always the same person) to guide us by example and positive critique. Regarding your last comment about “our words”, I agree and would add that our listening to and validating the words of those who seek our help is equally important. Many of our predecessors seemed to point fingers and shut down way too much leaving many unnecessarily wounded people. Thanks for sharing!

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