Top 10 Habits of Leaders Who Effectively Guard Their Hearts

If someone asked you how your heart is, what would you say?

I know, it’s a weird question

But what I told you that the answer to that question would determine:

How long you’ll last in leadership.

How effective you’ll be in leadership.

Your ultimate capacity as a leader.

I believe the condition of your heart determines all that, and much more.

So how is your heart? And how do you make it healthy?


It’s Not Your Competency, It’s Your Character

One of my favourite scripture verses is Proverbs 4:23 which says “Above all else, guard your heart,  for everything you do flows from it.” Another translation says “Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.”

When I was a young leader, I thought skill determined your capacity. Just become competent and the world’s your oyster.

But that’s not really true. No matter how talented you are, your character can sink your ship.

Just ask athletes who aren’t allowed to play anymore.

Politicians who will never get re-elected.

Celebrities whose careers have been marred by constant scandal.

I have come to believe that character, not competency, determines your capacity as a leader (I wrote a full post about that here.)

And the state of your heart determines the shape of your character.


10 Habits That Will Help You Guard Your Heart

So how do you guard your heart as a leader?

If you want to effectively guard your heart:


1. Separate your personal walk from your professional work.

If you’re in ministry, never confuse your work with your walk.

Your work is what you get paid (or volunteer) to do. Your walk is what you do because you are a child of God in a relationship with him through Jesus.

Your walk is life long. Your work is what you do in a season or because you’re called.

A strong walk fuels strong work. The two best ways I know of to fuel a personal walk are to read the bible and pray daily.

And, if you’re in ministry, keep asking yourself this annoying question: If you couldn’t do ministry tomorrow, what would be left of your personal walk with Christ?

That will tell you a ton about the state of your heart.


2. Establish effective guardrails.

They might sound like ‘a bunch of rules’, but leaders who guard their hearts set up healthy guardrails in their lives. A guardrail protects you from danger before you hit danger (that jagged cliff with the 300 foot drop).

Some of my guardrails include not meeting with a member of the opposite sex alone, not riding in a car alone with a member of the opposite sex who isn’t part of my family, and even automating savings and givings.

The best series on guardrails is one by Andy Stanley called (not surprisingly) Guardrails. You can watch it for free here.


3. Acknowledge that you have the capacity for good and evil.

Before you complain that “those guardrails outlined above are for paranoid, legalistic people”, just think it through.

Do you believe you have the capacity for good and evil? I do.

I think when you’re really in touch with your heart, you realize that in it live both good and evil. When you begin to think ‘that could never happen to me’, you are probably closer to having it happen than you realize.

Knowing that the capacity for evil lies in every heart makes us more reliant on God’s grace, more humble, and more aware that we need a strength from God to withstand temptation than we naturally possess.


4. Pursue Quiet

When my heart wasn’t as guarded as it ought to be, I used to hate sitting in silence.

I’ll tell you why. Because as soon as I sat down I would begin to sense things weren’t quite right. Why? Because they weren’t.

Over the last decade I have pursued silence, and even begin almost every day with an hour of silent reading and prayer.

Here’s what I’ve learned. The quiet reveals the quiet, or the disquiet, within.


5. Cultivate a circle of wise counsel

The more I know myself, the more I realize I need wise counsel around me.

Effective leaders surround themselves with wise people who are smarter than they are. If you’re the wisest person in the room, you need a new room.

In this post, I wrote about how to cultivate an inner circle in your life that will help you find health.


6. Assume that you are responsible.

If you’re in leadership, not everything’s your fault, but everything is your responsibility. I am not at fault for everything that goes wrong under my leadership, but I am responsible.

Weak leaders assign blame. Effective leaders accept responsibility. If you’re always thinking a problem is someone else’s fault, you have heart work to do. You’re too defensive. Too insecure. And too sensitive. I wrote about how to overcome defensiveness here.


7. Put your marriage before your parenting and friendships.

People with weak marriages will often prioritize their kids over their spouses. Big mistake. Or they’ll turn to a friend for the kind of emotional support that really only a spouse should give.

Your marriage will suffer, your kids will grow up insecure or co-dependent and your marriage will stay underdeveloped.

Leaders who guard their hearts realize that a healthy marriage will produce healthier relationships all around. They drill down on their issues. They go to counseling. They pursue intimacy with the only legitimate source of romance in their lives. And when they do, they are less tempted to inappropriate emotional satisfaction elsewhere.

And by the way, having an effective circle of wise counsel around you (Point 5) will also take pressure off your marriage because you won’t be relying on your spouse to solve all the problems that hit you at work. You’ll be able to be there for your spouse as well as confide in your spouse.


8. Prioritize Rest.

There is a difference between time off and rest. A lot of time off can easily fill up with mindless distractions, meaningless errands and trivial pursuits.

If you really want to guard your heart, you need to pursue rest. Sleep intentionally. Wake up rested. Take a nap. Be still. Know that God is God.


9. Think.

Socrates put it this way: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

I agree. If you want to guard your heart, take time to think, reflect and revise. Read some great books. Watch some documentaries. Have actual conversations with friends about issues, not just people and events.

Process life. Think.


10. Get the help you need.

Guarding your heart effectively is something that needs the care and attention of others. Go to a counselor. Hire a coach. Ask someone to mentor you. Seek the counsel of friends. Get help for your problem.

It takes a brave person to do that, but you’re brave, right?

The help you need changes the life you lead.

These are ten habits I see in people who guard their heart.

What do you see? What would you add to this list?


  1. Joshua S. Gabriel on September 3, 2018 at 11:50 pm

    This is such a wonderful article to read and to be apply by every leader seeking success. I’m constrain by this document to extend my hearty and appreciation to you Carey Nieuwhof for compiling this inspiring and wonderful work. God bless!

  2. Anglican_geek on April 12, 2016 at 7:33 am

    I think never meet with a member of the opposite sex alone is unnecessary. Especially in denominations that don’t ordain women, that closes off women from pastoral counselling. I think it is sufficient to never meet a memher of the opposite sex in a windowless office. My ministry mentor is of the opposite sex to me, and we meet in a lounge that basically has a wall of windows facing a main hallway in the church.

  3. […] Much emphasis is put on work habits, efficiency, proficiency, and expertise as a leader. But how much do you think about your heart? A good leader isn’t good unless his or her heart is healthy. Carey Nieuwhof shares 10 habits to help leaders guard their hearts. […]

  4. […] Establish very tight personal and organizational standards. Recently, I wrote a post outlining 10 habits of leaders who effectively guard their hearts. When you have high personal standards you try to live by, the likelihood of you falling into the […]

  5. rob steinbach on January 28, 2014 at 6:05 pm

    no biggie but the reference is Proverbs 4.23. thanks for the post.

  6. Daniel B on January 24, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    Great post sir. I have been in full time ministry for 4 months, and I find everything you’ve listed so crucial. I sometimes focus more on my Bible college training, without paying close attention to how my heart is. I appreciate your posts.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 25, 2014 at 1:09 pm

      Daniel…love that’s you’re starting out in ministry. Following habits like these will ensure you ministry is vibrant and alive for years. Many of us discover these truths the hard way. Glad you haven’t had to!

  7. Melissa on January 24, 2014 at 2:05 pm

    Hi Carey, Thank you for your work! I’ve been reading your blog for a few years now. Your writings have caused me to examine my life, driven me to think creatively, left me encouraged and pushed me to Jesus.

    In regards to number 7, I wonder your thoughts for those of us who are single in ministry. How does dating look while “guarding your help” and being an effective leader?

    Your post is extremely useful regardless of a persons marital status. Appreciate you!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 25, 2014 at 1:11 pm

      Hey Melissa…great question. I would say you need to be careful still. There’s the age old debate about whether men can have a friendship with women. This video is kind of interesting on that subject. I would also encourage you to watch Andy Stanley’s New Rules For Love Sex and Dating. You can find it for free under the ‘watch’ tab at

  8. philbell on January 24, 2014 at 11:07 am

    Great post Carey! What’s striking is that many of the habits you mention are things a leader does when away from his or her followers. Leadership is just as much what goes on ‘below the surface’ as it is ‘above the surface’. Thanks for sharing, I will passing this on!

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