The Ultimate Character Test Any 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.

So 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 back

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!

The Ultimate Character Test Any Great Leader Passes


  1. Steve Foti on July 25, 2017 at 1:02 pm

    I agree that character is greatly important. But competency plays a huge role in leadership. A leader who is incompetent, despite great character, will never be able to lead well…regardless of title or position.

  2. Cedric on July 17, 2017 at 4:07 pm

    How does one explain Trump? He matches none of the listed traits of character, yet he has millions of die hards that will follow him where ever he goes. I think he proves that to be a influential leader, character is not the defining factor.

  3. Jenny Wardrop on July 12, 2017 at 6:59 am

    Nothing to ad, but wanted to say thanks for writing this. God has been taking me on a journey the past year or so working on my character. Sunday I speak to our church plant team on character and while I still don’t think im close to making it with my character I wouldn’t even be able to speak about it without your teaching on the subject!! Thanks for all you write its a blessing to me!

  4. Jason on June 12, 2017 at 6:39 am

    I would say a great character trait of all leaders, (which you sort of touched on #5) is sacrifice. Not sacrificing your family for more time at the office, but sacrificing things like your pride, your control over certain projects or teams, and in a sense your time. Leading sometimes requires you to sacrifice many of your own personal goals, for the sake of the peoples goals, or the churches goals, the visions goals. So thats what I would add! 🙂

  5. Joanna on June 10, 2017 at 9:45 am

    They may never have a large congregation, they likely will be judged for it, but despite this they continue to obedient to the Lords call rather than allow men to put them off. This then shows itself in the growing godliness of it’s perhaps small family who understand that when 2 or 3 are gathered together the Lord is with them. And I’d you really want to see a successful pastor just look at the the requirements in Timothy.

  6. Dan Esau on June 9, 2017 at 8:51 am

    How do you handle pain? Ministry has many painful moments and how you respond to pain is one of the defining marks of your character. Do you fall into addictive behaviour? Do you strike out and respond in anger? Do you escape into movies, sports, shopping or the more destructive places like alcohol or worse? You find out what is inside someone when they hit their hand with a hammer.

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