Five Character Rules Every Wise Leader Follows

by Carey Nieuwhof

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:


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.


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 promisedthat 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.


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?

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


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?


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.


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