Four Definitive Marks of an Effective Leader

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, May 8, 2017

Four Definitive Marks of an Effective Leader

Few would deny that there is a deficit of effective leadership. Case in point: From 2000 - 2013, 25% of the Fortune 500 chief executives who left their firms were forced out.

The Harvard Business Review recently detailed the results of a 10-year study called the “CEO Genome Project.” The goal was to find which attributes marked effective leaders. It was an impressive study – not simply for its 10-year duration, but for it’s more than 17,000 assessments of C-suite executives, including 2,000 CEOs.

The study found that successful business leaders have four defining characteristics, four specific behaviors that prove critical to their performance.

I was struck by how relevant the findings were to effective leadership in the social services/not-for-profit sector and, specifically, the church.

So here are the four marks and how they might play out in the life of a church:

1.      They Are Decisive

An effective leader decides with speed and conviction. They do not necessarily stand out for making great decisions all the time; instead, they stand out for being decisive. “They make decisions earlier, faster and with greater conviction.” A high-performing leader knows that all too often, a wrong decision is better than no decision at all. Why? Because being indecisive is often equivalent to a lack of direction.

When it comes to the life of the church, I have found that a lack of decisiveness flows from a lack of missional clarity. When there isn’t missional clarity, there is no clear target on the wall. You either become a bunch of tactics without a strategy, or you have a “ready, aim, aim, aim…” mentality that never “fires.” For example, something as simple as, “When it comes to outreach, our church is focused on the unchurched” will immediately provide speedy and convictional decisions on almost every outreach question that presents itself. But if you don’t know who you are trying to reach, you won’t be able to answer any questions related to outreach. At least, not in a decisive way.

2.      They Engage for Impact

Once a leader sets a clear course for a business, they get buy-in among their employees and other stakeholders. They get people on board with the vision. Bringing others along involves disciplined communications and influencing strategies. While not everyone gets a vote, everyone does get a voice. 

Too many church leaders have a “Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai” approach to leadership. They surface with “God’s vision” for the church, announce it, and then turn immediately to implementation. That’s a recipe for disaster. The best leaders surface with the vision, and then they realize that they next step is to get buy-in to that vision, to “vision cast” in such a way that it creates both enthusiasm and support for the direction. A good leader doesn’t say “Go!” but rather, “Let’s go!” 

3.      They Adapt Proactively

CEOs in today’s business world quickly find that they routinely face situations that are not in any playbook. Or, more to the point, they face situations for which no playbook exists. As a result, they have to be able to adapt. Most CEOs know that they have to divide their attention between short-, medium-, and long-term perspectives. But the “adaptable” CEOs spend significantly more of their time – as much as 50% – thinking about the long-term. Related to this, “adaptable” CEOs also recognize that mistakes are opportunities to learn and grow. Setbacks aren’t failures – they are part of the adaptability learning curve. 

The irony of this lesson from the business world is that the two words that most reflect this attribute – change and risk – are the two dynamics most avoided within church leadership. Yet without a willingness to change (adapt) and risk (learn from mistakes), there can be little forward progress. Indeed, the keys to moving forward are these two very things. So the change-resistant and risk-averse are virtually destined to not simply stay where they are, but to lose ever-increasing ground in the future. 

4.      They Deliver Reliably

According to the study, the ability to reliably produce results is possibly the most powerful of the four essential CEO behaviors. Before you think this simply means “profit,” think again. It is about a steady-hand and “predictability” in the best sense of the word. 94% of the best CEOs scored high on “consistently following through on their commitments.” Reliability plays itself out in other areas as well, including organization and planning skills. Here’s a telling descriptor: “They established business management systems that included a cadence of meetings, dashboards of metrics, clear accountability, and multiple channels for monitoring performance and making rapid course corrections. Most important, they surrounded themselves with strong teams.”

When it comes to the life of the church, far too many equate charisma with leadership skill, oratory with management acumen, and personality with performance. We shouldn’t. The real work of building a thriving, prevailing church is as much Monday - Friday as it is Sunday. Maybe more.

So there you have it. Effective leaders are decisive, they engage for impact, they adapt proactively and they deliver reliably. It’s important to note each and every attribute, because 100% of low-performing CEOs in the study’s sample scored high on integrity, and 97% scored high on work ethic. So leadership is more than being a good person and working hard, which is usually how the church evaluates effective leadership. 

Effective leadership is about being a good person who works hard,

… and smart.

James Emery White


Elena Lytkina Botelho, Kim Rosenkoetter Powell, Stephen Kincaid, and Dina Wang, “What Sets Successful CEOs Apart,” Harvard Business Review, May-June 2017, read online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Four Definitive Marks of an Effective Leader