How To Identify Great (Team) Leaders

How to Identify Great (Team) Leaders

How to Identify Great (Team) Leaders

Recently a pastor responsible for discipleship and small groups asked me to offer some insight regarding assessing and identifying people for leadership roles in his church.  I thought this topic would be relevant to many, if not all, of you, so I’ll share with you what I told him.

First, I should lay my cards on the table.  Too often, we make too big a deal about leadership in the church.  We’ve swallowed hook, line, and sinker John Maxwell’s quip that “everything rises and falls on leadership,” defining “leadership” as influence enacted by those people appointed or designated as “leaders.” But, anyone can lead, whether they are designated a “leader” or not. 

If you are looking for people to designate as “leaders,” I urge you to look for those people who:

  1. possess character worthy of being emulated, and
  2. who are positively influencing others in your church.  

In other words, look for people who are already leading by example.

Several years ago, I led a staff responsible for hiring a large cadre of university student leaders.  Of course, we’d get many students attracted to the status and prestige of the position, the free room and board as compensation, and the extra access to certain university staff and faculty.  So many of the applicants, however, never had served on campus previously.  I implored my staff to not even consider them, stating, in essence: “If they really had the heart to lead and influence, they would have already been doing so”.  The same goes in the church – people clamor for positions of “leadership” for the status and prestige, and the benefits that come along with it, most notably access to pastors and other leaders.  We must be careful, though, and that’s why we want to look for people who already lead by example.

If that’s too vague, here’s a list of the qualities I look for (based on an extensive literature on team leadership) and some suggestions for how you might assess these qualities.

1.  Character – Frankly, leaders in the church (or at least most of them) should possess the character that would qualify for eldership, as described in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1.*  They should be, among other qualifications:

  • Above reproach and respectable
  • Temperate, sober, patient, self-controlled, gentle, and prudent
  • Able to teach and refute false teaching (knowing the Word)
  • Not violent, pugnacious, contentious, or quickly angered
  • Of good reputation with outsiders
  • Just, fair, holy, and devout
  • Spiritually mature (in other words)

To assess character, you might call or send a questionnaire to 3-4 people who know your prospective leader well, asking about character, strengths, and weaknesses.

2.  Essential skills for the task(s) at hand – Of course, you need people who can do what you need them to do.  Think about the experience and ability needed among all the members of a team, and how multiple team members can bring those different skills to the task.   To assess broad skill-sets and strengths, I recommend the Clifton Strengthsfinder in addition to a solid Spiritual Gifts Inventory.

3.  Desire to Contribute – The best predictor of a person’s desire to contribute in the future is his/her past contributions. Thus, this quality is easy to assess: How is this person currently contributing?  Has s/he shown interest in leading, shepherding, and caring for others, even without a formal “leadership” position?

4.  Works Well With Others – People who work well with others generally:

  • Know how to solve problems;
  • Act, rather than just sit around;
  • Openly share their lives with others;
  • Accept criticism joyfully;
  • Support the efforts of others; and
  • Employ a positive, warm, and engaging personal style.

To assess these characteristics, I suggest the assessment in When Teams Work Best. You could pair this assessment with the one you send to family, friends, and colleagues to assess character (#1 above).

To sum it up: If you’re looking for good “leaders,” simply look for those who are already leading.  As Eugene Habecker wisely summarized in The Other Side of Leadership: “Scripture seems preoccupied with what leaders and followers do, as opposed to their name, rank or status.”  Look for those folks who are leading with character and involvement.

Reflection Moment:

Do you carefully assess those you place in “leadership”? If not, how might you improve your assessment practices?

What are the qualities you look for in leaders?  What did I miss?  What, perhaps, have you missed? 

Leave a comment and let’s chat!

*For a great review of the qualifications of biblical eldership, I recommend Alexander Strauch’s Biblical Eldership.

Also, check out a good list of team resources here.

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Photo Credit: Jonathan Dudley 



  1. michael March 24, 2012 at 8:00 am - Reply

    I only wish I had had these 5 simple guidelines last weekend when I was part of a Christian group making a decision on its top leader…the group determined the leader based on factors such as age, gender, and what region he was from. None of which are in your list. It seems so clear now why I was frustrated but unable to fully articulate it.

  2. Ryan Hartwig March 24, 2012 at 10:30 am - Reply

    Michael –

    Yes, we usually base our decisions on things that really don’t matter. I’m sorry you had such a frustrating experience. Now you have some criteria for next time. 🙂

    – Ryan

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  6. Jaque Christo February 5, 2018 at 9:31 am - Reply

    Thank you for the post on how to identify great team leaders. I like the idea to look for people who are already leading by example. natural leaders will in many cases stand out already. Others will be drawn to their leadership and look to them for advice.

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