Developing as a Leader of Strong Character

Leading well is a great challenge, requiring the leader to dedicate his mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual resources to his vocational calling. To be effective and ethical in a typical organizational setting, a leader should communicate a clear vision and purpose to followers. You also should demonstrate a strong moral character in honoring the rights of others while fulfilling your obligations in a principled, knowledgeable, and skillful manner.

Succeeding at this may appear daunting.  Pressures and temptations are ever present for a leader facing complex interactions of competing responsibilities. Indeed, success in ethical leadership requires not only spiritual knowledge and insight but also integrity of character.

A character or virtue ethic does not focus on rules or changing contexts or even primarily on specific decisions or acts. Instead, the person of moral character integrity should develop a moral compass or moral character combining the right inner dispositions or virtues that guide or incline him to act appropriately regardless of the circumstances. The morally virtuous person will have developed the inclinations to habitually know and act in the right way, at the right time, for the right end. You can seek to develop more virtuous dispositions as you follow them (in your decisions and behaviors) over your lifetime. As you act according to a virtue’s direction, you will gradually grow as a moral person. You cannot expect to become completely virtuous, but you can hone and strengthen your moral character.

What virtues do you need to develop? There are many lists of virtues—several are offered below. But you need to decide for yourself. I do not recommend a specific list that applies to everyone. However, Beabout (2012) argues that the intellectual virtue of practical wisdom is the one essential and universal virtue needed by leaders and employees to establish a virtuous culture in a business organization. Practical wisdom involves a person’s ability to perceive a particular situation accurately, to have the appropriate feelings and desires about it, to deliberate as to the proper action in the situation, and to act in the right way. This virtue requires experience and growth based on reflection about purpose and past experiences.

Assess yourself in light of your own role in your organization and your life context. Focus on developing through your habitual practice those qualities that you believe you most need to excel. This blog series suggests five ways of promoting development of the character a person needs to become a good leader:

  • accepting challenging assignments
  • engaging a personal character mentor
  • observing other leaders in action
  • reading biographies and accounts of leadership
  • keeping a journal to record and assess leadership observations and experiences.

By adopting some or all of these practices you can grow as a leader.

But is all this too idealistic? How can an ordinary mortal, even if truly called to faith and a leadership role, expect to succeed as a good leader, one who is not only ethical and effective, but also spiritually-directed? Trials and tribulations will arise to block one’s way.

Developing into a good leader is indeed a great challenge. Making the correct choices and having the disposition to follow them ethically and spiritually, in spite of pressures to act otherwise, requires developed moral character strengths. Perfection is out of reach in this fallen world, but the person committed to develop his character can grow in virtue. Whether or not he achieves financial wealth and fame in the world, he can become a good leader—effective, ethical, and spiritually-minded.

J. Thomas Whetstone

Some Important Virtues for a Spiritual Leader

Classical Virtues                           Christian Virtues                     Moral Excellences

                                                               (1 Cor. 13:13)                               (2 Pet. 1:5-7)

Practical wisdom                                     Faith                                          Knowledge

Courage                                                   Hope                                          Self-control

Temperance                                             Love                                          Perseverance

Justice                                                                                                        Godliness

                                                                                                                   Brotherly Kindness


3 Highly valued virtues in business leaders:

  • Honesty, with technical competence (Whetstone, 2001)
  • Humility and professional will (Collins, 2001)
  • Practical Wisdom (Beabout, 2012)   


Beabout, J. (2012). “Management as a domain-relative practice that requires and develops practical wisdom.” Business Ethics Quarterly. 22:2, 405-432.

Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great. NY: HarperCollins.

Whetstone, J. T. (2001). “How virtue fits within business ethics.” Journal of Business Ethics. 3:2, 101-114.

>>This blog post is based on a discussion in Whetstone, J. T. (2013). Leadership Ethics & Spirituality. Bloomington, IN: WestBow.  See previous blogs for elaboration of the suggestions.


About the Book

Leadership Ethics & Spirituality: A Christian Perspective views leadership as a spiritual endeavor, not merely something to which we apply spiritual lessons. This means a leader should seek to bridge the gap between her deeper, inner self and her ultimate source of calling. Rather than moralizing or offering doctrinaire answers, it is a practical guide. The author supports his reflections by drawing on his interdisciplinary background of business ethics, leadership, and theology.

As a practical guide, it explains how to be both effective and ethical as a successful leader while walking by faith. Chapter 1 offers a rationale for why spiritual openness is important for a comprehensive leadership ethic. It distinguished biblical Christian spirituality from those of other worldview perspectives. The book then presents a reasoned Christian perspective of good leadership, an ethical decision model that allows for spiritual concerns, and practical suggestions as to how a person can make ethical decisions with spiritual-mindedness.LES Book Cover

The ethical aspects of issues a leader is likely to confront are highlighted throughout the book, including the appendix. For example, a chapter assesses servant leadership, explaining why this very good approach, may not be the best approach for every leader to adopt. The book concludes by discussing practices a leader or prospective leader might adopt to fashion a personalized character development plan.

Leadership Ethics & Spirituality is for every spiritually-minded person called to a leadership role, in his workplace and his other areas of responsibility. It can help answer some important questions, including:

  • What is good leadership?
  • Am I really called to be a leader?
  • What does my faith have to do with my leadership?
  • How should I address and solve ethical issues?
  • What moral character qualities do I need?
  • What leadership style and practices should I adopt?
  • How can I develop and grow into the leader God wants me to be?


The book’s key messages

  • Good leadership is a spiritual endeavor that requires openness to spiritual concerns as well as material ones. Materialism is an incomplete view of reality and thus an insufficient worldview for leadership. A good leader is effective and ethical and spiritually-minded. All three aspects are needed. The leader should demonstrate effectiveness through technical competence and ethical decision making with spiritual understanding and the commitment to follow a biblically-grounded worldview.
  • An ethically and spiritually-minded leader should learn basic ethical decision making concepts and strive to develop the strength of moral character to apply them in the context of his calling. This book presents a biblically-grounded ethical framework and illustrates how it can guide the leader. 
  • For a Christian to be a good leader, she must apply a sound Christian ethic and seek to practice purposeful leadership in a technically excellent manner. Being called to a leadership role as well as be called to faith, and she must consistently seek to adhere to a Christian worldview in the workplace and in all other spheres of life.
  • Being a Christian does not guarantee that one is a good leader. But a person optimistically can seek to develop the moral strength of character needed to grow as an effective, ethical, and spiritually-minded leader. This book offers practical approaches for such growth, although success depends on the individual and the providential leading of God.
  • Good leadership is a worthy but very challenging ambition. Other people tend to hold a Christian leader to higher professional standards and personal behaviors than they hold themselves. The good leader needs to pray faithfully and humbly be open to seek forgiveness.

Blurb about the book:

A practical guide for anyone called to be a good leader, Leadership Ethics & Spirituality explains why and how you can be much more effective and ethical as a successful leader while walking by faith. From a biblical worldview, it draws upon leadership research and ethics theory to explain what practices and character qualities you need to be a good leader and how you can develop them successfully to the challenges faced in twenty-first century organizations—effectively, ethically, and with spiritual-mindedness. Although written primarily for Christian leaders, it offers useful insights for those from other spiritual traditions and perspectives as well.


Leadership Ethics and Spirituality

I wrote Leadership Ethics & Spirituality to offer a practical Christian alternative to the growing variety of books on spirituality and leadership.

Society increasingly appreciates that good leadership often has a spiritual aspect. However, many find it difficult to get a handle on what this really means and how it can affect their lives and workplaces.

Leadership Ethics & Spirituality offers practical answers from a biblical world and life perspective. For the Christian leader, this requires openness to spiritual influences as he lives and acts according to faith and obedience to the transcendent and immanent God of scripture.

a practical Christian alternative to the growing variety of books on spirituality and leadership.

a practical Christian alternative to the growing variety of books on spirituality and leadership.

I argue that a leader finds purpose and meaning through humble striving to lead with technical excellence according to a Spirit-led ethic. This is a comprehensive approach. Good leadership requires the leader to seek all three of the following:

  • to become technically effective in applying leadership techniques
  • to lead according to a sound moral basis
  • to live and lead with spiritual-mindedness, being open to guidance according to a spiritual world and life worldview

There are many books on leadership and more are written every day. As leadership expert Joanne Ciulla says, the important focus needs to be on good leadership. She describes a good leader as both effective and ethical. I agree, but write to emphasize that for the Christian, indeed, any spiritually-minded person, leadership also needs to recognize all of reality. He must go beyond the materialist dimension to comprehend the spiritual. Indeed, interest in the spiritual aspects of leadership and ethics is increasing; there is a growing list of books and management experiments seeking to satisfy spiritual concerns. But Leadership Ethics & Spirituality is distinctively different; it seeks to offer practical answers grounded in a credible (theologically, philosophically, and empirically) Christian approach.

My book includes numerous examples of what it means for a Christian to be a good leader. It discusses the attributes of such a leader including his double calling—to faith and to leadership, his commitment to a biblical world and life view, his practice according to sound Christian ethic, and his striving for technical excellence as a leader. My ambition is that this book can help guide spiritually-aware students and practicing leaders as they seek to grow as such good leaders.

The book is not just another handy, step-by-step guide that guarantees leadership success. It is not a cookbook. Instead, it stresses the need to develop the moral character qualities needed by a good leader and offers practical suggestions as to how a person can develop what she needs. Furthermore, it discusses critical questions that a leader faces, offering approaches for their solution.

Of course, a person can practice good leadership without being a professing Christian.   Not every Christian senses a call to leadership, and some are not good leaders. And some people seem to lead more easily than others, drawing followers when others do not. But everyone who desires to lead can grow in his or her leadership capability. Even those reluctant to lead can find that they can do so when called upon. I write to encourage every person who desires to grow as a good leader. And while this book is directed primarily toward Christians, it may offer insights and is open to constructive criticism from those of other spiritual traditions and perspectives, as well.

J. Thomas Whetstone