Leadership has many pitfalls. One of the most common is disillusion and cynicism fed by a lack of integrity in leaders. As humans, we are attracted to follow leaders who exude confidence and charisma, are great communicators with clear vision, and appear to have resources, connections, and power. If I feel seen and known by such a leader, and they can convey a picture of the future where I have a significant part to play in the team, I’m in. These same gifts, accompanied by a lack of wholeness, uprightness, or principled moral integrity, can devastate followers’ lives.
Very few young missionary leaders set out to be dishonest, manipulative, or corrupt in communicating visionary direction, relationships, stewardship of resources, or legal and financial matters. If good intentions and authenticity were the essential steps to becoming a leader of integrity, we would have very few stories of leadership failure in YWAM. Good intentions and authenticity have been confused with wholeness and even with holiness.
Listen and Discern
The first step in becoming leaders of integrity is to listen. We emphasize hearing God’s voice. In practice, this is often limited to guidance in direction and decisions or information for intercession. But, hearing God’s voice also involves asking the Holy Spirit to search the desires and motives of our hearts (Psa 139:23, 24). The Lord wants to help us know ourselves and to become known by others. The Holy Spirit can sift and recalibrate the desires of our hearts so that we lead others towards Jesus Christ and His abundant life.
We also need to listen to others, especially those who are relationally close to us in family, friends, and leadership teams. Some leaders fail to listen. They are self-assured and confident they are right. Others fail to listen because they feel insecure and threatened by challenging, probing, or robust differences in gifting and opinion. They may prefer to ‘keep the peace’ or go to those who think and feel like they do and will not challenge them.
Leaders also need to listen to mature external voices outside their trusted inner circle. These three types of listening are part of a Christian practice called discernment. Loren’s tripod eldership message is an example of discernment. Good question-asking is essential in this process. Listening with discernment exposes and filters our confused and mixed motivations.
Act with discernment even at personal cost
The second step is to act. Leaders of integrity act in line with their discernment and godly convictions. They do what they have said they will do. As leaders, we are challenged to come to a place of ‘indifference’ or ‘yieldedness’, a place where we are ready to do God’s will whatever it is, whatever it may cost us. Self-control is an essential virtue to become leaders of integrity. Self-control means that we exercise “patterns of self-restraint, resisting temptation and exercising moderation in appetites, desires, impulses and emotions;” and are “able to delay gratification in order to pursue a higher good”.2
Speaking is also an action. Jesus says, “Do not swear at all . . . Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” (Mat 5:33-37) In 200 AD, Clement of Alexandria declared that Christians are “addicted to the truth.”1 Being ‘economical with the truth’ has become socially acceptable, but scripture tells us that liars will not inherit eternal life. (Rev 21:8) Leaders of integrity practice “speaking the truth in love” (Eph 4.15). Leaders of integrity learn to keep confidences. We learn to approach a person with whom we are having difficulty directly, and not to talk about our tensions or struggles with them with inappropriate people (Matt 5.14ff; 18.15ff). We do not need to swear or take an oath to try to convince others that we are speaking the truth. We speak plainly and truthfully all the time.
Communicate openly and honestly with others
Doing the right thing or speaking the truth is not always enough in leadership. There is a third step. Often, we need to communicate what we are doing and why we are doing it. I once painfully learned this lesson as a campus leader. Finances were very restricted and several requests from other ministry leaders for campus funds had been refused. Leaders of a new course were coming soon from overseas, and the only apartment to house them in was in very poor repair. My wife and I struggled with the lack of campus finances and how to honour YWAM value 17 in practicing hospitality when we were housing guests in such poor accommodation. We prayed and decided to anonymously pay for substantial improvements to the apartment. It eventually reached our ears that other leaders were saying “the base leader can spend money on whatever he wants to do”. We found this quite painful and prayed about whether we should explain that we had paid for it all ourselves or remain silent and just live with the accusations. We felt we needed to explain our actions to maintain trust and a culture of integrity in finances, even though our preference was for it to be given in secret.
Several questions might help us check our motives, speech, and actions:
Holy Spirit, in what ways are my own sinful or self-focused desires getting mixed into doing what is best for the people I lead and serve?
Have I been fully transparent and communicated openly when I may have a conflict of interest?
Will my actions, if revealed to all or ‘shouted from the rooftops’, bring glory to God or be seen as selfish or unjust?
Am I taking any favours and privileges or seeing myself as an exception because I am a leader?
Becoming leaders of integrity is not something we do instantly. It takes a lifetime of listening discernment, courageous action and speaking, and open, honest communication. Many things do become second nature if we persevere. We can finish well and receive the Father’s affirmation, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Mat 25:23)
1Peachey, John Stephen (2020) Journeying together towards goodness: participant understanding of practices and narratives in a University of the Nations Discipleship Training School. PhD thesis, Middlesex University / Oxford Centre for Mission Studies.
2Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 7.8.
John, and his wife Suzi, led a YWAM campus for 17 years and have lived in intentional community in the UK for over 35 years. They mentor and train leaders in many nations. In 2020, John completed his PhD in education through the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies supervised by David I Smith, Professor of Teaching and Learning at Calvin College and Mark Pike, Professor of Education at Leeds University. John also has a postgraduate diploma in research methods. His research areas include virtue formation in missional communities and distinctively Christian higher education.