What Makes a Good Leader?

By Uli Chi

August 10, 2019

He chose David his servant and took him from the sheep pens; from tending the sheep he brought him to be the shepherd of his people Jacob, of Israel his inheritance. And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them.”

Psalm 78:70-72


A young Afghan shepherd in the Arghandab River Valley, Kandahar province, Afghanistan.Each of us has a history – personal, familial, organizational. Psalm 78 tells Israel’s history with stark honesty.   No attempt is made to “spin” its story to make God’s people look good. The bulk of the psalm is a long litany of Israel’s failures despite God’s mercy and continued faithfulness. If for no other reason, I like this psalm because it reminds me that all my history can be faced. In a contemporary leadership culture that tends to hide its failures and weaknesses, this is refreshingly good news.

But Psalm 78 isn’t only a recap of Israel’s failures. It ends on a surprising and hopeful note with the story of David. David became the leader of Israel in the most difficult of times and in the most unlikely of circumstances. And, remarkably, he altered the shape of Israel’s history.

David reminds me that each of us in leadership has a profound opportunity, whatever our context. Of course, not everyone takes advantage of that opportunity. Many followed David in leadership who did quite poorly. So, what made David a good leader? Today’s text suggests three things.

First, Psalm 78 reminds us that leadership is a vocation. God “chose David.” Leadership isn’t merely a matter of self-selection or professional development. Understanding leadership as a divine vocation sustains us during our failures, humbles us in our successes, and reminds us that leadership is a gift to serve others and not ourselves.

Second, today’s text reminds us that leadership begins with the character and motivation of the leader.   “David shepherded them with integrity of heart.” At the core of leadership is the character of the person. The formation of that character is the most important and neglected aspect of leadership development today.   Ultimately, we cannot design organizational systems that will protect against bad leadership. The poet T.S. Eliot presciently wrote of this impossibility in the 1930’s:

They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.

(Choruses from “The Rock”)

Finally, this psalm reminds us that leadership is a skill – an “art,” to use Max De Pree’s word – that needs to be developed and cultivated.   Even though character formation is essential to leadership development, character alone is not enough.   Good leadership, in the biblical sense, requires competence as well as character. David led his people with “skillful hands” as well as “integrity of heart.”   Skill requires practice. Practical wisdom can be learned. Learning from others, including finding mentors, is sensible.

So, good leadership is rooted in God’s calling us to serve others in the context of our own history, in God’s Spirit bearing fruit in us by shaping our character, and in God’s Spirit giving us the gifts that we can exercise with skill for the blessing of those we lead.

Something to Think About:

How does your personal history shape your leadership?

How can the “art” of leadership in you be developed and cultivated?

Who is your mentor(s)? How have they cultivated you as a leader? Are you mentoring anyone? How can you help to develop that person into a leader?


Lord Jesus Christ, we are grateful that our own histories are known to you. We are grateful that you take us where we are and call us to follow you. Thank you for the vocation of serving your people in leadership. When times are difficult, when we are tempted to abandon our posts, we pray that you would remind us that you chose us.

We pray that you would form us in your image, to make us fully human as you are.   Help us to be courageous in the midst of fear and opposition, to be gracious with those who disagree, and to love and serve those whom you’ve entrusted into our care.

Give us the gifts we need to be effective in the leadership role you’ve given us. Help us to learn from others who are more skilled than we are. Give us the perseverance to practice the craft of leadership under difficult and discouraging circumstances.

May we serve your people with integrity of heart and skillful hands.

We ask in your name, Amen.


Image Credit: “Young Afghan shepherd in Kandahar Province” by ISAF Headquarters Public Affairs Office from Kabul, Afghanistan – 100829-A-5930C-028. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
This post originally published on November 30, 2015.
Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online: Servant Leadership

Uli Chi

Board Member, Senior Fellow, Affiliate Professor

Dr. Uli Chi’s career is a testament to his unique approach to leadership. He has navigated the realms of for-profit businesses, nonprofit organizations, the theological academy, and the local church, gleaning a wealth of wisdom from each. As an award-winning technological entrepreneur, h...

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