Ten Ways Ordinary People Became Good Leaders, part one

UPDATE: Listen to the podcast episode about this post.

The literature on leadership can be discouraging. After reading multiple case studies, theories, and biographies, one can be left with the impression that good leadership is next to impossible. It is limited to those who have the attributes of Superman without the aversion to kryptonite.

I recently compiled a list of good leaders (a few I would characterize as great leaders) who, by most definitions, are common, ordinary people. They were at the middle of their classes in grades. They really did not and do not have charismatic personalities. They had no family or demographic advantages. And none of them, to my knowledge, were outstanding in extracurricular activities.

But now they are doing very well. It’s as if a switch turned on at some point in their lives. They decided that they would no longer be addicted to mediocrity. Instead, they decided they would make a difference. Yet they had few of the innate gifts associated with good or great leaders.

So I wrote down a list of more than twenty characteristics of these men and women. And, somewhat to my surprise, I noted that all of them had ten characteristics in common. Though statisticians would argue that I found correlative factors, I really believe that most, if not all of these characteristics, are causative.

How then do many common people become good or great leaders? Here are the first five characteristics.

  1. They determined that their integrity would be uncompromised. They did not cut corners or cheat. Though others around them were smarter, more forceful, and more creative, they never compromised in their work and lives. They saw their integrity and reputation to be priceless gifts that could not be forfeited.
  2. They worked hard. Often when others around them played or wasted time, these leaders continued to work. If they had an employer, they felt like they were stealing from the company unless they gave their best efforts. If they were self-employed, they knew that other companies would eat them alive if they did not work hard.
  3. They took responsibility for themselves. You will never hear these leaders blaming their employers. You will not hear them complaining because someone else in the organization was recognized or received a promotion. Stated simply, they did not blame others or circumstances. They believed that they lived in a great nation where they had multiple advantages to get ahead.
  4. They were decisive. They learned that slow decision-making was poor leadership. They knew that analysis paralysis could kill an effort. Instead of living in fear of making the wrong decisions, they moved forward just as soon as they had sufficient information, not complete information. They saw smart people failing to make prompt decisions because they were enamored with more and more information and data.
  5. They read a lot. While many of their peers spent dozens of hours each week watching meaningless television, these good leaders were reading books, articles, and anything they could to make them a better person and a better leader. Like the impoverished Abraham Lincoln reading books by dim candlelight, these ordinary men and women became extraordinary through their constant and continued learning, regardless of the sacrifice.

Keep in mind that I am looking at common men and women who became good, and even great, leaders. I am not talking about the smartest, the best educated, or the most articulate. These are common men and women who are now extraordinary leaders.

What do you think of these first five characteristics? I’ll finish the article Monday with the last five. Thanks for staying tuned.


  1. says

    Thom, you nailed it! I would add this observation: All of these characteristics are choices that need to be repeatedly made by the leader. In my experience, as I’ve made those choices, my leadership effectiveness has increased. As I’ve neglected these choices, my leadership effectiveness has waned.
    I look forward to your follow-up blog. It looks like this list may become a personal evaluation piece for me as I seek to become the best leader I can be. I’m one of those common people who needs the help.

  2. says

    Fantastic. I learn from your blogs and also receive encouragement just by reading them. Don’t you think that a true leader doesn’t have to be in a large organization? Sometimes your best leaders are in smaller churches, places of business and organizations.-Les

  3. says

    I really like this list. Short enough to remember, so far it’s stuff that any of us can do, the first 3 focus on character, and as you said, none of the 5 focus on talent or innate gifts. Looking forward to the next 5 characteristics. I do wonder, though, about #4. Are you saying that people who are more “process-oriented” and take longer to make decisions aren’t usually among the good/great leaders?

    • Thom Rainer says

      Randy –

      No. It’s really not about a process approach or even a specific timetable. It’s more about the courage to make a decision when you have sufficient facts rather than all the facts.

  4. Brent Kelly says

    Good list, but regarding #5, one cannot lead from a library or a study desk. Reading and studying are critical, but great leaders must engage people, not just academics.

    • Thom Rainer says

      You are right Brent. This list in no way implies these leaders are not engaging the people. They are just voracious readers as well.

  5. says

    I am the leader you have described. None of my “stats” were remarkable growing up. But as you said, that invisible switch flipped and I became consumed with the vision and calling God gave me.

    In fact, I think a great “add” to the list would be just that, the focus that comes from a deep sense of calling. I look forward to reading the second post. Keep ’em coming!

  6. Claire Young says

    I agree with Mike Landry. When I am exhibiting these characteristics, my leadership is effective; when I’m not….it isn’t. I went through a “desert period” where I questioned myself and neglected to use the gifts God had given me. My leadership was ineffective, if not non-existent. I have come out of the desert and can clearly see that these things had been neglected. I look forward to the remaining five. Thank you for using the gifts God has given you.

  7. Zack Potter says


    I always enjoy reading your posts. They are extremely insightful, challenging and encouraging. I desire to learn as much as I can about leadership because we need more competent leaders today. Sometimes we label people a leader because of their talent, ability and presence, but we fail to understand authentic leadership. I value your insights and look forward to learning more from you.

  8. Zack Potter says

    I enjoy reading your posts. They are insightful, challenging and encouraging. Today, leadership is often measured by talent, ability and presence. Competent leaders are leaders and I think this post explains the need for understanding authentic leadership. I value your insights and have learned a tremendous amount from you. I look forward to learning more!

  9. John Belder says

    Great post. I also agree with Mike Landry’s observations. I too know when I’m falling short and why. I’m currently rereading (an annual read for me) “The Master Plan for Evangelism” (Coleman) and just read the chapter regarding Jesus choosing the twelve. Ordinary, simple guys that he staked his entire ministry on. He took ordinary guys and discipled them who then went out, trained by the Master with a life-changing message.

    It struck me as I read your post that they probably didn’t possess many (if any) of these characteristics until after the ascension. There is hope for me yet.

    • Thom Rainer says

      Sorry Lesly, but I don’t have permission to post their names. Most of them would be surprised to find that they were the subjects of this informal study.

  10. Steve Drake says

    Thom, Great post as always. Thanks for reminding the “normal people” that being a good or great leader is not a birth right, but a goal we can achieve if we are willing to employ the elements of great leadership and be consistent with them. Looking forward to seeing the next five elements.

  11. says

    I agree with you about the 5 qualities of a leader and look forward to the next 5 in the series on Monday. I would like to say that I have those qualities and for the most part I do except I am very indecisive because I am bi- polar. Even so its always nice to know who has true leadership qualities and who is just playing the part. Great job Thom!!

  12. says

    I get great satisfaction from learning from everyday ordinary people. It is hugely encouraging. The reading and learning are definitely tremendous ways to help adjust one’s learning curve, and be prepared for upcoming, and unknown situations. Thanks for the encouragement!

  13. michael yarber says

    On point 3, when I was a leader in the US Army, I told the leaders under me, if they come in my office with a complaint, they better have a solution to the problem. If you don’t have a solution, don’t come to me or solve the problem through your chain (of command). That stops a lot of unnecessary interruptions during my day. Solutions to a problem is a great approach to complaints.

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