In his book Leading from the Inside Out, Sam Rima argues that all effective, enduring leadership must be built on the foundation of effective self-leadership. He writes, “It is our ability to successfully lead our own life that provides the firm foundation from which we can lead others.” Just as any enduring building stands on a firm foundation, so leaders must have a foundation that enables them to endure the weight and challenges associated with the demands of the job. Having such a foundation requires intentionality in the work of self-leadership.

Both historical and contemporary sources place a high value on this work of leading ourselves well. Consider Charles Spurgeon’s observation on this point: “We are, in a certain sense, our own tools, and therefore must keep ourselves in order.” Just as those in other lines of service must tend to their tools and implements, leaders likewise must keep the tools of their lives in order. This is consistent with Paul’s encouragement to Timothy: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16).

While the range of self-leadership needs can feel overwhelming, it might be helpful to simply note that the aim is holistic spiritual and personal health. I say holistic in the biblical sense of this concept. We are whole beings. Gregg Allison, in his book Embodied, continually calls his readers to consider what it means to live as whole people in a fractured world. We are not designed to live in fragmented ways that dissociate the physical and immaterial parts of our lives. Leaders must care for the spiritual, emotional, relational, physical, intellectual, and practical dimensions of their lives—not only for their own spiritual and personal flourishing but also for the flourishing of those around them. In this brief article, let’s focus on three of these dimensions—Spiritual Health, Emotional Health, and Relational Health.

The Spiritual Dimension: Healthy Christian Leaders Prioritize Their Relationship with God

Self-leadership does not begin with oneself. Foundationally, it begins with God. God is not simply a means to greater organizational ends. He is the ultimate end and the true joy that will satisfy our deepest longings. He is the end, not merely the means to some other end. One author I turn to frequently is C. S. Lewis. In his book A Grief Observed, Lewis writes:

“[God] can’t be used as a road. If you’re approaching Him not as the goal, but as a road, not as the end but as the means, you’re not really approaching Him at all. That’s what was really wrong with all those popular pictures of happy reunions ‘on the further shore’; not the simple-minded and very earthly images, but the fact that they make an End of what we can get only as a by-product of the true End”—that is, God.

However, when God genuinely becomes our ultimate end, when he becomes our treasure and infinite delight, then he is ready and willing to graciously give us all things needed to do his will in life and leadership. Such logic resonates with Saint Augustine’s beautiful prayer in his Confessions: “He loves thee too little who loves anything together with thee which he loves not for thy sake.” This is a call to recognize and align ourselves to a view of God as preeminent—a view in which he becomes not only the One through whom we exist, work, live, and lead, but ultimately the One whom we exist to be in relationship with.

The Emotional Dimension: Healthy Leaders Provide a Calm and Courageous Presence

We need healthy leaders. Part of this health includes leaders who provide a calm and courageous presence for their churches and organizations. On this point, Nathan Finn observes: “The world is chaotic. . . . One of the most important everyday virtues a leader can cultivate is steadiness. Your consistency helps to bring order to chaos and contributes to the flourishing of those within your sphere of influence.” Paradoxically, this means that leaders must learn to care and not care at the same time. As I write elsewhere, “They must care deeply for the people they lead, but not for the shifting praise or approval of others.” Leaders with emotional health are able to provide this blend of care and conviction when they understand their emotions, bring their emotions to the Lord and their immediate community, and then lead out of that place of calmness that is found in a soul that is at peace with the Lord even in the midst of a chaotic world.

The Relational Dimension: Healthy Leaders Resist Isolation

We are not designed by God to hold our emotions and burdens in isolation. Healthy leaders have relationally rich lives—a deep and abiding relationship with God and meaningful relationships with family, friends, mentors, and members of their organizations. Leaders must prioritize not only the people they lead but also the people that God is using to help them mature as well as to help them nurture spiritual and personal wholeness in their lives as leaders.

The theme of relational health and engagement is especially important in this day and age as we observe so many public leadership failures. Leadership failures can take on any number of expressions: ethical (e.g., illegal practices), moral (e.g., sinful behavior), theological (e.g., apostasy), personal (e.g., hubristic pride), or practical (e.g., lack of necessary leadership skill). I would argue that in many cases, failure is tied to leaders slowly becoming isolated over time. Leaders become isolated when they do not regularly and deeply invest in relationships. This includes investing in their relationships with the Lord, with their families, and with friends by whom they may be known, loved, and challenged.

While many leaders observe that leadership can be lonely, it does not have to be this way. The Bible paints a picture of walking in the light that involves both deep relationship with God and deep relationship with fellow Christians. Note John’s exhortations: “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:6–7). What you need more than leadership strategy is a vital and living relationship with God in Jesus Christ. As we walk with him, this is connected to walking in the light with people who know and love us as well. Do whatever it takes. Take the initiative to find communities and nurture friendships in which you are able to be supported and to support others in this journey of life and faith. You, and those you lead, depend on you to get this part of your life right.

Putting the Priority of Self-Leadership into Practice

As you reflect on the importance of nurturing spiritual, emotional, and relational health, take some time to consider how you will put these themes into practice in your life. Toward this end, consider the following questions in the coming days. Consider how you can take your next step in nurturing health for the sake of the people you lead.

The Spiritual Dimension: Healthy Christian Leaders Prioritize Their Relationship with God

  • Are you prioritizing your relationship with God?
  • Is the Bible a treasure for your heart more than a tool for your ministry or for your leadership responsibilities?
  • Are you regularly reading God’s Word and seeking God in prayer?
  • Is the busyness of leadership or ministry pushing out the greater priority of your relationship with the Lord?

The Emotional Dimension: Healthy Leaders Provide a Calm and Courageous Presence

  • Are you nurturing an awareness of your emotions (such as anxiety, anger, shame, sadness, and joy)?
  • What do these emotions tell you about your approach to life and leadership?
  • Why is it important for you as an organizational leader to maintain a calm and non-anxious presence for those you lead?
  • Are you finding ways to cultivate steadiness and flourishing in the midst of an often chaotic world?

The Relational Dimension: Healthy Leaders Resist Isolation

  • Do you have mentors and coaches who are able support you in your role as a leader?
  • Are you working hard to resist the danger of isolation in leadership?
  • Do you have deep friendships—friendships where you may support and be supported, challenge and be challenged, love and be loved?
  • Are you nurturing deep relationship with those closest to you: spouse, children, family members?

May God strengthen you in these areas, and may he nurture healthy in your life to his glory and the good of those you lead.

This article is an excerpt from Justin Irving, Healthy Leadership for Thriving Organizations: Creating Contexts Where People Flourish, “Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group,” 2023. “Used by permission.”