What Qualifies a Leader?

I was eating dinner a few months ago at my friend Ned Berube’s house. He and his wife Sue are dear friends to Susan and I. We just absolutely love hanging out with them. They live in St. Paul, Minnesota, so we don’t see them much in person.  Our son and daughter-in-law have moved to the Twin Cities, so thankfully, this creates more opportunity to spend time with them.

During dinner, our friend Ben Metz asked Ned and me a great question,  “What if you only had a few minutes to live, and you could only give one leadership lesson to the next generation, what would you say?”

Ned answered first, and wryly said, “Do good!”

We laughed which gave me a few moments to think about what I really wanted to say. I quickly realized I should just share out of what I’ve done rather than try to think of some witty leadership principle.

My answer was simple, “Empower people before they are qualified and before they are ready.”

We spent the rest of the evening unpacking that, and I thought I would share some of it here.

When I was a young leader, I was asked to develop a small group structure in the church where I was working. I immediately began to talk to my peers about leading a small group, and their enthusiasm was palpable. They were so excited that someone had noticed them. They were ready to go, and their participation would double the number of groups we currently had. Naively, I excitedly took my list into a meeting with my boss. I thought for sure he would be excited and thrilled to see all these young leaders willing to step up.

He wasn’t.

As I went through my list and showed him one name at a time, he responded with – “Too young”. Then – “Too immature.” “Too many issues.” Too too too…

Basically, everyone on my list was unqualified. The more we talked, it became abundantly clear that he really didn’t have any specific criteria except his own perception of these potential young leaders. The truth is, they were raw and unskilled in many ways. They were also passionate and wanted to learn and grow. There was no question they would need ongoing training and investment along the way-  which I was more than willing to give.

 As a young leader, I remember thinking any qualifications for leadership were pretty silly. I thought, “To me, it seems simple: If God calls you, then lead.” 

 I still don’t feel like most people’s lists for qualifying leaders are very helpful. For example, in my world, the criteria for people in ministry are often things like ordination, education, age, or experience.  None of these were the criteria Jesus used for the people he left in charge of the future of the world.  Instead, he chose people who were uneducated and very young. Their only qualification, if you will, was that they had been with Jesus.

Ned asked what my criteria are for people to be able to lead, and I said, “I have two: passion and teachability.”


Without passion, nobody is going to follow you anyway. People don’t follow your diplomas or how much you know. Passion is what moves people to action. Emotion creates motion. I want leaders who are passionate for Jesus and will follow him to the ends of the Earth. The famous explorer and missionary, David Livingstone, was once asked by a mission’s society to send a map, so that they could provide a good road for their men to reach him. Livingstone responded with this…

 If you have men who will only come if they know there is a good road, I don’t want them. I want men who will come if there is no road at all.”


Passion without teachability is like zeal without knowledge. It leads to disaster.

Teachability says – I realize I don’t know everything, and I need to learn and grow.

A teachable heart allows my passion to be focused and effective. Teachability is not just a recognition that I need more knowledge. Information is helpful, but it’s not enough. If information alone was the answer, then the world would be amazing, and all the smart people would be the nicest people. We also need to be willing to learn how to relate well with others. The currency of leadership is trust and the key to trust is relationship. As leadership guru John Maxwell says,

 “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Next time you are looking for a good leader, just start scouring your organization for the passionate and the teachable. They may not be very shiny, and they may not have all the right degrees on their wall… but trust me, these people have the potential to change the world!

About keithspurgin

Just a guy with a great wife, fantastic kids, good friends and a really big God!
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