I start with a confession. When Tim Wallingford asked me to contribute to this series on leadership, he allowed me to take my pick among several possible topics, all good ones. I opted for the easy way out. This one–“Effective leaders work hard to keep their promises”—struck me as a no-brainer. Of course they do! If there is one inescapable, immutable, undeniable bit of reality an aspiring leader must face up to, this is it: If you don’t keep your promises, you won’t keep your followers. Period.
You can’t be casual about the matter, either. The wording is spot on. “Effective leaders work hard…” Promises are sometimes very difficult to keep. You can’t just “go with the flow.” Your word must be your bond even when keeping it is decidedly not to your advantage, when doing so costs you.
Gene Carter, good friend and colleague, is gone now. But I have never forgotten what he taught me. An effective Christian leader all his life, Gene was not only a prominent minister in the Midwest and Southwest, but he also rose to the top ranks of leadership in Lions Club International. At a national convention one year, Gene hosted the leaders’ get-acquainted session. He proposed as an icebreaker that they “tell one another the epithet you’d like on your gravestone.” To get them started, he told them his: “You could count on him.” Gene directed one of our programs at Hope International University during my years as president. And the truth is, I could count on him. We all could. He kept his promises.
Like me, you may have lost count of the books and articles you’ve read and the seminars you’ve attended on the secrets of leadership. I quit looking for new secrets some time ago. Even though the packaging may be attractive, the marketing hooks enticing, in truth the “secrets of leadership” aren’t secret at all. Christian leadership has to do with the obvious: character, empathy, vision, commitment, applied intelligence, and so on. But over time leaders fail unless they build on a foundation of integrity. And integrity manifests itself—there’s no way around this—in promises kept.
More than 60 years ago my wife Joy and I stood before her father as he led us through our marriage vows. Our vows. She promised she’d be true and faithful to me, no matter what. I made the same promise to her, no matter what. It’s a good thing we did, because we faced crises in the years ahead when, as the cliché puts it, we loved more than we liked each other. Those tough days were particularly scary for me, since I’m the only member of my family for three generations who hasn’t been divorced. When I repeated my vows, I felt hope but little confidence I’d be able to pull off this “’til death do us part” thing. It was by faith and in hope we uttered the promises that kept us together in spite of so many challenges. And after six decades together, I don’t have to tell you how grateful I am we worked hard to keep our promises.
Ministers make a similar promise, either explicitly or implicitly, to the people they serve. “You can count on me. I won’t lie to you. I will be faithful. I will stay with you until and unless God—not a higher paycheck, not a more comfortable location, not a more prestigious position, not for any other reason—calls me elsewhere.” That promise will be kept “for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health…” No experienced minister can boast, “My church was trouble free; I was never tempted to leave.” Instead, when preachers get together, we regale each other with our war stories, sharing how hard it’s been, how often we were wronged, how misunderstood we have felt, how earnestly we wanted to leave.” But we also testified about how God’s grace saw us through. A few, though, will confess, “I left when I should have stayed.”
Several years ago, I offended a younger minister who asked for a recommendation to a different church. I couldn’t give him another one. I had written on his behalf before, but he was developing a record of moving from church to church too frequently. He couldn’t ride out the crises. When the going got tough, this not-so-tough leader didn’t do the hard work to keep his promise.
Promise keeping isn’t just about outlasting crises, however. It’s also about remaining steadfast through the irritating everydayness of life, the niggling issues that test whether “you could count on him.” It’s about keeping appointments, returning phone calls, answering letters and emails, honoring confidences, dependably doing the work of ministry—when you don’t feel like it. Real leaders honor relationships; they are quick to affirm others. They develop a following of people who trust them. Because they can.
In matters large and small, effective leaders work hard to keep their promises.
You can count on them.