The One Qualification for a Leader No One Mentioned to You

I remember it like it was last week.

It was the mid-1970s and we were living in Columbus, Mississippi, where I’d gone to pastor First Baptist Church. A seminary professor who had taught some of us (“us” being myself and several area pastors) was in town for a few days, bringing a series of Bible studies in a local church. On Monday morning, we had gathered in my church and were sitting around drinking coffee and visiting.

The professor told us that Dr. Landrum Leavell had just been announced as the new president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He was currently pastoring First Baptist Church of Wichita Falls, Texas. I knew him slightly, having met him a couple of times when in the company of his son Lan, whom I taught in Sunday School in Jackson, Mississippi, when Lan was in college.

It seemed like a good choice to me.

The professor had his reservations.

One comment he made about Dr. Leavell lingers to this day: “I was in seminary with Landrum. We go a long way back. With that great shock of white hair and that imposing presence of his, the rest of us have to put twice as much content into our preaching to get half the hearing he receives.”

Catty? Unkind? Maybe. But we’ll cut him a little slack and say it was an off-the-cuff remark the way most of us sometimes talk with friends and assume we will not be quoted.

So, why do I recall that comment to this day? Because it completely misses the mark.

What the professor failed to realize is that Landrum Leavell had one more quality that went a long way to account for his popularity as a preacher and his desirability as a seminary president: He was so cotton-picking likeable.

I can see him smiling down from Heaven at that.

Dr. Leavell met you and learned your name and remembered you. If he believed in you–and for reasons known only to the Heavenly Father, he seems to have believed in me–then you had an advocate of serious dimensions and influence.

He loved people and they adored him. He was a straight shooter who would tell you what he thought, and you still liked him, even if you disagreed. It’s a rare quality to be highly desired.

Elsewhere on this website, we have posted something like 71 articles on the subject of leadership. I’ve not checked it lately, and have not perused the shelves of books on leadership from the guru himself, John Maxwell, but I’m going to venture that this is the one quality no one mentions as making a whale of a difference for those who go forth to lead: “likeability.”

Jesus had it, in spades.

People were drawn to the Lord Jesus. Children loved Him. The lowly and outcast felt they could come to Him and not be turned away. Crowds flocked to Him.

A leper went against the social customs and religious taboos of that day and came toward Jesus instead of away from Him, and asked for healing. The Lord reached out and touched the leprous man, known as an untouchable. He was, that is, until he met the Man of Galilee. (See Mark 1)

I’ve read where studies have been done on presidential elections in this country. Citizens were polled for their opinions on the candidates–not their political views but for their likeability. “Which do you think is friendlier? Which would you rather have as a next door neighbor?”

Invariably, as I recall, the winner of those polls has won the elections. This would mean the American people found Ronald Reagan more likeable than Jimmy Carter, George Bush more likeable than Walter Mondale, Bill Clinton more likeable than Bob Dole, and George W. Bush more than John Kerry and Al Gore.

Personally, I find those judgments hard to argue with.

This is not saying a thing about character or convictions or suitability for office. But if one were looking for a more genial personality, each of those elections decided accurately.

I’ll be drawing people–I sketch people wherever I go, particularly for church gatherings, banquets, and such–and am frequently stunned to hear grownups say things like, “I don’t smile” or “I don’t like my smile.” I’ve even heard pastors say, “I don’t smile. My teeth are crooked.” Or stained or gapped.

I want to scream, “What? You are an adult and you still have this adolescent hangup on the mirror? You are a pastor and you don’t smile? What is wrong with you? Get over this! Forget your image, how you are coming across! There is not a person on the planet who doesn’t look better with a huge smile plastered across his face, including you!”

Sometimes I actually say those things, or a lighter version of them.

Truly amazing.

Why art thou cast down, O my soul? And why art thou disquieted in me? Hope thou in God, for I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance. (Psalm 42:5)

And this one, same psalm, verse 11….

Why art thou cast down, O my soul? And why art thou disquieted in me? Hope thou in God, for I shall yet praise Him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God.

Get that? In the first instance, David rejoices for the Lord’s smiling face upon him. And in the second, the Lord has put a smile on his face too.

That’s the idea. As the old tired joke puts it, “If you’re happy, tell your face.”

The Lord is the Source of our joy. He is the “Helper of our countenance.”

I have no secret formula for getting a pastor to like people. But if he doesn’t care for them, I’d suggest he needs to go back and check his original call into the ministry. Before Jesus instructed Peter to “feed my sheep,” He had the apostle declare his love for Himself.

It would seem that one flows from the other. It’s impossible to love the Lord without treasuring His people who are variously called His body and His bride in Scripture.

And if we love them, it seems to be a short step to concluding that we should be showing it. That means learning their names, enjoying their presence, wanting to do whatever we can to bless them.

In no way, shape or fashion am I suggesting that a would-be pastor enroll in the used-car-salesmen-charm-school in order to bowl people over by his personality. A fake likeability is worse than none at all.

Pastor Frank Pollard used to say facetiously, “The first requirement for success is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

For a time, one can fake sincerity and likeability. But not for long. Under the stress of living and working, the veneer soon drops off and the facade dissolves and we are seen to be who we are.

Pray God you’re the same gracious person underneath you are on the exterior.

4 thoughts on “The One Qualification for a Leader No One Mentioned to You

  1. So true. I think if you are not naturally outgoing and friendly, Jesus is really your only hope. He can change you in wonderful ways and one day when you have been deeply in love with him for a few years, someone will accuse you of being likeable. If you are like me, you will instantly know it was all His doing.

  2. Joe,

    I think you demonstrate the qualities you saw in Dr. Leavell. I’m glad you do. Gives us all a good model to follow.


  3. Joe,

    Dr. Leavell’s very face told you very quickly what he was about—-honesty, ethics, do what is right.

    I can tell you something else. He responded to his mail.Over the years I wrote notes to the seminary complimenting them on how immaculate the campus looked—no paper on the ground, no cigarette butts, not even small pieces of trash. Chipped paint was resurfaced, grass and shrubs continuously trimmed. I made mention of how nice things looked. Dr. Leavell always wrote back.When his wife was sick, I wrote her a note. Dr. Leavell responded. I am sure he never knew me.

    He was a supurb administrator, a gentleman, and a very decent man.

    And thanks to Dr. Kelly for getting the campus back in order so quick—only one year —after the flood. It was the most reinstated track of property I saw anywhere in the city.

    Jim Comer

  4. I was just catching up on email and saw your message. I have been blessed by this one and the first one I read.

    Just wanted you to know I am recovering from breast cancer surgery done last week. They say they got all of it and the biopsy of the sentinel node showed the cancer hasn’t spread. Praise the Lord for that. I am told I will be undergoing radiation treatment. Hopefully that will eradicate any errant cancer cells. I have so many praying for me I know their prayers touched the heart of God and am confident of complete healing.

    God is still inspiring me to write. I am so blessed by that gift to bless my later years. His words sent through my fingers have blessed so many and that is such a joy to me. Many friends I have made through this ministry of poetry.

    God bless you in your work and even the cartoons which I enjoy. The message on criticism touched a cord in my soul. Thanks for sharing.

    Your friend,


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