Article By: Sarah Koontz
I have always appreciated Billy Graham’s humble spirit and bold approach to ministry. He was an ordinary man who God used to accomplish extraordinary things—a worthy role model for us all.
In their book, entitled The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham, Harold Myra and Marshall Shelly detail 21 essential leadership principles this influential pastor, CEO, and global leader implemented throughout his life.
As leaders within Christianity Today International—an organization founded by Billy Graham in 1956—Myra and Shelly offer an insider perspective of the profound impact of Graham’s leadership.
There are many actionable leadership principles we can glean from the life and ministry of Billy Graham.
Utilizing Myra and Shelly’s book as my primary source, I will highlight four of Billy Graham’s leadership qualities and share actionable principles to help you become a better leader.There are many actionable leadership principles we can glean from the life and ministry of Billy Graham.
Billy Graham’s Leadership Traits
Graham’s complete devotion to God fueled his fierce resolve and passion for the gospel.
A pivotal moment in his personal testimony occurred after a broken engagement in his college years. After months of mourning the loss of the future he thought he wanted, Graham declared, “All right, Lord! If you want me, you’ve got me…I’m gonna follow you at all cost.”
Billy dedicated the rest of his life to keeping that promise.
As a man whose intense Call to share the Good News went far beyond his natural capabilities, Graham built a life and ministry marked by humility, prayer, approachability, and openness to innovation.
Billy Graham was Authentically Humble
Billy Graham burned with passion for the Gospel of Christ, yet he never lost sight of his personal limitations. His life and leadership were marked by a divine mingling of purpose and humility.
Billy’s team knew that “he wasn’t in it for his own glory,” and they understood the personal sacrifices he made to ensure ministry viability and effectiveness.
Allan Emery, who served on the Billy Graham Association Board for decades, once said of Graham, “He never let anybody make him a big shot. It’s humility I’ve never seen in anybody else.”
To protect himself from the dangerous pit of pride, Billy built walls of protection around his life and ministry.Billy Graham's life and leadership were marked by a divine mingling of purpose and humility.
He viewed his personal call as a huge responsibility and an enormous opportunity; he recognized that spiritual enthusiasm does not make one immune from greed, pride, lust, and ambition.
To safeguard the mission and vision of the Billy Graham Organization, Billy surrounded himself with a competent ministry team and crafted a solid ministry structure with protective procedures and protocols.
When asked to describe Graham’s relationship with team members, Cliff Burrows stated, “He was self-effacing, but he was secure in the place of God’s appointment. He knew that in a multitude of counselors there is safety.”
Integrity and humility were part of the organization’s DNA. Graham’s submission to the authority structure his team put in place kept him from stumbling.
How to Develop Biblical Humility: Godly leaders never underestimate the destructive capabilities of succumbing to a “small temptation.” One impropriety can dismantle a leader’s life work. Good leaders practice open integrity and seek to live out the truth they teach (publicly and privately). They are humble and accountable in the areas of money and morality—always willing to accept help and correct their course in order to protect the integrity of their organization.
Billy Graham Established a Lifestyle of Prayer
Billy Graham’s greatest strength as a leader was his personal determination to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit. His ability to see through the fog, persevere under pressure, and remain unflinching in the fire was sourced and strengthened by his prayer life.
Billy’s sense of purpose and direction came from hours of prayer and Bible study, and this diligent practice protected him from many external pressures.
He was laser-focused on the call God had place upon his life and unabashedly declared, “God called me to preach, and I do not intend to do anything else as long as I live.”
Billy Graham’s devotional habit included reading Proverbs daily and dedicating the best of His time to prayer.Billy Graham’s devotional habit included reading Proverbs daily and dedicating the best of His time to prayer.
Before he preached or made a big ministry decision, Graham always found time for prayer and often invited his team members to join him in petitioning the Lord.
Nelson Bell described Billy Graham’s approach to prayer in these terms: “As we neared Philadelphia, Billy said, ‘Let’s pray.’ He got down on the floor, not exactly kneeling but almost as if prostrate before the Lord. I had never seen a man pray like that before exactly. There was an earnestness about his prayers.”
In the words of Karl Barth, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.”
Billy Graham feared the right things (Pr 9:10) and that “reverent fear” of God over man was an essential ingredient of his leadership.
How To Strengthen Your Prayer Life: A leader with a crystallized calling can lead with resolve, urgency, and persistence. The best way to maintain proper focus is to prioritize spiritual vitality. Prayer is the godly leader’s power-source—the method by which they gain access to continual “spiritual voltage.” Prayerful leaders recognize that power doesn’t come from them, rather it flows from God through them. A faithful prayer life allows leaders to rest in God’s provision and experience peace in God’s direction.
Billy Graham Handled Criticism with Care
Historian George Mardsen wrote of Billy Graham’s “dogged determination to adhere to high standards of morality and ethics.”
Billy’s life on the road exposed him to many opportunities for moral failure, yet he sought to live a lifestyle that was above reproach. Even so, Billy had many harsh critics.
In efforts not to allow criticism to detract from his mission, Graham often chose not to engage his critics directly.
Anglican rector John Scott made this observation about Billy Graham’s approach to criticism, “He has loved his enemies who have vilified him, bearing the pain and declining to retaliate.”
He saught to find common ground and build camaraderie with people whose views differed from his own and was gifted in creatively reframing their differences in a positive light.
When given the opportunity to confront his critics, Billy chose the path of humility and teachability. He recognized that our critics can be our most helpful coaches, and sought ways to grow through criticism.When given the opportunity to confront his critics, Billy chose the path of humility and teachability.
Graham was eager to learn from every experience and quick to move on to the next challenge. He rarely defended himself against personal criticism and made a point never to speak disparagingly of another person publicly.
Sterling Hudson, the director of North American ministries for the BGEA, said, “He was really forgiving. He was gracious simply because he felt that was what God wanted him to be. Billy looks at difficult events as things God permits for some reason and asks, ‘Is there a lesson to be learned? If so, I’m teachable.’”
How To Handle Criticism with Care: A good leader turns critics into coaches. They are always willing to learn from their mistakes and actively surround themselves with truth-seekers and truth-speakers. Godly leaders must expect criticism, recognize their own limitations and weakness, and “Keep the main thing the main thing.”
Billy Graham was Open to Innovation
Throughout his life, Billy Graham gave his personal focus to the tasks with the most impact. Everything else was delegated to his team.
He actively recruited talented individuals into his organization and sought to encourage, support, pray with, and defend them as they carried out their ministry tasks.
David Shmidt, a consultant for the BEGA, described Graham’s leadership style as one of “cascading trust.”
He trusted those around him and encouraged them to find people they could trust. In doing so, he established a culture of innovation and creativity within his organization.
At a leadership conference in Amstradam, Graham declared, “We…have within our hands the technological brekthroughs in communications that make it possible to reach every corner of the earth with the gospel in this decade. Let us therefore ask God to give us fresh vision.”
Billy wasn’t afraid to try new things and utilize new technologies to reach people in a fresh or unexpected way.Billy wasn’t afraid to try new things and utilize new technologies to reach people in a fresh or unexpected way.
Although Graham was relentlessly protective of his ancient message, he was always looking for innovative ways to share this message.
Billy’s attitude toward innovation is best reflected in this brief telegram sent to the CTI Board in the mid-1980s, “This is a new day, calling for new means of effective communication.”
How To Be Open to Innovation: Continual change is the reality of our era; effective leaders learn from the past and look fearlessly to the future. They are willing to let go of control in order to give the organization an opportunity to grow and multiply to meet ever-changing needs. By delegating tasks and encouraging innovation, godly leaders model team spirit and cultivate an environment where creativity thrives.
In conclusion, Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham is an excellent read for anyone who is interested in developing their leadership skills.
Humility, commitment to prayer, response to criticism, and openness to innovation are just a few of the key leadership traits Billy Graham exhibited throughout his life.
By establishing healthy leadership practices early in his ministry, Graham was able to leave a leadership legacy based on biblical values and scriptural principles.