Brandon Cox: Great Leadership Often Starts with a Broken Heart

When I served as a pastor at Saddleback Church, one of the things that impressed me most about the church was a hiring requirement Pastor Rick Warren laid down:

If you haven’t been through pain, you’re not ready to be on staff at Saddleback Church.

Pastor Rick understood the power of a broken heart.

Andy Stanley understands it, too. When speaking to leaders, he often asks the question, “What breaks your heart?”

Usually, knowing what breaks your heart opens the door to knowing what you should do with your life and how you should be leading others.

Nehemiah, of the Old Testament, is considered one of the greatest models of successful leadership in history. And his story started with a question: “How’s Jerusalem?”

When the answer was “not good,” Nehemiah’s heart was broken. He records:

“When I heard this, I sat down and wept. In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 1:4 NLT).

Nehemiah’s burden drove him to lead the nation of Israel into a successful rebuilding campaign.

My wife, Angie, and I talk about this often. Her heart breaks for those in our community suffering with emotional and relational brokenness, so she started a counseling practice in Northwest Arkansas. My heart breaks over the spiritually lost around us, so I’m giving my life to leading Grace Hills Church.

Great leadership doesn’t start with a great education, although that is incredibly valuable. And it certainly doesn’t start with a particular position within an organization.

Great leadership often starts with a broken heart.

Drive, determination, and competitiveness are valuable. Talent and charisma are great assets for leaders to possess. And relationships play a vital role in a leader’s path to success, too.

But none of those things are as powerful as a heart, broken over the condition of something and burdened to fix it and make it better.

So how do you have your heart broken?

  • Make an honest evaluation of what you see around you.
  • Listen to the truth-tellers who bear bad news.
  • Embrace reality rather than an idealistic version of the world.

We used to sing this song about the Holy Spirit and the lyrics would say,

Break me.
Melt me.
Mold me.
Fill me.

That’s an excellent plan, especially for the Christian leader — the church leader, in particular.

This past Sunday, I helped fill communion cups. And as I did, I found myself peering into each one and thinking about the person who would later pick it up and drink from it as an act of worship.

I realized that many would be celebrating communion with a sense of joy, a sense of purpose and belonging. But others would be crying out for hope and healing. They would be taking communion as a declaration of their utter dependence on the goodness of God and the saving power of Jesus.

My heart broke for those struggling with recent job losses, marital conflict, and emotional issues. So I prayed. And then I preached my heart out and invited people to come and take communion. And we solemnly worshipped together, some with rejoicing and others with broken hearts.

And my prayer today is that those whose hearts are shattered by the condition of what they see around them will sense the courage to rise up and lead their tribes and their generation to action.

What breaks your heart? What burden drives you to lead?


Brandon Cox is a coach for couragetolead.com. He also serves as the church planter and Lead Pastor of Grace Hills Church in Bentonville, Arkansas, and online editor of Pastors.com. He lives with his wife, Angie and together, they have three children.