How Top Leaders Stay Fresh

I’ve always been inspired by the leaders that seem to move from season to season gaining energy, vitality, ideas and excitement. Have you ever wondered how they do that? How do they keep up with the demands and stay ahead of growth?

The secret is, those leaders have something unique. It’s not an inborn talent or a special trait—it’s much simpler than that. They have a personal growth plan.

One of my favorite leadership legends is Jim Rohn, who said, “Work harder on yourself than you do on your job.” That’s good advice if you want to have something to give in the next season. We all know that our work can become all-consuming and can leave us empty, used up and ready to quit. That’s why we have to prioritize our own personal growth—for the sake of our families and our ministries.

Over the past two decades I’ve studied the lives of effective leaders, and I’ve observed that those who are consistently growing practice these three habits: reflection, selection and acquisition.


1. Reflection

This habit is getting harder by the minute. In a culture that demands constant production, where do you find the time to slow down and reflect? Top leaders know that this return to solitude and down-time is essential for a life of greater purpose and impact. If you live tightly wound all the time, eventually you’re going to snap.

The benefit of reflection is evaluation. In an age of information where we are bombarded with data, dashboards, metrics and benchmarks, evaluation can easily take a back seat to productivity. Ironically, without evaluation productivity can’t last.

Obvious as this may seem, reflection requires margin—something many of us have scrubbed from our schedules. Simply put, there is no way to reflect without white space. As you look at your schedule for this week, where do you see opportunities for reflection? How could you create some? This shift may require a courageous re-ordering of your schedule. It may require getting up 30 minutes earlier in the morning, or disciplining yourself to take that full hour for lunch.

As you build the skill and habit of reflection, make it a point to ask these two essential questions: How did it go? What would I do differently next time?

First, “How did it go?” I’ve grown accustomed to evaluating in four classic categories: What went right? What went wrong? What was missing? And what is confusing?

Second, “What would I do differently next time?” As Thomas Edison said, “I am not discouraged, for every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” Never worry about starting over. As long as you’re learning, you’re getting better and you’re preparing for what’s next. I’d rather have someone fail while trying than fail to try.

These two questions can be applied to your week, your month, your year—or any project or season you’ve experienced. Walking away with perspective will set you up for the next core habit for staying fresh: Selection.

Action Step: Schedule a Weekly Sabbath.

The Bible teaches the idea of Sabbath—a weekly day of rest intended to help you recharge and reboot. Question: Do you have a day off? Are you maximizing that day off each week to help you rest, reflect, and prepare for the week ahead? This one change could be what brings vitality back to your life. In my personal life, my day off is sacred to my wife and my family. We protect it fiercely, and we look forward to it each week. We spend time together, explore, rest and try to make the most of it. We generally plan it out in advance so that we’re not tempted to fill it with work or distractions. This “Sabbath” habit has been one of the keys that have kept me going in ministry for 20 years, and it will keep me going for at least another 20.

2. Selection

With reflection under your belt, you are ready to make a new decision. Selection is the step of deciding what you want. Only this time you won’t be rolling the dice, you’ll be acting intelligently, with your mind and heart clear. The word decide comes from two Latin words: de (away) and caedere (to cut). Selection is the step where you draw a line, you make a choice, you move a different direction. You take what you’ve learned from your reflection and evaluation, and you build on it. In my own life, this has been the step of goal setting.

Action Step: Goal Setting 101

Here are a few pointers that have helped me make the most of goal setting:

• Goals should be reviewed regularly. Experts like Brian Tracy encourage writing your goals out every day.
• When writing out your goals, make them specific, put them in the present tense, set a date and phrase them as though you have already achieved what you’re going for. This formula has worked wonders to get me motivated and excited as I move in the direction I believe God is leading me.
• Here’s an example: “I publish my first book by December 31st.”
• Prompt yourself with the question, “What do I believe God wants to do in and through my life in the next season?”
• Try to think in terms of short-term and long-term goals. Make a list of things you believe you could achieve over the next one year, three years, five years and 10 years.
• Next, break those goals into smaller steps that you can begin working on immediately. These steps become your priorities.

I have a friend named Irene who has used goal-setting to change her life. As an immigrant to the United States, Irene has overcome incredible adversity, toxic relationships, difficulty finding a job, financial hardship, being a single mom and more. She has consistently set godly goals.

Once my wife and I were visiting Irene’s at her home and she showed us her goals, written on a large mirror in her living room. She had a list of things she believed God had designed for her to pursue, and up to that point she had seen each one of her goals (marriage, a new job, a new car, the opportunity to impact other ladies and more) come to fruition, with the exception of one—owning a new home. Just this past week we went to visit Irene in her beautiful new home. That’s the power of selection. Decide what you want, and set priorities that focus your life in the direction you believe God is calling you to move.

3. Acquisition

Once you have set your clear direction, it’s time to acquire the skills necessary to reach your dreams. This is the growth part of personal growth.

I once interviewed a very affluent leader named Monte Holm. He was succeeding wildly in business, and I got an opportunity to spend a few minutes with him on the phone. He was in his limo on the way to the airport, and I was in my office at the church. I was (and still am) fascinated with his ability to build a thriving organization. I peppered him with questions about life, time management, leadership, learning, hiring and dismissing, priorities, travel—you name it. But the one question I asked him that stuck with me was this: “How do you find a dream that matches your unique talents and skills?” I’ll never forget Monte’s response. He said, “You have it exactly backwards. You don’t go looking for a dream to match your skills. Instead, you develop the skills to match your strong dream.” That moment was a breakthrough for me. I realized that I needed to first reflect, then select and then acquire the skills that God would use to move me forward in his plan. I still have that interview with Monte recorded, and it’s still a treasure to this day.

Action Step: Craft your personal growth plan.

Map out the top three, four or five skills you’ll need to develop over the next year in order to reach your dreams. I call these my learning themes for the year. My list currently includes: 1) Parenting teenagers, 2) Raising money, 3) Negotiating, 4) Experience Design and 5) Building teams. These are all things unique to the season of life that I’m in and the goals I believe God has given me right now. As a result, I’ve focused my learning for this year in those areas. Another way to think of this is to “Read What You Need.”

As you design your own personal growth plan, consider the following questions:

• What will I do every day to grow?
• What will I do every week to grow?
• What will I do every month to grow?
• What will I do every year to grow?

You’ve probably heard this popular strategy … 1) Divert daily—How can I invest in my personal growth every day? 2) Withdraw Weekly—How can I organize my week to have a meaningful and life-giving day off? 3) Mentor Monthly—Who will I intentionally learn from each month? 4) Abandon Annually—How will I carve out significant time off each year with my loved ones to reboot and prepare for the next season?

Your personal growth is the key to staying fresh and being ready to fulfill God’s calling for your life. And it won’t happen buy accident; it must be an intentional priority.

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Gabe Kolstad is the lead pastor of Westside Community Church in Beaverton, Oregon, a certified trainer with Church Leader Insights and an advanced coaching expert with Nelson Searcy. This article was originally published on

Gabe Kolstad
Gabe Kolstad

Gabe Kolstad is a multi-time Advanced Coaching Alumni with Nelson Searcy and the senior pastor of Westside Community Church in Beaverton, Oregon.