If you want to know what drives thinking and behavior, examine a person’s perception of God. Last week, USA Today published Baylor University’s recent research on how Americans perceive God. Click here for the article. (This was a big study, not some overnight poll by a news media outlet.)

Ninety percent of Americans believe in some form of higher power and, as the study highlights, the form of that belief greatly affects the way people view the world. When we understand the lens or bubble through which we view God, our decisions, choices and actions make complete sense.

Here are the four buckets the researchers found that best describe how Americans view God. The type of God captions are from the study, the descriptions of them are mine. I also included the percentage of Americans that fall into each category and a brief comment on how this worldview might influence their leadership behavior (5 percent classify themselves as atheists).

Authoritative God (28 percent): God is a guiding force for all behavior and a parent you want to please—if you don’t please God you will be punished. A leader with this view will use rules and policies and may not be very forgiving of violators.

Benevolent God (22 percent): God is caring and supportive of everyone equally. This leader may see his or her company as responsible for caring for and supporting its employees.

Critical God (21 percent): God is part police officer and part Santa Claus. Some people will go to heaven and some won’t. This leader might turn to principles or values or morals to guide desired behavior and have little patience for people who don’t get the culture.

Distant God (24 percent): God is an ever-present force but doesn’t tell me what to do. I am responsible for my life. This leader will be heavy on people being accountable and taking responsibility; he or she believes that people control their own destiny.

Although I find distilling any concept of God with words a challenge, I liked that these categories didn’t necessarily correspond to a denomination, religion or practice. After I read this article I thought about how my perceptions of God changed as I became older (and wiser?) and was exposed to different teachings, and how this change has affected almost everything I do. I used believe in the Authoritative God, then the Critical One, and now something close to the Distant God (though I can’t really relate to the name the researchers used for this view).

I don’t think most people realize how their personal theology influences their worldview. These are core beliefs and knowing how others perceive God helps me understand the zeal and fears that drive their behavior. I can more easily empathize with another person once I understand his or her core beliefs—especially someone who holds what I think are opposing views to mine. Perhaps these different views of God explain the great ideological divides that are becoming a character trait of our age.

In leadership circles, the last topic we can touch is God, religion or spirituality. Yet, it is core to understanding our leadership styles and what motivates others. Look at the article and create your own inventory of how your God-view influences the way you lead.

We can neither deepen nor question any of our beliefs until we have examined them.

How do you perceive God? How did you come to have these beliefs? How do they affect your leadership style? How are these beliefs serving you in your life now? Which ones are you willing to challenge or question?