Leaders Eat Last

May 2014

In the foreword to a new book, Leaders Eat Last, Lt General George Flynn, USMC (Ret) makes an observation that deserves a lot of attention. He writes, “I know of no case study in history that describes an organization that has been managed out of a crisis. Every single one of them was led.” “Good management” is important, but as author Simon Sinek suggests, it “is clearly not enough to sustain any organization over the long term.” I happen to agree with both Lt. General Flynn and Simon Sinek. You may or may not agree, but I can say with a high degree of confidence after years of working with Christian schools, colleges, churches and other ministries – Leaders matter – a lot.

Spend some time exploring the Scriptures and I think you will find confirmation of my observation. Whenever there is a problem to be solved or a challenge to be met, God raises up a leader. Think Moses. Think Joshua. Think the Judges. Think David. Think Paul.   And when He doesn’t elevate someone to leadership (which He often doesn’t) there is usually chaos. Think of all the weak kings in Israel and Judea. Think of the religious leaders in Israel during the time of Christ. Think of the current situation in our own country where “leading from behind” has become the defining phrase for our current administration. I can’t think of anything that more exposes a lack of leadership than the above statement.

Now consider the following.

“Leaders are the ones who run headfirst into the unknown.

They rush toward the danger.

They put their own interests aside to protect us or to pull us into the future.

Leaders would sooner sacrifice what is theirs to save what is ours.

And they would never sacrifice what is ours to save what is theirs.

This is what it means to be a leader.

It means they choose first to go into danger, headfirst toward the unknown.

And when we feel sure they will keep us safe,

We will march behind them and work tirelessly to see their vision come to life,

And proudly call ourselves their followers.”

President John Quincy Adams captured it well when he wrote, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

Unfortunately leaders as described above seem to be in short supply at every level of our lives today. What we have instead are people who spend all of their energy reading the polls, calculating the odds, gauging public reaction, pandering to people of influence, or speaking in the vaguest of terms hoping not to alienate anyone. Contrast that to our Lord who never failed to speak boldly when necessary. Speaking publicly of a highly respected, powerful group of people as “whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead man’s bones and all uncleanness” would, I think, be considered bold.

Not everyone who speaks boldly is a leader, but no one who is a leader is afraid of “speaking the truth in love” even when what needs to be said is unpopular or might offend someone. Leaders do not hide behind poll-tested language. Nor do they simply seek notoriety by playing to the worse impulses of people. Never. While they may have to say truly difficult things they always do so with the purpose of exposing people to the truth and encouraging them to live in such a way as to honor that truth.

It takes all kinds of people and a diversity of gifts to build a strong organization. Without strong leadership, however, organizations tend to drift along, achieving a little when capable of so much more. So, if quality leadership is so crucial, why does there seem to be such a deficit of leadership in so many organizations at this moment in our history? I’m not sure why, but here are some thoughts to consider:

  1. We don’t seem to know how to “spot” people with leadership gifts. That may be because we aren’t looking very carefully. It may be because we don’t know what to look for. It may be because we are simply too busy to notice. Whatever the reason we aren’t doing nearly enough to identify and equip new leaders.
  2. When we do see an emerging leader we are more often than not a bit wary. Those emerging leaders often do remarkably foolish things and that scares us. You’ve heard the phrase, “Like a bull in a china closet.” Young leaders are often like that. They’ve been known to break things because they just don’t know enough about the thing called leadership. Rather than run from these young leaders we need to come alongside them to equip and encourage them.
  3. Current leaders tend to cling to position and power way beyond their “use by” date. This can cause great harm as those long time leaders tend to coast into retirement dragging the organization they lead into increasing irrelevance. The greater problem is that in coasting to the finish line these leaders frustrate the next generation leader, often driving them away, thus depriving the organization of the kind of fresh thinking and vitality those emerging leaders can bring to the task.
  4. Criticism kills. It has often been said that the church is the only army that kills its own wounded. That isn’t always true and it isn’t just the church that acts that way. It is, however, true often enough that it drives a lot of good, highly capable people out of leadership. We just don’t know what to do with the young, inexperienced leader who we often thrust prematurely into leadership only to watch them stumble. It often looks a bit like those nature films where the wounded animal is torn apart by the members of his own pack. Young leaders need mentors, not tormentors.
  5. We live in a culture where Truth has been set adrift. As a result it is open season on anyone who takes a strong stand about anything. This has always been a problem but it has been magnified to truly malignant levels through the use of the internet and social media. When someone is constantly looking over their shoulder it is hard to lead.

 

The closer I move toward the end of my ministry the more I see the need for leadership development. That is why, as I’ve mentioned before, I have been working with the Association of Christian Schools International to develop a strategy that will identify, equip and mentor next generation leaders. At present we have a launch date of July 2015. In the research and development phase of this project we have spent much time in conversation with individuals who have demonstrated over time what it means to be a leader. Their insights have proven invaluable. It is now time to complete our work of designing a structure for what we hope to accomplish.

One final thought. A few weeks ago, we celebrated Easter. As I consider the meaning of the single greatest event in human history I am driven to remember that in our Lord we have the single greatest example of leadership we could ever hope to examine. And if we would take but a moment to consider His life we would see that leadership is not always about building a great organization. Indeed, by modern metrics Jesus was not much of a leader. After all, over three years He managed to produce an organization only 120 strong. I doubt He would be invited to speak at the next church growth conference.

What He accomplished, however, goes far beyond anything any of us can imagine because He willingly gave away everything in service to those He called to walk with Him. And He asks nothing less of us. Whether a leader or not we are all called to a life of service.   At the end of life is it better to be known as Moses, my leader or Moses, my servant? I’ll leave you to ponder the answer to that question.