Young men aged 18-22 lined up to get their first military haircut, sweating from the Annapolis heat and humidity. They wore starched, white, pajama-looking outfits, with navy-blue kerchiefs and white sailor hats. They looked more like skin-head laundrymen than the leaders they would become. For the next four years they would listen, study, march, run, follow, and learn what leadership means—through precept and example.
Our nation is confused about what “leadership” is. Our schools don’t teach it, because they’ve never been taught. Good teachers know it by instinct and have more trouble with their principals and politically correct policy, than with difficult students. Our press doesn’t report it because they detest it and wouldn’t recognize it if they saw it. Our politicians have replaced it with dramatic skills, pragmatism, and pandering. Successful businesses and operational military units reflect it because good leadership works. Our families want for it.
What is leadership? Let’s begin with four things leadership isn’t. Leadership isn’t about self, position, managing, and just getting things done.
Leadership doesn’t begin with the letter “I.” Leadership should not be about the leader or a platform for self-promotion. The concept begins with an “M” and an “O:” mission and others. A leader has a mission, a purpose that is central to function, process, and culture. Without mission, there isn’t a need for leadership. Add to the mission heart—a genuine love for others. Without it, mission is just a means to manipulate. This love isn’t the soft-hearted, mushy, milquetoast variety, but the robust kind that casts out fear, wants the best for people, and begins with a fundamental respect for all created in His image.
Having a position of leadership doesn’t make someone a leader, any more than standing on the Dean Smith arena, makes someone a Tar Heel basketball star. Many at the military academies are placed in charge of small platoons only to learn that they’ll serve best in a staff role, and not a leadership one. Not all are cut out for leadership. Being elected to an office may signify any number of positive traits, but it does not make a leader—in politics, school, or church.
Managing is important. Good leaders make sure things are managed well. But leadership is more. Managers make things happen on time and on budget. Leaders make the right things happen, in the right way. They are as concerned with the how, why, who, and who’s next as immediate results. Leaders focus on organizational culture created by words, actions, and policies more than 1,000-page rule books. They know well-trained, good people, in a healthy culture, will create and accomplish more than browbeaten robots. Leaders anticipate the future, are experts at seeing potential pitfalls, and avoid them or handle them easily.
The words “no matter what” or “no matter the cost” frighten a leader and invigorate a tyrant. They are dangerous words in the hands of an unfettered manager. A leader understands that. Leaders work hard to create a culture where the job will get done—that is a must. However, the way it gets done is as important to God’s smile as the end result. Cultures are created so that associates may know the values of the organization. Knowing values communicates acceptable boundaries. Knowing boundaries allows each person to function freely and quickly, making everyday decision-making fun and consistent.
Our country, our schools, our military, our businesses, and our families need leaders who understand leadership. What can we do? We can read our Bibles and observe the variety of leaders God has revealed to us, from Abraham to David, from Nehemiah to Jesus. We will see examples to follow and ones to avoid. We can also do what the writer of Hebrews encourages his readers to do: Pray for our leaders so that they may have clear consciences and always desire to act honorably.