The One Place Where All Leadership Principles Fall Apart

In the movie We Were Soldiers, Mel Gibson plays the role of U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore. Before his platoon leaves for the battlefield in Vietnam, Moore delivers a speech in which he says this:

Let us understand the situation. We are going into battle against a tough and determined enemy. I can’t promise you that I will bring you all home alive. But this I swear – before you and before Almighty God – that when we go into battle, I will be the first to set foot on the field, and I will be the last to step off. And I will leave no one behind.

It’s an amazing picture of leadership, and also descriptive of the one place where all leadership principles fall apart. A leader, whether in the home, in the church, in the office, or in the community, can deliver stirring speeches, provide detailed plans, articulate strategic goals, and yet have their leadership fall apart if this principle is violated:

It’s impossible to follow a leader who is distant.

Long before Hal Moore embodied this and certainly before the principle was recorded in book form or dramatized in film, Jesus showed us the same philosophy. Consider if you would the parting words of the Son of God before He ascended into heaven, the words we now call the Great Commission:

“All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20).

There is a definite progression in these verses, one that we can learn form in all the spheres God has charged us to lead. The progression begins with authority. This is especially important because, as the prior verses reveal, not everyone was fully on board with the risen Savior:

“When they saw him, they worshiped, but some doubted” (Matt. 28:17).

Despite His predictions, despite the sight of the crucifixion, despite the testimonies of resurrection, and now despite seeing the physical Jesus standing alive before them, there were still some who weren’t too sure. So Jesus began by stating the divine authority that had been given to Him. As the conquering Savior, He was not making a suggestion; He was giving a command with all the authority of heaven and earth behind Him.

From His authority, Jesus moved to assignment. Because He had this authority, He was fully within His rights to make an assignment to His followers. And this is where this statement starts to cross paths with our own experience of leadership.

We, too, have been given a measure of authority. In the home, in the business, in the community, we have been given various levels of authority to lead. And because we are, we must be willing to give assignments to others. This is not something we should feel bad about, but it is something that should make us very humble and cautious, because this is where authority often goes bad. For when we are given a measure of authority, it is our tendency to abuse that authority for our own ends, and that abuse comes out in the nature and type of assignments we make.

But not with Jesus. He began with His authority. Then He gave assignments. Now if our authority goes bad, the next step in that progression is absence. We make assignments and then simply walk away, leaving people to figure it out on their own without any real support, service, or investment from us. We, after all, are the ones with authority, and therefore we can do what we want. But the progression Jesus followed was not authority, assignment, and absence.

Instead, Jesus’ progression is authority, assignment, and presence.

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Jesus was not abandoning them in their assignment. Rather, He was promising that He would be the first one on the field and the last one off. His presence would go with them.

If we want to lead in an incarnational way, if we want to learn from Jesus, then we must do the same. We must be the leaders who serve with those being led. We must be the leaders who empathize with those under our care. We must be the leaders who are down in the mud not up in the tower. We must know those we lead deeply – and we must love them. We must show the reality of that love through the most basic means possible – with our presence.

Strategy is great. Vision is awesome. Directives are powerful. But nothing replaces presence.

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