5 Observations About Leaders
by Neil Gilliland
In the last few months, I have attended a lot of funerals. It is not my favorite thing to do, but it is important to walk with friends and family through the valley of shadows. Each time I go, there is this moment when this troubling thought interrupts my focus on the service. The old ones are passing away, and now I’m one of the old ones. Somehow my mind refuses to wrap itself around that reality. I don’t mind getting older, but I don’t ever want to be old. The fear that often haunts me is that I will be so self-deceptive that I think I am connecting with the generations behind me, but I really don’t. I don’t want to be that guy.
I believe that we (I) have a responsibility to the next generation. Especially, if we are in a leadership position. I do not and never have considered myself a leader. To some extent, I may have been an influencer in a small circle of people, and I have hopefully been an encourager. I have, however, watched and studied men and women who I think have been outstanding leaders. And if we’re going to build into the next generation of leaders, here are five qualities, traits, or habits that I believe should be true of us.
- Be a person of the Book. Great leaders are men and women who immerse themselves in the Scriptures. They are consistent in their study of the Word. It is not a perfunctory exercise that they simply check off their to-do list each day. Leaders are not merely looking for scriptures to match their decisions but basing their decisions on the truth of the Word. It doesn’t happen all at once, but it is a lifetime discipline. The Bible is more than something they read and study. It is their intimate connection with a Holy God. It is their gateway to reflect the Glory of God. The effectiveness of their horizontal leadership hinges on the relationship with the Eternal.
- Live. Leaders are not just alive…they live. William Wallace in Braveheart said as he was dying, “All men die but not all men truly live.” Our first Christmas in Africa was monumental for me. I have always enjoyed life, but it was that year that I learned what it meant to live.
Jewel and Evan Evans arrived to Boauke and the Ivory Coast Academy just a few days after us. We immediately became best friends. We were dorm parents in the high school boys’ dorm, and they were dorm parents in an elementary dorm. That Christmas, Evan’s parents came for a visit. They had originally served in Nepal but unrest created an unsustainable presence, so they literally ran for their lives and eventually landed in Viet Nam where they served Christ for 20+ years. During this time, five of their colleagues were martyred, and Dad Evans had to bury his friends. When I knew they were coming for Christmas, I expected a very sober couple who had endured so much. Little did I know that if I looked up “life” in the dictionary, Dad Evan’s picture would have been there!
I have never been around anyone who was so alive and enjoyed every minute of life. He laughed with all the fullness of his heart. You see, true leaders rise above the tragedies, difficulties, and hardships, and live. It is in their living that they become leaders.
- Simplicity. I strongly believe that great leaders live life in the simple lane. Arguably the most influential person in my life has been my dad.
He was born in 1909 and was orphaned when both parents died by the time he was six. He was taken in by a family who had a farm in the hills of southern Ohio. He lived through the depression and two world wars. He worked for 45 years in a steel mill. He worked swing shift. That is, for two weeks he would work morning to afternoon, the next two weeks he would work afternoon till late night, then he would work for two weeks all night and come home early in the morning. He bought a house that was less than 500 square feet, and he and mom lived there for over 65 years. He raised a huge garden from which mom canned vegetables to sustain us through the long winter months.
Now I know that may seem unrealistic today, but the principle was that he did not get caught up in the consumeristic mentality that distracts people from truly leading. He would not see himself as a leader, but he was a great influencer. He allowed time for that from the simplicity of life.
- Relationships. True leaders understand the principle that people are more important than projects, goals, and objectives. People are more important than the bottom line. Leadership springs from relationship. One of the speakers at Bert Tippett’s funeral stated [and I paraphrase], “The thing that made Bert different than most of the faculty and staff was that he knew students had names, and he knew their names.” You see, it was the relationships that made Bert a great leader. A true leader deeply cares about people. He wants a relationship with them. You will never lead if you are always out front. You lead as you walk beside those you are leading and engaging them in life.
- Serve. Effective leaders serve. Not only do they serve, but they serve with humility. In the front of one of my Bibles I wrote two statements many years ago. I cannot even remember where they came from or who said them, but I haven’t forgotten them.
1. Aim to be a leader and you will always be frustrated, aim to be a servant and you will never be without a job.
2. God will not judge us by how many people we lead but by how many people we serve.
I know a Christian college which would have a day every spring when they would spruce up their campus. Every year, the college’s president would change from his suit and tie to work clothes and be on his knees to plant flowers around campus alongside students and staff. Most would say he was one of the greatest leaders ever to hold the presidential post. If we want to lead, we must learn to serve with humility.
This is the first of a two-part series.