A church leader in another community told me about his former pastor, who had taken an assessment of his leadership style. The results showed that this pastor was the rarest type in the assessment’s scale.  He was among five percent of leaders classified as “generals.”  He loved the assessment which reinforced his sense of calling.  Believing God had uniquely qualified him and placed him in charge of the church, he assumed control of most processes and decisions of the church.  

During a brief and stormy pastorate, he implemented his ideas without any buy-in from the congregation.  As a pastor-general, he spoke others followed. The church terminated him in the first year.  The leader who told me the story said, “He needed to lose the general.”  What the pastor had seen as a strength was viewed as his greatest weakness by church leaders.

A quick survey of military leaders reveals the terminated pastor had a false view of how leadership works in the military.   I discussed the situation with my older daughter who is a career officer in the Navy.  “Officers have to issue orders in battle,” she said, “but in our day to day world if you have to resort to an order, you ‘ve lost the people you work with.”  It takes more than telling others what to do to be an officer. 

The pastor who took the style assessment never realized that “the general” was an undesirable leadership style.  Nor did he understand that neither military rank, nor divine calling make us immune to the principles of leadership.  Whether the US Army has placed an individual in charge of a division of troops, or whether God has placed you to lead a congregation, being in charge and telling others what to do does not make you a leader.  People may comply to orders, but they rarely follow the person who commands without regard for others. Here are some leadership lessons I’ve gleaned from true military leaders over the years. 

Trust is critical.   I asked my son-in-law, also a career officer, why so many members of the military have high regard for General James Mattis.  He said, “Because they trust him to do the right thing.”  Real leaders in any field engender trust in the people they work with.  Trust is everything.   We earn it when we lead by example, keep our word, and work hard for the good of others. 

Sacrifice counts.  Simon Sinek’s book, Leaders Eat Last, resulted from Sinek’s discussion with a Marine Corps general.  When asked about the esprit de corps of the Marines, the general explained “Officers eat last.”  Sinek then observed that lower ranking Marines took the front of the line in the chow hall, while the most senior Marines took their place at the back of the line.  The chow hall was an illustration of the Marines, wherever they were. True leaders sacrifice their own comfort – perhaps their own survival – for the good of those in their care.  

Recognition matters.  General John Stanford once gave a speech, during which he wore the name tag of one of his aides. The general explained the contributions the aide made to his success.  Imagine the pride that aide felt when he saw his name on the general’s uniform as his superior officer gave a speech.  standing front of that crowd.  No wonder Stanford engendered deep loyalty among his troops.  

The Gallup organization has identified “I’ve received praise or recognition for something I’ve done” as a major criterion for why employees (in any field) or church members feel engaged to their organization.  Who have you thanked or recognized publicly in the last six months? We were taught as children that “thank you” are magic words.  They still are.  

Love rules.   Years ago, Barbara Walters interviewed General “Stormin” Noman Schwarzkopf, who commanded US troops in the first Persian Gulf war.  Walters asked the general how he would like to be remembered.  “Say he loved his family,” Schwarzkopf said. “Say he loved his troops and his troops loved him.”  

When making decisions implementing new ideas, or disagreeing about core matters of the church, how do show members that you love them?  If you work with a staff, how have you demonstrated love for them in the past month?  It’s not enough to preach about love on Sunday.  We have to act our love for others in the mundane and in the odd areas of our responsibility.  People follow leaders that love them. 

In my experience some ministers mistake their calling for a false understanding of rank.  They believe that calling means God has spoken to them uniquely and made them the unquestioned voice for the congregation.  Neither generals nor ministers are immune to the basic principles of leadership: trust is critical; sacrifice counts; recognition matters; love rules.  

Joel Snider
Joel Snider is the former pastor of FBC, Rome, Georgia, where he has served for more than eighteen years. Joel has been actively involved in coaching for seven years, serving ministers, small business owners, academic professionals and financial planners. He is a coach for CHC.