Lessons Learned

When I was active-duty military, we would receive emails entitled “Lesson Learned.” They would tell stories of how people did their jobs poorly, often with catastrophic results. Every time part of the problem was a failure in leadership oversight. I wonder how often that is the issue in the church as well. 

I have been reading a book on leadership called Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. (If you are looking for ways to improve your leadership skills, I highly recommend it. Although it is not a Christian book, it is one that I believe can be beneficial to everyone in leadership.) While reading their book, I’ve been thinking about the best leaders I worked with during my time in the Navy, and I’ve realized that they all had three characteristics in common. 

The best leaders take care of their people.

When I made E-6, which is a supervisory rank in the submarine fleet, my supervisor at the time congratulated me. My sleeve insignia went from two chevrons to three, and he used that as a teaching moment. He pointed at my sleeve and said, “Those first two were for you, but that third one is for your guys.”

That always stuck with me, because I realized that with the added privilege came more responsibility to use my new-found rank to take care of the guys who worked for me. 

As a pastor I realize that I need to use the platform God has given me to shepherd those that God sends me. It is my responsibility not only to lead and hold our staff accountable, but also to teach and train them. I have to take care of my people in the best way I can according to the needs, circumstances and contexts. 

The best leaders lead from the front.

I worked for a guy on the boat who was the first to roll up his sleeves and get dirty. He would work alongside all of us, no matter how bad the job. I remember we had maintenance on multiple occasions that was job-limiting but that had to be done. On both occasions, he was the first to sacrifice sleep to make sure the job got done. Sleep in the military is a scarce commodity, and no one likes to give it up since you can never get it back. That was a powerful example: he believed that if he made the most money and had the highest rank, he should be the first to get the bad deal. 

I have seen too many church leaders not step up in tangible ways. We should never be above sweeping the floor, doing some painting, picking up trash or any other job. We are servant leaders, not leaders who are here to be served.

People are so much quicker to step up when they know they have a pastor who will do the same. Look at Jesus, who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). As His servants, we are never above doing anything. 

The best leaders take the blame and give away the credit.

I don’t have a real-life story about this, but it is something I have seen Patriots coach Bill Belichick do on multiple occasions. After a rare loss, he always blames the coaching, and after a win says that players win games. He notoriously holds players accountable, but he understands that as the guy in charge, whatever happens is ultimately his responsibility. 

As leaders we should see this, too. When one of your staff members does something well, give them credit. Tell them good job and encourage them. If there is a failure, hold them accountable and understand that, as the leader, you hold some responsibility in their failure too. Were they trained properly? Were they held accountable for prior mistakes?

Even when we succeed as leaders, we must understand that we did not do so in a vacuum. Those we lead contributed to our success as well. 

Think about your experiences, both good and bad. What do you wish those who led you had done differently? What did they do well that you would like to emulate? And most importantly, how can we best leverage our call to lead to point people to Christ and glorify Him?

Erik Maloy is the lead pastor of First Church in Charlestown, MA, co-host of the Church Revitalization podcast and occasionally blogs at www.erikmaloy.net.