Everyone has their own concept of what a leader is. How he or she is supposed to act, dress, and think, and all the rest. Our concept of leadership influences how we ourselves lead if we are in that position. It also influences how we regard others who we see as leaders, whether positively or negatively.
When I was in my early days of ministry, I was informed that a leader is a facilitator. The Cambridge Dictionary definition of a facilitator is, “someone who is employed to make a process easier, or to help people reach a solution or agreement, without getting directly involved in the process.”
The problem is that, by that definition, the facilitator assists but not really leads. It is small wonder that my early start as a pastor was not successful. The fact is that a leader leads.
My example of leadership comes from several sources. As a teen between the ages of 15 and 19, I was blessed by a pastor who was a true servant but also a true leader. From him I learned that all people were important and to be valued whether they were people of means and influence or people of little means and no influence.
My parents did not attend church at Mountain View United Methodist Church in Kingsport, Tennessee. I went by myself, sometimes being taken and dropped off, other times hitch-hiking, and still other times walking the two miles until I finally had a car.
A person of no means and no influence, I still felt accepted and valued by the pastor, The Rev’d Fred L. Austin. Among the other lessons I learned from him was the policy of an open door and the need to be well educated.
From my football coaches I experienced both good and terrible styles of leadership. Coach Cecil Puckett was a hands-on, engaging, and caring individual who was encouraging and motivating, as were several other coaches, including Coach Tom Brixey, Coach Don Adkins and Coach Tom Pugh.
My head coach my senior year was an arrogant and abusive bully. Rated #1 in the 1968 pre-season polls in the state of Tennessee, the Indians of Dobyns-Bennett High School had (for us) a dismal season of 5-3-2. The head coach was forever mocking, insulting, and placing blame on the players, many of whom were expected to play injured, thus ensuring that those injuries would cause them future problems.
He lasted one season and I, for one, was ecstatic to see him go. The team, with so much promise, was totally demoralized midway into the season and he was the primary cause.
A short time after high school, I enlisted in the Marine Corps. This might come as a surprise but, while the tough reputations of Marine Corps Drill Instructors are legendary, most Marine veterans, when gathered together and sharing boot camp stories, speak with almost a reverent devotion to those DI’s. I will never forget mine and I look upon them with great respect and admiration still.
The consummate Marine and leader who evokes this reverence from all Marines is Lt. General Lewis B. (“Chesty”) Puller, (June 26, 1898 – October 11, 1971), the most decorated man in the history of the U.S. Marine Corps.
Puller enlisted as a private in 1918 and went to Parris Island, SC for boot camp. Later he was selected to attend non-commissioned officer school and then the Officer Candidate School at Quantico, VA. He was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant but, due to a reduction in forces, he was later reduced in rank to corporal.
Obviously, he re-attained officer rank and eventually became a legend in Marine Corps lore. For at least the past 60 years, every night, recruits at Parris Island and San Diego end their training day by climbing into their beds and, in unison, shouting, “Good night, Chesty, wherever you are!”
Why this honor, this devotion? It wasn’t because he was a general, or an enlisted man made good, or the most decorated Marine in American history. It is, in part, because of the kind of leader he was.
In an article in the March 2023 “Leatherneck” magazine, Sgt. Jessica Hyunjong Suh, USMC, writes that Puller was “one of the men.” He marched at the front of them, rather than ride, he ate what they ate, and he slept on the same ground they did.
Having been an enlisted man, he valued and respected them, something that not all military officers do. Puller even carried his own pack and weapon. And he was a motivator and morale booster.
In Korea, at the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, the Marines were attacked by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Outmanned and outgunned, Puller addressed his troops. “We’ve been looking for the enemy for several days now. We’ve finally found them. We’re surrounded. That simplifies our problem of finding these people and killing them.”
The fighting was fierce and bloody. One Marine later reported, “Puller gave us pride in some way I can’t describe…He kept building up our morale higher and higher…” There’s a good chance that General Puller learned leadership way back in 1918 from his Drill Instructors.
This kind of leader leads by example and is a motivator and an encourager. According to “Ultimate Marine…” “While on duty in Hawaii and inspecting the armory, Puller fined himself $100 for accidentally discharging a .45 caliber pistol indoors, although the charge for his men was only $20.” Gotta love a leader like that!
My mother died in 2003, in Kingsport, TN, after having taken ill eight days earlier. It was early on a Monday morning. I called my office to let them know the news. My secretary, Donna Shelton, told me that the bishop wanted me to call him. “Donna,” I replied, “I’m just not up to it today. Call him back and thank him for me and I’ll see him when this is over.” I led the funeral of my father in September 1996 and, now, I had the responsibility of my mother’s as well.
On Tuesday evening, my phone rang. It was Bishop John Holloway. “Hey, man,” he said. “How are you doing?”
I answered him as best I could then he said, “I want to have a cup of coffee with you.”
I replied, “That would be good. I’ll be home Saturday.”
He said, “I mean tonight.”
“Bishop John,” I answered, “I’m in Kingsport, Tennessee.”
He said, “I know. I am too.”
“What are you doing here?” I queried.
“I came to have a cup of coffee with you.” The man drove seven hours one way from Thomaston, GA to have a cup of coffee, spend the night in a hotel room, and drive the seven hours back the next morning.
Bishop John was not a perfect man (and neither are any of us) but what he did that night for me will never be forgotten. In the years ahead I would drive to upstate New York and Florida; I would fly to California, Washington state, and Utah to attend the funerals of family members of our church family. I have travelled to many other places to do the same. All because of the man who visited me when my brother and I lost our mom.
I’d like to think that what these men taught me by their life and example has found its way somehow into my own life and practice of leadership. Certainly, it is by their standards that I evaluate the leadership of others.
I know that I have a long way to go and I still fall short, even of my own expectations of myself. It’s easy to find examples of poor leadership. But, with a bit of searching, we find good leaders all around us.
Who decides what kind of leader we will be? We do. We determine the type of leader we will be by the positive examples we hold before our eyes.
[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). Worship services are on Sundays at 10:00 a.m. and on livestream at www.ctk.life. He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South (www.midsouthdiocese.life). He may be contacted at email@example.com.]