When I see men and women champion life and leave behind them a legacy of character I’m awed. Inquisitively I search out elements that made them great and reluctantly asked, “how did they do that?” I don’t advocate idolizing people, but I think there is a value in learning from leaders who have run their race well.
Over the past few months, I’ve been reading the biographies of many world-renown leaders, and I am profoundly amazed at the common threads of greatness that I found. Here are a few:
- Leaders don’t look for fame.
When asked to command the young American army, George Washington cautiously questioned his ability to lead out in such a great role. Even throughout the revolution and rising into his presidency, He showed great reservations about the fame that came with his ability to lead. Examining Washington’s life, I was encouraged to see the blatant humanity that he contended with in his leadership of a new nation. At the close of his career, he was asked to take the presidency for a third term. With a caliber that exceeds most politicians today, he declined, implying that he wanted to set the precedent of limiting the power of the presidency. (1776 by David McCullogh, Seven Men: And the Secret of their Greatness by Eric Metaxes)
- Leaders guide with a sense of legacy. Each decision must be weighed in view of generations to come. Many accused the abolitionist William Wilberforce of being inconsiderate of immediate needs, but he valued the future of a generation to come. Wilberforce, in pursuing his “two great objectives,” lost many friends, family, and wealth to ensure that slavery would no longer be the means of wealth for his nation. His success in restoring social morals through legislative acts offers such a powerful beacon of hope to political problems today. (Amazing Grace by Eric Metaxes, Real Christianity by William Wilberforce.)
- Leaders repeatedly make personal sacrifices for the good of others. In the face of Hitler’s destruction of the German nation, Bonheoffer chose to repeatedly call the German church to a place of allegiance to Jesus. Bonhoeffer’s life and writings gracefully challenged the authority of the church when it became intrinsically corrupt. Knowing the cost of resisting Hitler’s reign, Bonheoffer persisted in presenting a clear proclamation of the church’s role amid the torrents of war, social revolution and political corruption. (Bonhoeffer: Prophet, Martyr, Spy. By Eric Metaxes, Life Together by Dietrich Bonheoffer, Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonheoffer.)
- Leaders are faithful in the face of persecution. John Wesley, though barred from every church in England, remained faithful in preaching the gospel of salvation by grace. Against the Calvinistic culture of the day, John stood with great resolve to preach the gospel clearly to the masses. Wesley’s personal life was plagued with heartache and disappointment even as he led the American colonies in revival. His commitment to the call of God was not dissuaded by the turmoil within his own home or by attacks from close friends. Like many leaders, John’s persecution came from those whom he loved. Even in this, he pressed forward in unfolding the culture of salvation by grace through faith in the European and American churches. (God’s Generals: The Revivalist by Roberts Lairdon)
- Leaders pursue serving people and not a position. With a clear understanding of his call to the ministry, Charles Finney faithfully served under the teachings of Rev. George Gale for years. Gale, who initially thought Finney to be a lost cause, later held the honor of training him to be an ardent student of God’s Word. As Finney’s ministry grew rapidly, he took the time to serve in Gale’s church, and from that place of learning, he became a theological giant and revivalist. It would have been easy for Finney to discard his relationship with Rev. Gale as his own ministry exploded. However, seeing the wisdom of having a mentor, he chose to be taught before teaching. (Systematic Theology by Charles G. Finney, God’s Generals: The Revivalist by Roberts Lairdon)
- Leaders take the time to develop. Leaders can foolishly rush toward their calling with great zeal and little knowledge. The wise, however, took years to prepare themselves under mentors. Many of the leaders I’ve listed looked at their formative years of training as vital to accomplishing the feats they did. John Wesley learned the fundamental principles of grace from the Moravians, who ushered him forward in his theology. Bonheoffer intentionally chose to be trained by the controversial theologians of his day. Men like Friedrich Schleiermacher and Adolf von Harnack didn’t fully agree with Bonheoffer’s personal beliefs, but he gained their respect. By honoring his teachers and learning their ways of thinking, he was able to battle through the deceptive ideologies of enlightenment in the World War 2 era.
There are many timeless lessons to be learned from the life of each of these leaders. My hope is that this little blog will whet your appetite to search out their writings and biographies. I’ve listed the sourcebooks for each biography.