I remember playing “follow the leader” as a kid, where someone is designated as the “leader” with everyone else lined up behind them. Whatever the leader does, whether they run in circles, do jumping jacks, or some kind of awkwardly executed attempt at gymnastics, everyone else has to do it too. Most people in life want to be the leader. Or perhaps, more accurately, most people don’t want to follow someone else. This leads to a rather narrow and ineffective view of what is required of a good leader. One of the many important abilities that leaders have is balancing leading from the front with leading from the rear. 

Leading from the front refers to being right in the thick of things with your team. It’s the restaurant owner helping bus tables on a particularly busy night, or the Army Commander breaking down a door to breach a building alongside his team. Leading from the front offers the leader the opportunity to really understand the perspective of his team, and how they view the organization, its operation, and their role in it all. Equally important, it can also be a massive morale boost among the team. Oftentimes, few things generate a more rapid increase in respect for a leader than to see him willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with his team in the most difficult, dirty, and dangerous jobs. 

To lead from the rear, on the other hand, is to step back and survey the entire structure, seeing how all the pieces fit together to achieve the overall goal of the organization. This is the ancient battle commander who stations himself on a hill behind his army so he can direct the entire encounter, or the marketing manager who designs a campaign combining the efforts of three different departments, and aligns it with a local community celebration for maximum exposure. The broad, 30,000ft perspective of a leader is what allows organizations to move forward towards an overall goal, growing and evolving as a whole along the way.

As with so many things in life, it is the balance that is crucial. When a leader is always on the front lines, he’s likely to find his perspective to be severely limited, and the team ends up spinning its wheels without progressing. Conversely, if he is always in the rear, he lacks knowledge and understanding about the reality of his team and the situation on the ground, and therefore implements strategies and goals that are ultimately unattainable. Either extreme leads to the failure of the team.

We see this struggle for balance play out in church leadership as well, including in the pastoral office. Rev. Ross Engel points out in this week’s Ringside, that while pastors tend to live on the front, they can and should step back to the rear occasionally. “If you get stuck being the front man all the time, you get focused on doing the day-to-day job, the preaching and teaching. You get so bogged down in that, you can’t see what to do next. I think as, pastors it’s good to take that step back from time to time and look around and consider the big picture….and the strategic goals you’re working towards. There’s a realm and a place for that type of leadership in the pastoral office.” Pastors should not be the end-all, be-all of church leadership, but sometimes delivering the goods of salvation to the people right in front of you requires you to step into the rear to see and apply a bigger strategy. 

Rev. Paul Koch noted that the current pandemic has almost forced pastors to take a step back to see how the decisions individual churches are making will have an extensive impact on the church and its members. “If we change things, how will this impact the spiritual wellbeing of the people of God, and those bigger picture issues become crucial, and that kind of leadership [from the rear] becomes really important. Not just for how are we going to continue the institution, but how we are going to care for the people of God.”

The answer to being effective in this aspect of leadership is both/and. Those God has gifted as leaders need to be able to balance leading from both the front and the rear, although crucially, not necessarily in equal parts. The optimal balance will ultimately vary from one vocation to the next, but there will always be a need to see both the forest and the trees. “A good leader does not get bogged down in the minutia of a tactical problem at the expense of strategic success.” Jocko Willink, Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win. 

This article is a brief examination of one of several topics discussed on this week’s episode of Ringside with the Preacher Men. Listen to Rev. Joel Hess, Rev. Ross Engel, Rev. Paul Koch, and Tyler the Intern as they celebrate their 200th episode, duking it out over the merits of critical race theory and its value in our social conversations, and why Jocko Willink is awesome and the ultimate authority on leadership, on the latest full Ringside with the Preacher Men episode, “200th!! Critical Race Theory Explored”

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