Gentle leaders

Gentle Leaders

The stories of two Second World War US Generals perfectly illustrate a leadership quality listed in the Bible.

Deep in Paul’s pastoral list of qualities for leadership in 1 Timothy 3 is the word “gentle”.

Leaders should be “not violent but gentle”. Both words are pretty rare in the context of the wider New Testament, but neither is much disputed when it comes to meaning. Violent (plektes) carries the sense of abusing one’s position. In contrast, gentle (epieikes) denotes either gentleness or (as it is sometimes translated) considerate; in other words, someone who puts the feelings of others first.

It is difficult, in the results-orientated world which we inhabit, to see how the quality of gentleness connects with leadership. How, if we are so gentle, do we ever get results?

It’s not a question many of us might articulate, but deep down we might still harbour a kind of grudging admiration for the uber-alpha-male approach which shuns such consideration and just gets on with it, never mind the cost.

Nothing could be further from the biblical model of shepherding that Paul espouses and Jesus models. And I’ve been reading and learning the truth of this biblical lesson from a surprising secular source.

A tale of two Generals

It’s from a rather obscure military history book by Jonathan Jordan comparing and contrasting the leadership journeys and experiences of three of the most well-known Second World War US Generals: namely Dwight ‘Ike’ Eisenhower, George S Patton, and Omar Bradley (pictured above).

These latter two interest me greatly as, unlike Eisenhower, they were operational commanders. Their nicknames are perhaps instructive: Patton was known universally as ‘Old Blood and Guts’ whereas Bradley was named the ‘GI General’. Both got results.

Arguably for much of the war, Patton’s results were more impressive but, in the end, he was not given the very highest command because of character defects. He was, in essence, a bully.

Bradley on the other hand was gentle. He was considerate. He wasn’t afraid to make tough decisions but he always wanted to think what effect the decision would have on the ordinary fighting soldier, hence his moniker. It sometimes meant he acted more slowly than Patton did. And once or twice this even led to bad decision making (it is generally acknowledged that it was Bradley who failed to close the Falaise pocket if you’re interested in such details).

But, in the final reckoning, it was ‘Brad’ who proved himself the better leader and Patton who proved to be disqualified.

There is, of course, the famous instance of the soldier slapping in Sicily (you can Google it), but the book paints a much bleaker overall picture. There is the rather sordid story of how Patton urinated in a senior general’s trench in full view of his staff so that he would not ‘dig in’ but rather keep attacking. There is his general attitude - ‘Better to rule in hell than serve in heaven’ - he confided to his diary.

His attitude proved ultimately dangerous. In Sicily, he committed men to a needless and wasteful attack in order to beat Montgomery to Messina. Thousands died. The book is scattered with many such stories.

Bradley started off his Second World War command subordinate to Patton in North Africa, and then in Sicily. By the time of the French campaign the roles were reversed and if Bradley had had anything to do with it Patton would not have been allowed to serve at all.

And in contrast to his contemporary, Bradley’s “language was moderate. He wore a simple uniform…his tenor voice almost shy… He got along with his peers…he compensated for his nasal tone with gravitas and modesty…he always put people at ease… In victory or crisis, the man seemed imperturbable, a sea captain who could be seen calmly loading his pipe on a ship’s deck whilst the vessel rocked in a hurricane.”

The cost of results

Results – even in war – cannot be pursued at any cost.

In church life, the same is true. The Scriptures, the example of Christ, and even the wisdom of the world confirm the same lesson: the kind of leader you are is no small matter.

And the best shepherds of all are those who lead with gentleness.

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