In the Shadow of September 11, a cadet approached me, his eyes expressing the need to talk.
Since that Black Tuesday, my counseling load as a tactical officer at the United States Military Academy (USMA) decreased. It was as if cadets believed sharing their thoughts of the soul would somehow validate the horrifying reality.
A second class cadet was at the midpoint of his cadet career, four semesters completed and four more to go. He was failing thermodynamics with an average of 60 percent. A USMA Preparatory School graduate and a prior service U.S. Army Ranger, he said, “My best friend who was my team leader three years ago is now a squad leader in the battalion. They’ve been alerted; I know it, ‘cause I can’t get in touch with him. And his wife keeps calling me telling me to get word to him.” He stopped, searching for my reaction.
I nodded. He continued, “But the worst things, Sir, I feel like I’ve trained my whole life for this… this war, my brothers are deploying, every training mission was for naught if I can’t be there with them. I feel like I should be there serving alongside them. Academics… thermodynamics doesn’t seem important to me right now.”
The Cadet’s Current Mission
I nodded again, but this time there was a longer pause. In the distance, I could hear an ambulance siren. He was silent and seemed ready for me to do more than just nod. Ready for me to say something intelligent and help him make peace with his conflicting thoughts. I felt qualified to empathize with him; however, helping him see through a haze of uncertainty seemed daunting. It occurred to me that, between studying and watching CNN, cadets had forfeited the time to process the enormous consequences of September 11 and the uncertain future. Ready or not, it was my turn to talk.
“Cadet, your mission is to prepare. As a cadet at the United States Military Academy, you are called to prepare yourself for whatever our country’s future missions may be.” He looked confused but slowly began nodding as if he understood. It was a timeless nod, a nod that 11 disciples internalized as they watched their leader ascend into the heavens.
A Time to Prepare
Our expectations of how we are preparing to be Christ-like, to be witnesses, are probably different from how we hear and experience God. The mission to prepare lacks the glory of serving on the front lines of battle. Or does it? God Himself calls us as Christian officers to clarify current events for our soldiers. However, as a mentor to officer candidates and junior officers, I confess that I struggle with trying to understand the events of the day. Also struggle with my own faith and with expressing reasonable mission statement to those eager to establish their role in this ever-changing, uncertain world.
God Himself calls us as Christian officers to clarify current events for our soldiers.
In this journey of struggle, the word of God offers a timeless account of divine leadership principles. The principles are in order to help someone like me grasp what “preparation” entails. Current events demand that Christian leaders know themselves not through the world’s lens, but through Christ’s call to be disciples.
Looking to Scripture
In seeking Scriptural guidance, I traveled to a time in our past. A time when the apostle Paul was calling others to prepare for an uncertain future at the church at Colossae. Heresy threatened Christianity as the believers of Colossae lost direction and entertained beliefs from other religions. The false teachings, gnostic in nature, threatened their understanding of the nature of Christ. The Colossians began thinking that if Christ was only a “connecting element” between God and the world, then there must be other deities to be worshiped as well.
In our time of uncertainty, too much media coverage with graphic, horrifying images, have we too lost our direction? Have we as Christians been drained of our joy? Paul advised the Colossians to get back to the basics and the fundamentals. Such as fellowship, accountability, truth, and prayer, focused on Christ Jesus, or forever remain lost as a religion in a new emerging world. Paul states that the Colossians have been given fullness in Christ (Colossians 2:9, NKJV)
Current events demand that Christian leaders know themselves… through Christ’s call to be disciples.
Paul’s charge to believers of AD 61 remains applicable to believers of today. His timeless leadership principles are what we must use to prepare ourselves for an uncertain future.
Paul’s Timeless Leadership Principles:
- Authentic leaders quiet themselves and pray, which yields gifts of endurance, patience, joy, and a spirit of thankfulness.
- Christian leaders focus on the unchanging, timeless principles of the Bible and not the most recent fad.
- Genuine leaders know themselves (their own personality and temperament) and are able to work with others.
- Servant leaders work for their true employers.
The message of Colossians stimulates Christ-centered change. It extends God’s grace in our ordinary lives to encourage us to imitate Him in our character and conduct. Paul communicates the sufficiency and supremacy of Jesus Christ and revealing His dominion over the entire world. Colossians motivates us to prepare our character, our conduct, and our lives for the future. Let’s explore Paul’s leadership principles individually:
Authentic leaders quiet themselves and pray, which yields gifts of endurance, patience, joy, and a spirit of thankfulness.
“For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, for all patience and longsuffering with joy; giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light.” (Col 1:9–12).
Paul charges Christian leaders to be role models who demonstrate specific qualities or traits that will aid us to prepare for the future. Paul emphasizes that God will fill the Colossians with the knowledge of His will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. With the knowledge that God’s will will be done, the Christian officer must prayerfully step out in faith and serve God with confidence and joy, resulting in a spirit of thankfulness.
Fortunately, God paired me with a wife who is a “prayer warrior.” Too often, I am easily angered, short of patience, and (sometimes) miserable to be around. Thankfully, my wife reminds me to pray. Prayer gives us confidence in Christ to be vulnerable for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Through prayer, leaders will look at their careers with endurance and patience. How many times have we, as professional officers, heard the saying, “Run your career in the military like a marathon!” This is the only way to ensure that we do not sacrifice our family and faith to career. Prayer allows patient leaders to risk themselves for the sake of leading subordinates.
Advice as a Tactical Officer
As a tactical officer in the Corps of Cadets at West Point, I received a charge to inspire my company. Humbly, I have learned that authentic leadership is straight from the heart. As an authentic leader, I relate stories that come from my heart. No other method better inspires cadets. For instance, in lieu of giving the routine “safety briefing,” I told them the personal story of losing a soldier to a POV accident because he simply did not wear his seatbelt. I do not try to “shock” them with gory details, but I do share from the heart and the anguish and disappointment of losing a soldier.
Finally, I leave them with the prayer that they do the right thing always while showing them the crushed license plate I found at the crash site. The license plate says, “Freedom Fighter” and I ask them to protect themselves so they may do what this soldier will never be able to do. This spirit of truthful authenticity allows me to exhibit the traits I consider essential to role model leadership in an uncertain world.
Paul states that those who are living a Christ-centered life will “bear fruit.” Any success for the Kingdom of God, no matter how small, gives us an attitude of joy and thankfulness. Therefore, the first general order of preparing yourself is to pray, and a spirit of patience, confidence, thankfulness, and joy will emerge.
Christian leaders focus on the unchanging, timeless principles of the Bible, not the most recent fad.
“Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.” (Col 2:8).
Paul’s second timeless principle talks about remaining true to the fundamentals, in this case, Jesus Christ our Lord. General Douglas MacArthur, in his farewell address to the Corps of Cadets in 1962, stated, “And through all this welter of change and development, your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable-it is to win our wars.” Senior officers will give you their top three to five priorities in an operation order. We are working in a spirit of “less is better.” Likewise, fundamental disciplines exist that we Christians embrace: fellowship, accountability, truth, and prayer. The most recent fad will not sustain leaders during extended operations.
I can admit to not sustaining myself properly. I was a task force commander in charge of all the trucks and maintenance for a National Training Center rotation. Also, I wasn’t praying, studying the Bible, or finding fellowship with my unit chaplain. I was working too hard, blowing off meals, and drinking coffee instead of water. When finally pushed to the edge on not meeting our vehicle turn-in goal, I lost my temper. I stormed across the desert motor pool blaming circumstance for the unit’s predicament. I humbled myself for many weeks after that to redeem my actions. Successful leaders remain true to the fundamentals; they maintain their wellness, nutrition, spiritual fitness, and accountability in order to remain encouraged.
Genuine leaders know themselves (their own personality and temperament) and are able to work with others.
“And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful.” (Col 3:15)
One of the main themes of Colossians is that a right relationship to the exalted Christ manifests itself not in a spurious otherworldliness but through the real human relationships and structures of life in this world. The Colossians’ true identity in Christ became unclear because of the many confusing religions competing for their attention. They readily accepted other religions teachings and traditions of faith because they did not know their true identity in Christ. Instead of preparation, the Colossians sought the fast-food approach to ultimate knowledge in turning to Gnostic teachings. It takes meditation and prayer to know oneself.
Leaders who know themselves are genuine, confident leaders who easily work well with others.
After that humbling experience at the National Training Center, I approached my Battalion Commander for some advice. We discussed what happened in the simulated combat environment and he paused to ask me, “Have you taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test before?” I immediately responded, “Well, of course, Sir!” He returned fire—“Did you think about the results and what they tell you about yourself?” I couldn’t respond to that question as quickly. A year later, I was a senior captain attending the Tactical Officer Education Program pursuing a master’s degree in counseling when I realized that every professor spoke about the MBTI.
Before learning about counseling, I did not understand how critical knowing yourself—how you generally react to situations and other people—would determine what you did in current and future situations. Sun Tzu, a Chinese general around 500 BC and author of The Art of War, explained wisdom. He said, “If you know the enemy and you know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
The Colossians were slowly succumbing to heretical teachings, and Paul saw that the battle for Christian truth was waning. As Christians, we can represent Christ as ambassadors charged to “go and make disciples” of peace. It leads to transcending our daily existence and actions. With the power of the Holy Spirit, a Christian officer’s peace should be a greater component. It allows us to work with anyone.
If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
Servant leaders work for their true employer.
“And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for[a] you serve the Lord Christ.” (Col 3:23–24)
Thankfully, a Christian officer can have accountability. There are bound to be other Christian officers. Such as a mentor at the same installation or a peer in your organization. Someone who desires exactly what you do, accountability in pursuit of Christ’s call. If confident and competent junior officers pursue the Christian disciplines and bear fruit, their true Boss is glorified. Unfortunately, life becomes busier than we care for and missions take priority over Christian fundamentals. Our desire to “be” the Christian as parents, officers, or spouses can be clouded easily by the operational tempo of the unit that we serve.
Through accountability, you have a way, a Colossian way, to be reminded that family and faith can be a priority in a successful professional’s lifestyle. Be encouraged, and know that you will “receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward” when you work “for the Lord” and “not for men.”
To grow by focusing on the fundamentals of Christ through knowing yourself and experiencing “grace in the ordinary.” The young second class cadet remained a cadet at the Academy. He became proficient in thermodynamics and continues to prepare for the uncertain future. As a tactical officer, I am encouraged because I can clearly see the practical application of Christian principles. They are enriching the character development of the future leaders of our Armed Forces and our Nation. May God bless you, our future junior officers, and our country during this uncertain time in our history.