Winston Churchill, the prime minister of Great Britain who led his country to victory over Hitler and Nazi Germany in World War 2, was maybe the greatest leader of the 20th century. In World War 1, however, he suffered a failure that looked like it would doom any chance for greatness.
Churchill was a 40-year-old rising star in British politics and in a position of leadership in the Royal Navy. He proposed a bold invasion during World War 1 that became a tragic disaster. Others contributed to the failure, but Churchill became the scapegoat. He lamented to a friend, “I am finished!” The debacle haunted him for decades. But when he became prime minister 25 years later he noted that, “All my past life has been a preparation for this hour and for this trial.” That included his humiliating failure.
The greatest leader of the 19th century was probably Abraham Lincoln. He recognized the evil of slavery and the importance of maintaining the Union. His words and vision of “a new birth of freedom” and a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” inspired people then and ever since.
Before being elected president Lincoln suffered a number of humbling defeats in politics as well as in business and his personal life. He also endured humiliating comments about many aspects of his life, including his looks. Nathaniel Hawthorne called him, “The ugliest man I ever put my eyes on.” When somebody accused Lincoln of being “two-faced” his reply was, “If I had another face, do you think I’d wear this one?”
Lincoln’s humility and strength of character was shown in his ability to take a joke and make fun of himself. We maybe should be suspicious of any leader who can’t laugh at himself.
The greatest leader in the Bible, other than Jesus, is most likely Moses, who led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. For the first 40 years of his life he was raised as a son of the Pharaoh. For the next 40 years, however, he was a murderer on the run and an obscure shepherd in the wilderness. But God called him to go back to Egypt and lead his people. Moses thought he was totally inadequate for the job. “Moses said to God, ‘Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt? … O Lord, please send someone else to do it'” (Exodus 3:11, 4:13).
The main character trait we are told about Moses, that contributed to him being a great leader, is his humility. “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). When his own brother and sister questioned his leadership, we’re not told of him firing back at them. He let God handle it, which He did by humiliating Miriam and Aaron as recorded in Numbers 12.
At times people elevate to leadership those who speak the loudest, give an appearance of confidence, stand up for themselves and knock others down. It’s tempting to get impressed by ones who boast of having impressive abilities and accomplishments. The lesson of history and Scripture encourages us to look for and pray for leaders in our congregations, communities, business and politics, who are humble. We seek after leaders who have endured trials and failures that have shaped them and taught them lessons in humility and compassion. Humility might not be the first thing we look for in a leader, but it might be one of the first things God looks for.
The greatest leader of all – Jesus – amazingly described Himself as “gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29). Our world does not value gentleness and humility, but those who follow Jesus should. While the world often is enamored with people who brag and boast, we give thanks we get to follow Jesus who points to different values and a different way of doing things. We follow the One who promises, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).