George McClellan was a famous general in the Union Army during the Civil War. He was called “the young Napoleon” for his perceived military genius and prowess. He had all the education credentials. He graduated 2nd in his class at West Point. He was great at making plans, preparation and training, and military theory. He knew leadership by the book. This reputation led to Abraham Lincoln’s appointment of McClellan as general-in-chief of the entire Union Army in 1861. He was only thirty-five years old.
But McClellan would soon develop a different reputation. History remembers George McClellan, not as a young Napoleon, but as a failed leader. His greatest blunder: He wouldn’t lead. McClellan notoriously over-analyzed every situation. He waited, paralyzed by fears and unknowns, until opportunities for success and victories had passed. He attempted to justify inaction with appeals of being under-resourced, undermanned, and in weaker positions than his opponent. He just refused to lead.
President Lincoln implored him to take action and lead his troops into battle and achieve victory. McClellan continued to demonstrate a case of—what Lincoln and Confederate Army generals tagged—“the slows.” McClellan was eventually relieved of his position. Lincoln would appoint several more generals—who would also fail to lead—before making General Ulysses S. Grant the Union Army’s general-in-chief. Grant took the fight to the South, which eventually led the heralded Confederate general, Robert E. Lee, to surrender in 1865. The war had been won.
The role of a leader is to lead. You may be rolling your eyes at the “duh-ness” of the last sentence, but many in positions and roles of leadership fail to do it. Many people seem to prefer the idea and status of being the leader, as opposed to actually leading. If you are a leader, you must tell yourself daily “lead!” or you will drift into maintenance and complacency. I would rather remind myself to lead, instead of being in position where someone else has to say it to me. If someone else is telling me to “lead,” then I am being passive, hesitant, playing it safe, and settling for status quo. It is only when I am exhorting myself daily to “lead!” that I will fight the natural pull to drift.
An well-known quote that captures the issue: “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”
If you do not lead, someone else will. When there is a leadership vacuum, someone always steps in to fill it. As the pastor, even one who works with and through boards, staffs, and committees, failing to lead is incompetent, irresponsible, and quite frankly, indefensible.
Is that too harsh? Am I overreaching with my assessment? I don’t think so. Paul exhorts leaders in Romans 12:8 to lead with zeal. Lead with great energy and enthusiasm. Run hard in pursuit of the cause of Christ and the advancement of his kingdom. This does not paint a picture of wimpy, passive, play-it-safe, don’t-rock-the-boat leadership. We need vibrant, strong, wise, and courageous leaders in our churches. Why? There is no greater mission and cause in the world than the church’s mission.
Historians unanimously agree that George McClellan’s unwillingness to lead significantly prolonged the war and brought about the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of men. As heart-wrenching as that is, there are millions of people perishing in their sin, facing a Christless eternity, and do not know the gospel or see the beauty of Jesus, because we are unwilling to lead. For Christ’s sake, pastors, lets lead! Remind yourself daily.