Commander and Christian: Not Mutually Exclusive

Leadership theory covers a vast spectrum of skills, behaviors, and relationships. The theoretical world of leadership continues as a dynamic and agile field of study, with no clear “holy grail” in sight. This makes this field of study as challenging as it is enjoyable. However, one thing that remains constant how some aspect of each predominant theory seems to apply to day-to-day life. As a veteran of the United States Air Force, with 25 years of active-duty experience, I want to share how leadership theory was at work during my service. My hope is that some of the patriotic taxpayers in the civilian world will get a return-on-investment with some of the lessons I learned through inside access to leadership theory at work. As a Christian, I desire readers to discover direct application of Christian-based leadership theory in the call-toarms—something with which many other believers may internally struggle. Through the lenses of core values, command, and family, I aim to show the application of leadership theory and how everyday operations bridge deeply and routinely into academia, as well as in combat.

Core Values are the Minimum

The United States Air Force (USAF) was established by the National Security Act of 1947 (Department of Defense, 1947). Like many other organizations, the USAF took some time to codify its moral compass. In 1997, the USAF published a “Little Blue Book” that, for the first time, officially introduced a set of axiomatic principles known as core values. These USAF core values were, and remain, “Integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do” (USAF, 2015a; USAF, 2015b). This means for 50 years, leaders in a large, well-resourced organization struggled with something so basic that they are now considered “core” values. This is revealing. In the day-to-day, routine, run-of-the-mill operations, items as simple as “integrity, service, and excellence” should require no emphasis . . . they seem rather obvious. Yet, when considering leadership theory, and more specifically, Christian leadership, some insights inevitably emerge.

Let us examine these core values one at a time.

“Integrity First”

The USAF encourages all members to operate openly and honestly in all matters, even when sharing unwelcome news or the now in-vogue “speaking truth to power” (Head, 2013, p. 1). Living a life with integrity applies to several leadership theories; this concept also applies to a Christian leader’s everyday life. Speaking the truth, maintaining honor, or cherishing integrity, in all forms, are mentioned over 100 times in Scripture (found via eSword search results). While the USAF was not necessarily emphasizing “Christian values” or biblical principles in their core values, the parallels are apparent.

“Service Before Self”

A USAF member must often make tough decisions regarding work and life. However, the Service (in this case, the Air Force) frequently gets the final say. After only a few years in the service, most service members lose track of the number of birthdays, anniversaries, and special occasions they missed due to the “service-before-self” mantra. Sacrifice should also not be a new concept in a Christian leader’s day-to-day life, since Jesus Christ Himself was the innocent and spotless sacrifice (Heb. 4:15). Most helpful leadership theories incorporate some sort of sacrifice by the leader; the USAF and Bible both encourage an attitude and mindset of willing sacrifice. Patterson (2006) does an amazing job of codifying this in the “servant leader” studies and theory (p. 292).

“Excellence in All We Do”

Leadership theories revolve around success. While Kunich and Lester (2006, p. 22) emphasize both “managers and leaders must be excellent in order to be successful,” the same applies for followers as well (Chaleff, 1996, p. 1). Excellence should become normal and routine for a Christian leader. Colossians 3:23 specifically states “. . . whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men” (KJV). Taken together, the third USAF core value aligns perfectly with multiple scriptures either that discuss the importance of bringing only the best effort to the nation or to God. Engstrom (1976) hammers this home by emphasizing that the binary aspects of biblical excellence are clearly evident (p. 200–201). He concludes by saying, “nothing less than the pursuit of excellence can possibly please God . . . ” (p. 201).

If only one USAF core value was found in Scripture, it would likely be nothing more than an interesting tidbit. However, finding all three values in an open view should serve both the military and Christian leaders. Perhaps some leadership theories diverge on the periphery, but they appear to have more similarities than differences at their core.

Command is About Serving

While leadership is a vital part of many non-command positions in the USAF, leadership and leadership theory directly apply to designated command positions (known as G-series order positions). Hollywood and the media often skew the public’s understanding of many military positions, and the concept and attitude of command in the Armed Forces may be one of the most misunderstood notions regarding the military (at least from the outside, looking in). In reality, while much of what matters in the military is the task at hand—including placing oneself in hazardous,  life-changing  situations—the real way to get the mission accomplished is to put the people just slightly ahead of the mission until given no other choice.

“A leader’s choices are influenced by his or her moral development” (Northouse, 2017, p. 336). In this statement, the foundational essence of military command is encapsulated. If a commander treats others like they want to be treated (i.e., follow the “Golden Rule”), their probability of success typically skyrockets. Kouzes and Posner (2017) also add fuel to Northouse’s fire, positing that “the most effective leadership situations are those in which each member of the team trusts the others” (p. 199). Effective command of troops requires both. Coupling a leader’s moral development with his or her trustworthiness results in a powerful combination of principle-based decision-making and steadfast/predictable leadership under fire. In both peacetime and combat, leaders are subject to stress-inducing situations, often for the first time in their lives and careers. While peacetime may include more factors applicable to life in garrison or on base/fort/post, the command climate in combat shifts as the threat to life and resources increases or decreases. Peacetime can be just as challenging, but the combat environment has smaller margins for error and is often more unforgiving.

Another angle, reminiscent of the core value discussion, is Winston and Patterson’s (2006) emphasis on a leader’s commitment to their followers by tying together the beatitudes and the model/concept of servant leadership (p. 8). In doing this, they strike another important chord in military command—serving those under their care is not optional; it is a requirement for a successful command tour. Northouse (2017) nails this concept down when stating that servant leadership “ . . . begins when leaders commit themselves to putting their followers first, being honest with them, and treating them fairly” (p. 240). Versus the oft implied culture of the military commander, Northouse’s (2017) phraseology describes the very best military commanders, both currently and historically.

Family Matters

One of the most understudied aspects of leadership is how a leader leads an organization to higher heights in the work environment without jeopardizing or negatively impacting his or her marriage and home life. While many success stories revolve around turning good companies into great companies or completely revitalizing a faltering/failing company, there seems to be a woefully inadequate level of research regarding how to keep a healthy worklife balance during amazingly successful periods on the job (Collins, 2007). The greatest leaders seem to be those who somehow accomplish both and arrive at a ripe old age with a lengthy list of accomplishments and an intact, wholesome, content group of families and friends.

While sacrifice is almost always required for progress to occur, the leader must weigh the level of sacrifice and the cost-benefit analysis. The most effective and best leaders in the USAF seem to be those who possess an uncanny ability to address work-life balance in a healthy way. The command teams that involve their family to some degree, without becoming overly burdensome, seem to have happier families and are more authentic and relatable to their subordinates. The emotional intelligence of these “one-of-a-kind” commanders seems to be higher, as they had a knack for “relationship management” in an enhanced light (Bradberry & Greaves, 2009, p. 44). Whether they were born with these skills or developed them over time, they are the ones that well-intentioned and holistically inclined subordinates aim to emulate.

From a personal perspective, a Christian husband and father should help lead their family to the ultimate goal of salvation without being politically incorrect. According to the Bible, not much else matters, and in the wisdom of scripture, what good is it to “gain the whole world and lose your soul” (or your family’s soul) (Matt. 19:26; Mark 8:36). Winston and Patterson (2006) back this precept up when they write that “leaders who seek their own good and not the good of the organization would be classified as ‘bad’ leaders, whereas leaders who focus on the good of the employees and the good of the organization would be classified as ‘good’ leaders” (p. 12). Surely the same can be said of “bad” and “good” spouses and parents. In all truth, both husbands and wives, fathers and mothers can cause imbalance in their work and home lives. The spouse who is enthralled with their work, brings it home, and ignores their family is just as much at fault as the one who only does family-oriented activities and fails to perform the basic biblical tasks of providing and keeping (1 Cor. 11:3; Titus 2:5). Christian leaders must balance their work and person lives; they need not be workaholics nor should they be slothful (Prov. 24).

In summation, leadership theory is most often associated with the work environment and organizations versus the family, yet they are intertwined. Christian leaders must also balance the work environment and its associated and applicable leadership theories by simultaneously serving their family as spouses and parents.

Synthesis and Conclusion

In all the areas listed above, leadership theories are routinely at work.

Military Leaders

For example, the skills (i.e., individual abilities of the leader), path-goal (i.e., focus on process and outcome), and leader-member exchange (i.e., centered on relationships) approaches are often most present when performing large-force training maneuvers and complex exercises. In these scenarios, military leaders are subject to tactical prowess evaluations and are primarily measured based on mission accomplishment. Conversely, but also synergistically related, the situational (i.e., based on limited circumstances and factors), adaptive (i.e., agile and dynamic per varied conditions), and behavioral (i.e., how values drive conduct) approaches seem to apply most in the heat of combat and its associated fog and friction.

In these instances, a leader must think even more quickly and succinctly, frequently while under immense pressure and within a dynamic/fluid environment. Often, only the agile thinkers survive and thrive. Finally, the authentic (i.e., leaders perceived as real and transparent), team-oriented (i.e., functioning as a team “captain”), and servant (i.e., focused on primarily serving followers) models apply across the spectrum but may be the most closely aligned with work/life balance and peacetime, in-garrison command.

The takeaway here is a complex but vital one. No one leadership theory serves the commander and his/her troops as well as a hybrid perspective of several. Astute, well-respected commanders approach every situation with their toolboxes and their minds open and with the purest of intentions. The United States is at its lowest ever historical percentage of those who have served in the military versus the overall population. Counting all veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf Wars, only 1.6% of the total population has served (United States Department of Veteran Affairs, 2017). Despite this statistic, America’s Armed Forces are deployed worldwide by the hundreds of thousands, averaging somewhere around 375,000 per year in any given month (Statista, 2019).

The purpose of these statistics is twofold. American military leaders may be approaching their highest level of importance in history. In the words of Winston Churchill, referring to pilots in the Battle of Britain on August 20, 1940: “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.” The second reason is to help identify the immense pressure these volunteer professionals face daily. Faced with this pressure, the ability to keep a solid foundation of core values, humility while in authority, and a healthy work-life balance remains impressive.

Christian Leaders

As per Ephesians 6, being in this world, but not of this world, will require proper armor and a battle-hardened mindset. Leaders who desire to be morally and ethically sound will be attacked. Leaders who excel in serving others, especially while in positions of authority will be criticized. Leaders who, when able, make decisions leaning toward their family rather than their own self-promotion, may suffer either retribution, ridicule, or both. The strength of a leader’s character does not originate nor stem from time spent in the soft and plush times of relaxation, but rather in the crucibles of leadership (Bennis & Thomas, 2002, p. 72).

Whether a military leader, a Christian leader, or both, take solace in knowing the similarities and parallels are far more common and overlapping than many perceive. Also, remember that only one man in the Bible attains the title of “a man after God’s own heart,” and he was a man of war!


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Lance A. Wilkins retired from the United States Air Force as a colonel in 2019. He is currently employed in the defense aerospace industry and is also a doctoral student in the Strategic Leadership program at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

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