Leading at 30,000 Feet

Several days ago I was sitting on a plane waiting to take off. We were heading home, back to Atlanta, and I was ecstatic. I’d gotten the exit row, the one right by the entrance door, so there was lots of legroom for the 6’ 5’’ guy. I couldn’t wait to see my wife and my daughters. This flight couldn’t have started any better than this. Then, as I’m sitting there the pilot approaches the cabin door to begin greeting people. Immediately an older lady jovially asks, “What are you doing back here; who’s going to fly the plane?” And the pilot’s response unexpectedly unnerved me. “I’m going to let my young first mate fly us home today. I can’t take ‘em all. That would be selfish.”

Now, the reason why this unnerved me a little is because I have flown a lot, and every bad experience I’ve ever had flying I can attribute to a “young first mate” taking the wheel. Bumpy flights, sudden cabin pressure drops, and pancake landings have been my experience with these young guys. So, my first response was to bristle up. Then I began to think, “If I am uncomfortable at best, completely unraveled at worst, about the idea of a young guy flying this plane and his care of my physical life, because I so value my life and the lives of the people on this plane, then why are we not equally unnerved about so quickly turning over high levels of influence and leadership to young leaders who are essentially in the care of the spiritual life and souls of people?”

It all culminated quickly in my mind as I thought of the myriad young leaders, including myself, who are thrust onto national and international platforms, given a voice to speak into the spiritual lives of people, but have logged very few hours in the “pilot’s seat” of anything. It is a fascinating and dangerous reality that I see running rampant in church and conference culture.

Before you lead anything, you need to have proven that you’ve been faithful in something over time…and that you’re capable of handling some success.

You see, there are lessons learned in time served that cannot be gained through reading books, going to seminary, or even having an incredible mentor. Some leadership skills require a “you just have to have been there” sentiment, or the chance for irrevocable damage to the lives of the people these young men and women are leading is imminent. Instead of thrusting the young, trained, and talented into immediate influence, there needs to be a period of waiting and watching. Careful dissection of quiet idols, character leaks, and pressure points, all of which, unchecked, are the cause of the meteorite-like like falls of so many “talented and influential” young leaders. Young leaders need to wait for their time, and only God knows precisely when that is.

Now, am I saying there is no place of influence for a young leader? Of course not. But we need to lead low before we dream of leading high. We need to log some hours in the trenches before we sit in the general’s chair. We need to spend some time sitting under the leadership of a seasoned pilot before we dream of flying the plane. After all, if the young guy flying my plane makes one crucial mistake, I might lose my body. If a young leader in the church is thrust too soon into a position of influence and power and makes a crucial mistake, something much more costly could be lost.

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