As an American history major in college, I remember a discussion in which we debated who was the greatest president in our history. Several classmates argued for Abraham Lincoln because he was able to hold the union together during the Civil War. Others thought Franklin Roosevelt was the greatest because of his leadership during the Great Depression and World War II. You may want to add a name or two yourself. I thought then and continue to think that our greatest president was our first, George Washington, for one simple reason. After two terms he stepped down.
Watching the current turmoil in North Africa as large crowds protest their countries’ long-time leaders, I am thankful that our nation has a rich history of orderly presidential transitions. George Washington started that tradition when he potentially could have been president for life. His advisors were advocates for a longer tenure. They feared that the country would break apart without Washington. But Washington wanted to step down and go back to Mount Vernon. After eight years he was ready to hand leadership to someone else.
One danger for any leader is to think that your leadership is indispensable for the organization. That is true in businesses, congregations, colleges and non-profits. “The organization NEEDS me,” can become an egotistical justification for remaining in a leadership position long past one’s effectiveness. George Washington showed our nation how one can gracefully step down from high office. He modeled a key characteristic of what Jesus described as servant leadership:
A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But (Jesus) said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” Luke 22: 24-26
What characteristics in your opinion makes a president or leader great?