What Billy Graham Learned About Leadership

I have no idea where this page in my handwriting originated, but at some point I either heard Billy Graham talking about this or read it.

“What Billy Graham learned from his contacts with world leaders in all fields….” is the heading.

There are five points:

1) Leadership has its own set of special burdens and pressures.

2) Leadership can be lonely.

3) People in positions of influence are often used by others for their own selfish ends.

4) People in the public eye are often looked upon as role models even though they may not choose it.

5) Many men and women who are leaders in secular fields have given relatively little thought to God.

In my opinion, these are not “lessons” which Dr. Graham learned from the world leaders he bumped elbows with all over the world so much as they are observations. As he thought back on a long lifetime of meeting, greeting, counseling and negotiating with presidents, kings, and potentates, he noticed these things in common.

He noticed, for instance, that rulers in high places have unusual burdens to bear, pressures the average citizen cannot begin to imagine.

Yesterday, a local radio talk show host had one of our congressmen as his guest. After giving a lengthy litany of unsolved problems in this country, everything from jobs to healthcare to the Middle East to Toyota’s recall to the inability of congressional leaders to work together, he asked, “So, tell me why we shouldn’t kick all of you out and start fresh with another group?”

The politician was gracious–something his host had not been, I felt–but I’d like to have answered the question. In the famous words of Rosanne Rosannadanna, “It’s always something.” Solve these and there will be a new set of problems.

There might have been a time in the history of the world when rulers had it easy. That time is long past. One has to have a real calling to run for president of this country–or be a complete egotist who does not live in the real world. The problems and pressures are enormous.

Second: the loneliness of leadership is a fact. That’s true at every level, but is magnified a thousandfold at the highest.

A friend of mine recently went to his first pastorate after being a staff member of a church for four years. Within weeks, he and his wife were experiencing stress as they had never known it. Even though the town where they live is small, the demands upon his time are enormous. Unlike their life as a staff member, the pastor is on call 24/7. Nothing they had ever done in a church had prepared them for this.

If you will permit an old cliche’ here, no one understands the leader except another one. That’s why they get together and socialize together, if they do at all. It’s why the boss does not socialize with his underlings; they live and operate in different worlds even if they live in the same neighborhood.

Third: People in leadership are sometimes used by others for their own selfish ends.

Here’s how that works….

“Pastor, our organization needs to raise a million dollars for the new Blankety-Blank Center. We need a prominent name as chairman, someone everyone knows and respects. Can we count on you?”

Agree to do that and soon you will be accompanying the hired guns from out of town to make cold calls on well-heeled citizens, asking for large donations for this center.

Billy Graham told Ross Perot, “Let’s get one thing straight–I’ll never ask you for a dime.” Perot: “I’ve never had anybody say that to me. They’re all wanting money.”

My college president, then retired, called me at the church office. I was impressed. He asked if I knew such-and-such a leader in the city. I did. Could I get him an appointment to see him? I made a phone call and set it up.

And I felt terrible about it. I knew that civic leader with the deep pockets was forever fielding visits from out-of-towners with a cause they just knew he would be interested in investing in or contributing toward.

Four: People in the public eye are looked upon as role models even though they don’t ask for that.

I’m certain that’s true. My own sphere, however, is the church and my colleagues are pastors. We are expected to be role models and know that it comes with the territory.

Five: Secular leaders often give little thought to God.

No doubt this is correct, too. Billy Graham would be in a position to see that. My opinion is that the public can usually tell when a politician is gratuitously dropping in religious expressions. I always felt this kind of hypocrisy when Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson spoke of God. Later, we learned that each had foul mouths and were users and abusers of people, traits that negate any religious talk emanating from their direction.

Dr. Graham’s observations were formed, we can be confident, from his contact with leaders of another generation. The first president he met was Harry Truman, and they got off to a rocky start, according to Graham’s own words. After meeting with him in the Oval Office, the Graham team was ambushed by reporters on the front lawn who wanted a chapter and verse account of the meeting. In his naivete, Graham told them. When a photographer wanted a shot of them praying, the team knelt and posed.

When that picture came out and Truman saw it with the accompanying story, he was incensed. As far as he was concerned, they were publicity hounds and had been using the president to further their cause. It was decades before Truman and Graham made up and put this behind them.

Billy Graham certainly had cause to see how people want to use a leader. For that reason, he had a phalanx of associates and assistants around him. He was (and is) such a gracious person, he would accept invitations which his team knew he should turn down.

In 1987, as the First Baptist Church of Charlotte, where I was serving, was preparing to dedicate our new sanctuary in February of the following year, I contacted Dr. Graham to invite him to the occasion. His sister and her family were members, as was Dr. Grady Wilson, the longtime associate evangelist in the BGEA. I was not surprised to learn Dr. Graham would not be able to come–I felt I was imposing by asking. What did surprise me, however, was the letter I received.

It was a full page in Dr. Graham’s own handwriting, telling why he would not be able to attend the dedication. I was honored and began making plans for other speakers.

To my surprise, Dr. Grady Wilson said to me, “Don’t worry, pastor. He’ll come. We’ll get him here.”

I knew if anyone could pull that off, it would be this friend of over 50 years.

Alas, Dr. Wilson went to Heaven in November of 1987. Dr. Graham came for the funeral, as did all the BGEA team.

Remember the line in the Epistle of James that warns against many becoming teachers because they have the greater accountability? (Jas. 3:1)

It’s true of leaders. What they do will influence so many people in great ways and to great extents. It’s an awful burden.

Don’t volunteer unless you are willing to pay the price and bear the burden.