The waiting room was packed and the line was long. I had just turned ten years old and my dad had recently been promoted. Turning ten on a military base was a rite of passage because you could get an official military ID card that was needed to move freely around the base, see movies, and buy things.
While I was counting the people in front of us in the long line, my dad checked his watch. He had just gotten off work and was still wearing his blue Air Force uniform and shiny black shoes. We were both a bit discouraged about spending an hour waiting in line, but I was at least filled with the excitement of getting my first ID card.
It didn’t take long for a man to approach my dad.
My dad’s officer insignia boldly sat upon his shoulders. The man invited my dad and me to come to the front of the line. I smiled with relief and thought that this was just the good fortune we needed. My dad quietly told him no and said we were able to wait. From my four-foot tall perspective this was a terrible decision.
I noticed that the frustrated people in front of us all seemed to hold their breath a bit as my dad spoke and then exhaled in relief when he rejected the offer to cut in front of them. I never asked my dad why he didn’t move to the front of the line. I could tell he didn’t want me to draw any attention to his decision.
We eventually advanced in line.
Then we presented the proper forms and left with my freshly laminated photo ID warm in my hands.
Years later, I was watching the World War II mini-series “Band of Brothers” and remembered the ID line. A character, Lt. Winters, saw another officer shooting craps with a group of enlisted men as they waited for a battle in Europe. Winters rebuked the officer by asking, “What if you’d won?” The officer defended himself by saying they were just gambling and having fun. Winters admonished him saying, “Never put yourself in a position where you can take from these men.”
The lesson is clear.
In big things like war or small things like waiting in line, the principle remains the same: Leaders who use their position, title, and status to take advantage of others will lose the respect of their followers.
Jesus was a wonderful example of this standard. Whether he was washing the disciples’ feet, spending time with powerless children, or caring for outcast foreigners, he used his authority to serve rather than to take.
Many leaders abuse their authority.
It is easy for us to conjure up a list of politicians and disgraced leaders who have failed this test. A cottage industry has developed on cable TV to ridicule and mock our hypocritical or unethical leaders.
It is much harder for us to honestly look at the ways we use power and status in our own daily lives. All of us are in some sort of position of authority in our homes, offices, houses of worship, or social groups. When we encounter others, we can influence and serve, or exploit and use.
The reality is that positions of leadership and power rarely last long term. We hold them for a season and then they are passed onto others. They are positions of trust and should be approached and handled with integrity. I am thankful for my father’s quiet example. I aspire to be more like him. Given power’s clear purpose, we should consider: how can we take less and serve more?