(From Voice magazine, Jan/Feb 2016.)
African elephants are the largest land animal on earth. At 12,000 pounds and ten feet tall, they can intimidate anyone and anything. Elephants don’t worry much about predators.
The norm is to live in herds within a matriarchal social structure. The largest female leads the group of eight to one hundred elephants in a tight family unit. At the age of twelve to fifteen years the males leave the group and begin a new family. There is always a dominant male in the herd, but sooner or later, a younger male will take over, and the older ones are left to wander alone. It is a melancholy scene to watch a great-grandfather pachyderm grazing completely by himself.
For whatever reason, some of these older males go berserk; they go rogue. Unstable males become violent and territorial. They go on a rampage, attacking anyone in their way, destroying crops and vegetation. These are the really scary guys.
Unstable elephant males become violent and territorial. That describes some human leaders as well. We might immediately think of Adolf Hitler or Idi Amin. They are well known, but there are thousands of other leaders who have acted the same way. They just didn’t have as big a platform on which to act out their rampage.
The irony is that rogues often get that way after some success. These are not normally young leaders. They are often at the stage of life where they have reached a level of success. They have built an empire, and their territorial nature leads them to think they own the place. They are difficult to work for. They may even become violent—at least in words.
Nothing is as dangerous as success. Few leaders can handle it. Something can be triggered inside when a leader has a positive track record. Going rogue results in a god-complex and leaders start acting it out. They are the boss. They bark commands and demand compliance. Their word is law. They must not be questioned. They have established their kingdom, and all serfs must bow in reverence. They are unstable males who have become violent and territorial.
There seems to be a fork in the road as leaders age. It often happens in their 60s or 70s. They either become gracious or caustic. One road leads to a mellowing; the other leads to harshness. The path a leader takes is a choice, but it is not just one choice. It is a lifetime of choices that culminate in an accelerated downhill race to the finish. Tendencies of a lifetime become accentuated and exaggerated. Idiosyncrasies that are managed and suppressed in younger years may become unleashed in later life.
Like the old rogue elephant, a rogue leader may end up wandering the savannah of life as a loner, kicked out of the herd. He may still be kicking up the dust and trumpeting, but everyone around him wants him out of the group.
There comes a time in every leadership role when the individual becomes a liability. He may have been a productive part of the herd, but there is a point at which he is no longer an asset. There is a time when his group participation ceases to be productive.
The trick is knowing when to step away before the herd kicks you out. Leaving the leadership role before things sour is an art form. There is no scientific formula for making a decision. Since I have not yet experienced this, I find it difficult to write on this topic. Perhaps this chapter should be another book a decade or two from now, but I have observed the rogue scenario enough to know I don’t want to be one.
Christian leaders often brag that they will die with their boots on and that there is no such thing as retirement in the Bible. But the reality is that most cannot keep their physical stamina and mental acuity right up to the end, especially if they live a long life. They may want to die with their boots on, but normally it is a good idea to take them off when they are in a hospital bed. There is no dishonor in stepping away from a leadership role before you must.
African leaders are renowned for staying too long. Their aspiration is president for life. The common saying on the continent is, “One man, one vote, one time.” Nelson Mandela was the exception. He stepped away for the presidency of South Africa long before he needed to. He was still mentally and physically doing very well, yet he was determined to set an example to the rest of the African leaders that they should not aspire to life-long positions.
Going rogue is not an isolated situation in the leadership world. The Bible is full of examples.
Moses successfully pulled off a major coup and ransomed a million people from bondage, performed multiple miracles, and personally talked with God. Yet he blew it late in life and failed to cross the Jordan and finish his task. Moses went rogue.
David penned poetry that resonates with people to this day and was considered a man after God’s own heart. Yet late in life he betrayed his marriage vows and then murdered Bathsheba’s husband. David went rogue.
Solomon was the smartest guy in the room … any room … any time … anywhere. Yet at the end of his life he turned against the very God who had granted all his wisdom and wealth. Solomon went rogue.
Uzziah reigned over Israel for fifty-two incredibly successful years. He was one of the most productive, godly, and famous kings. He won wars and fueled the economy of the nation to prosperity. Yet toward the end of his life he became proud and he self-destructed. Uzziah went rogue.
Noah pulled off one of the greatest feats of faith in human history and earned a place in the Hebrews hall of faith. Yet after all his success we find him in a drunken stupor. Noah went rogue.
Lot walked away from the decadence and debauchery of one of the most corrupt cultures of his day, yet he ended his life in a drunken, incestuous relationship with his daughters. Lot went rogue.
Judas was one of The Twelve, one of the chosen few. This elite corps of men lived with Jesus, the creator God. He witnessed the miracles, went on mission trips, and was held in high esteem for his proximity to Christ. Yet those “successes” did not keep him from a notorious ending. Judas went rogue.
Demas was a co-worker with the famous Apostle Paul. He was part of the winning church-planting team. He saw the power of God in people’s lives and the success of a massive church-planting initiative. Demas went rogue.
I play golf. I didn’t say I am a golfer. I just play golf. The older I get, it seems I do better on the front nine than the back nine. Perhaps it is lack of stamina and focus. It is just getting harder to finish the last hole with the same concentration and strength as I had on the first hole. This may be a microcosm of life. It seems counterintuitive that failure would come later in life, yet the stories from the Bible described here are all about men who failed during the “back nine.” I’ve noticed repeatedly that, in the ministry, more men fail later in life than earlier in life.
It is really difficult to finish well. One of the few leaders in the Bible to do so was the Apostle Paul. He was able to pen the following last words before the executioner arrived at his prison cell: The time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:6-7). Paul was exceptional. The tendency for leaders is to go rogue.
I’m not there yet (I don’t think), but I am concerned about this next phase of my life. In preparation I’ve been thinking about this subject and asking a lot of questions. So the following is merely theory. I haven’t put it to the test, but here is my strategy to keep from going rogue.
- Be aware that this is possible. Merely the fact that this is on my radar must surely have some value. It is not going to catch me by surprise. Identify the tendencies in your life that, if they were exaggerated, would cause you to go rogue. I realize I have the potential of going rogue. Just knowing that fact must surely be a good step in the right direction.
- Guard my daily walk. It seems that leaders who go rogue did not just wake up one day a different person. It was a lifetime of habits and patterns that became accelerated and accentuated with age. I’m assuming the bad parts of me will only be worse with age. Now is the time to monitor my actions and attitudes. What I sow today will come to fruition later on.
- Ask for accountability. Establish an exit strategy from your present leadership role. I have asked three people who know me well and see me regularly to let me know if they see I’m “losing it.” I’ve watched boards agonize over letting the CEO go because he no longer “has it.” It is awkward to tell someone that he is going rogue. Therefore, I have invited three people to approach me without any fear of reprisal. They know I’ll be greatly disappointed if they see me going rogue and don’t tell me.
“Unstable males become violent and territorial.” That accurately describes rogue elephants. I hope it never describes me.
Adapted from Paul’s book Chief: Leadership Lessons from a Village in Africa.
Paul Seger is General Director of Biblical Ministries Worldwide of Atlanta and President of the Board of Directors of IFCA International. Paul grew up on the mission field of Nigeria, later graduated from Appalachian Bible College and Faith Baptist Bible College then planted churches in South Africa for seventeen years. He blogs at paulseger.com.