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News > Commentary - Lorenz on Leadership: Leaders, stress and people of faith
Lorenz on Leadership: Leaders, stress and people of faith

Posted 7/22/2011   Updated 8/24/2011 Email story   Print story


Commentary by Retired Gen. Stephen Lorenz
Air Force Academy Endowment President and CEO

7/22/2011 - U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Recently I was at a military base when two Air Force chaplains invited me to join them for lunch. We had a nice conversation on many subjects to include stories about leaders they had met over the years. One of the chaplains had just returned from his third tour in Afghanistan where he worked with the Army. The brigade he was assigned to was responsible for 18 forward operating bases and during his year-long tour he experienced many great examples of leadership in very stressful combat situations. However, one example made a particularly lasting impression on him.

Late in his tour in Afghanistan he was scheduled to forward deploy to a FOB. As the troops were preparing to board the helicopters to a FOB that had recently been under attack, several Soldiers asked the chaplain if he could lead them in a prayer. A lieutenant colonel happened to be with the group and the chaplain, who was a captain, thought as a common courtesy he would ask the senior officer for permission to say a prayer for the troops about to enter combat. The lieutenant colonel replied to the chaplain that, "It would not be necessary" and walked away. The chaplain followed this senior officer's guidance and did not lead the men in a prayer.

This story touched me. The senior leader's own spiritual basis is irrelevant; he could have been Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist or agnostic. It does not matter. What bothers me is that the leader appears to have ignored the spiritual needs of his troops. A true leader who has a mission to accomplish, especially in stressful situations must take into account how different people under his command react during those stressful situations. He must get out of his own head and into others. He or she must know that different people need different types of reassurance; for many of the people they lead, faith plays a large part in their lives and affects how they react in times of stress.

Our government recognizes the importance of free exercise of religion in the military as guaranteed by the Constitution and so employs chaplains specifically to assist commanders in discharging their leadership duties. In fact, DOD Directive 1304.19 states, "Within the military, commanders are required to provide comprehensive religious support to all authorized individuals within their areas of responsibility."

This leader lost a golden opportunity to show his troops that he cared so much about the mission and the people under his command that he respected their spiritual needs as they went into battle. The way he handled the situation left the chaplain, and I am sure the Soldiers who asked for the prayer, focused not on the mission at hand but on his refusal to let a prayer be said. He also lost an opportunity to stand up for the Constitution and our freedoms that the military fights so hard to protect.

To be truly effective leaders, we must respect the diverse people we lead. Each one of them is different and that makes the units of our Armed Forces the strongest in the world today. We must be true to our own beliefs, but as leaders we also have a responsibility to the people we are sending in harm's way.

10/14/2011 1:52:38 PM ET
It is quite clear from the story above that the prayer request was only for soldiers that asked for it. This was an incredible failure of constitutional rights and military leadership.
G W, Colorado Springs
9/1/2011 10:07:56 PM ET
While Gen Lorenz may present this situation as failed leadership let me offer an alternative view considering that this was related to him by the chaplain and does not include some important information.It's not clear in the narrative above if he sodiers asked the chaplain to lead the entire unit in a prayer or if he asked if he could lead just the several soldiers that asked for the prayer in a private moment. The distiction is extremely important. If the latter was requested and denied then the commander is wrong. If as I suspect it was the former case and the request was for ALL in the unit to join in a prayer then I submit that the lt col acted enitrely appropriately and exercised excellent leadership.Let's say for example that the lieutenant colonel recognized that he had non-christians in his unit that did not want to play a part in a group prayer or if he had christians that did not practice public prayer as requested by the chaplain. Forcing soldiers to pa
USAFA Grad79, Colo Springs
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