Excerpt from Catholic Leadership: Lessons from Jesus and a Faithful Centurion

"One minute!" The words cut into my earpiece, overpowering every other sound and snapping me into focus. "Final equipment check!" my Commanding Officer bellowed through the radio, making certain that no one mistook the instruction's importance or urgency. "Get ready to move on my command!"

The order had been given; finally, it was time.

"One minute," I yelled, passing the warning along to my awaiting troops. My voice rose above the endless rumble of a dozen idling jeeps and armored fighting vehicles, their exhausts kicking up hazy dust clouds as their metal hulks stood framed against a blood-red horizon and the setting Afghan sun. My thirty-man platoon had already checked their equipment a dozen times, but they instinctively checked it again, reacting as they had been trained to do.

In less than sixty seconds, our convoy would roll out the camp gate, passing through its ever-vigilant machine gun pillboxes and watchtowers, to conduct the mission that had been set before us: raiding the urban compound of a high-ranking enemy commander. It was a mission that would very likely be as dangerous as it was important. So far our snipers, who had been covertly observing the site for the past twenty-four hours, had seen a number of men traveling back and forth in the area but had gained no firm intelligence on who might be in the compound or just how many people might be there. To make matters worse, both women and children were expected at the location, a fact that would add a whole new dimension to our operation.

Analyzing these last pieces of information as I stood beside my jeep, the lead vehicle of the entire convoy, I looked at the men under my charge. They sat stoically in their vehicles, a rock-hard determination visible on every single face. But behind that look was also a silent expectation, an expectation that if they upheld their end of our bargain, and I knew that they would, then I would be expected to uphold mine. Their job was to fight our battles and my job was to lead them. Their very lives rested on the decisions that I would make, and my life would rest on how well they carried out those decisions. That was our unvoiced agreement. That was our unwritten contract. They were my soldiers and I was their commander, and I was expected to fulfill and embody all the unspoken characteristics that such a serious role demanded, for in this pact there would be no second chances or new decisions. My leadership, or lack thereof, would not cost money or career advancement or social standing, but blood. Its success or failure would be determined in lives: the lives of my men, the lives of the enemy, and potentially, the lives of innocent civilians. The fate of all these people would rest not only on the decisions that I would make, but also on who I truly was as a leader.

Considering all this, and fully realizing that the ultimate price might be paid by someone else for any misstep on my behalf, there was nothing else for me to do but reach for the small gold cross that hung from my neck. Underneath an inch of Kevlar plating, ammunition, and other gear, I could feel the cross subtly pressed against my chest. A gift from my wife, given to me just before shipping out for my tour to Afghanistan, I had not taken it off since. And as my fingers traced its outline, a quiet whisper escaped my lips, forming a short prayer that sprang forth involuntarily.

"God, protect my men."

So quiet were the words that even I barely heard them, but since that very moment they have been forever etched into my memory. Everything that I could have done to prepare myself and my men for what lay ahead had been done. If we were not ready now, we would never be. There was no turning back. Yet no more than a few seconds before we rolled out onto the busy streets to fulfill our mission, a strange realization came over me: at no time in my entire life had I needed my leadership, as well as my Catholic faith, more than I did in that instant. And at no time in my entire life was I more certain that I had both.

It is extraordinary that at such crucial moments, when calamity is staring us in the face, our faith can bring forth both a serene calm and a solid steadfastness precisely when the opposite might be expected. So it was with me, for my Catholic faith had never been as firm as it had been while the last fragments of that solitary minute ticked away. Such a certainty of faith was not, however, to be mistaken for a naive belief that my platoon and I would be safe from danger or that no harm would befall us. Rather, it was the ultimate confidence provided by my stalwart faith that had suddenly become so certain and firm. It was a certainty both in Him above and in my men below, a certainty that we were truly ready for the task ahead and that everything would occur as it should occur. Having trained alongside my soldiers for so many hours, days, and months, I had developed a type of faith in them that deeply mirrored a religious one, for just as those who believe must ultimately place their fate in the hands of a higher power, so too must a soldier place his fate in the hands of his comrades. And as is the case with certainty and faith, it is also during the most crucial moments of clarity that we discover whether or not we truly possess leadership. In one flash of honest insight, our personal doubts or our inflated egos disappear, and we can truly acknowledge whether or not we are leaders, in more than just name, to the people that depend on us. I had cursed, sweat, and fought with my soldiers, and in the instant before I turned away from them to do a final check of my own equipment, I knew that I was their leader. The years of instruction and preparation and training in all facets of leadership had culminated in this personal realization; but in that same moment of clarity, I also grasped another aspect of my leadership.

Of all the various descriptors that one can add to leadership, be it "authoritarian" leadership or "transformational" leadership or "participative" leadership, I fit none of these. The only leadership classification that I could honestly place myself into was not even recognized as a valid classification, for I was a Christian, and more specifically, a Catholic leader. Indeed, I realized that I was best classified as a Catholic leader-if I can be excused the pride inherent in such a statement-because the one thing that I most certainly did was to always serve my soldiers before I served myself. I still commanded them and ordered them and held them under my authority, but in my heart I knew-and they knew this as well-that I always placed them first. I was a leader that my men would follow because I had always sought to place their needs in a higher priority than my own. I would always wash their feet before I washed my own, so to speak, just as Jesus had done (John 13:1-17).

Both during and after our deployment, many of my soldiers would tell me that I was one of the very best officers they had served with, and that they would have stood behind me regardless of my rank or authority. They followed me because they wished to, not because they had to. And if I could claim any credit for such an achievement, it would rest heavily on the shoulders of my Catholic faith, for without the formative lessons that Catholicism gave me, such leadership would not have been possible.

So I was a leader. And I realized this fact as I stepped into my jeep and stared at the sinking sun, its last rays illuminating the rocky mountain-tops that surrounded the city. Perhaps, I thought, in my own small way, I was a modern "Faithful Centurion," or at least one that was striving to be faithful. In fact, perhaps that singular story of Jesus and the faithful Centurion, one of true faith and deep concern for those in your charge, summed up my entire experience as a leader. Perhaps I truly was a Catholic leader. With that last thought, my driver popped the clutch and our jeep rolled out the camp gate, the rest of the convoy locked, loaded, and rumbling behind us as we set forth to fulfill the mission ahead.