Absolute identity with one’s cause is the
first and great condition of successful leadership.
Leadership is forged in the furnace.
The gracious, positive spirit of a Billy Graham—or the broad smile of a Dwight Eisenhower or the exuberance of a Teddy Roosevelt— does not reveal the complex, painful stories of how they rose to great challenges or sustained their intensity. Far from being a formula to learn, leadership is a set of life experiences melded by intense heat.
The heat and struggle create often unexpected results. Jim Collins, as he researched corporate leadership for his book Good to Great, was caught off-guard by his team’s research findings. “The good-to-great leaders seem to have come from Mars,” is how he described his reaction to what they discovered about the very best corporate leaders. “We were surprised, shocked really, to discover the type of leadership required,” Collins wrote. What his team found was a paradoxical blend of humility and “ferocious resolve.”
Those two characteristics don’t easily meld. Only the furnace can extrude such seemingly opposite characteristics. Billy Graham’s lifetime of leadership has, indeed, been paradoxical in blending extraordinary humility with fierce intensity of purpose. He fits Collins’s descriptions of highly effective leaders, for out of that burning, paradoxical blend have come remarkable results. It’s not just his countless television and stadium appearances or his leading the nation in times of grief or new beginnings. It has been his leadership of his team and of other leaders and of a broad Christian movement that has continually built momentum and created such impact on nations, cultures, and on millions of individuals.
All this from a skinny farm kid from Charlotte, North Carolina? What ignited all this? Who could have come anywhere close to predicting it?
Not his grade school teachers! According to one, he would have to be taken outside in the hall before he would recite his lessons. “In the classroom, in front of the other students, he would hardly open his mouth. He was terribly shy and timid.” His fifth-grade teacher said, “I just couldn’t get him to say a word in class. I remember once, he just sat there looking at me after I asked him a question, and I finally burst out in exasperation, ‘Billy Frank, don’t just sit there—say something. Please, just say something.’ Not a sound. He just kept staring at me. And to tell you the truth, I just forgot about him after he passed on out of school. Then, I don’t know how many years later, I saw him for the first time on one of his television crusades. I simply couldn’t believe it. His whole personality was so completely changed. He had such certainty, and the way the words were just pouring out—I kept thinking, somebody’s putting the words in his mouth, he’s just pantomiming it out. I couldn’t get over it. I kept thinking, Is that actually Billy Frank Graham? What in the world happened to him?”
As a teenager, Billy’s work on his parents’ dairy farm took a far backseat to girls and baseball. His wavy blond hair, sharp blue eyes, and ever-present smile attracted the girls, and his charismatic personality opened lots of doors. But a college classmate remembered not only the “magic and charm of his youthful nature” but also his “loose, careless way,” and his very messy room. “We would have been absolutely staggered back then,” he recalled, “that he’d be able one day to run such a large and complex organization.”
What in the world did happen to Billy Frank Graham?
Immersion in the furnace of leadership formation began with a painful experience with a beautiful young woman. Emily Cavanaugh was a dark-haired college classmate whom Billy had asked to marry him, even though they had known each other only one semester. Her reluctance to immediately answer worried Billy; yet after months of deliberation, Emily finally accepted his proposal.
But one evening at a class party she sat with him on a swing and told him she had to give back his ring. “I’m not sure we’re right for each other. I just don’t see any real purpose in your life yet.” She was interested in an older student, Charles Massey. She saw in him what she didn’t see in Billy—goals, plans, responsibility. Billy was devastated. “All the stars have fallen out of my sky,” he wrote to a friend.
For months afterward, through the spring and summer, Billy roamed the streets for hours at night, praying for direction. He felt “a tremendous burden.” He was not simply grieving a romantic breakup but confronting reality. In fact, many realities. He didn’t, in fact, have a sense of purpose. He had a vague sense that God was calling him to preach, yet he had an equal sense that he, like Moses, was not eloquent enough for the task.
Some see such realities and simply move on. But in a manner that was to typify his long life of service, Billy agonized over all the elements with full engagement of his mind and emotions. Over and over again throughout his life, Billy would face conflicting realities of many sorts, and he would lay them before God with extreme earnestness, spending many entire nights on his knees or flat on his face in prayer, seeking the right course of action.
After months of angst, one autumn evening Billy wandered through a golf course, finally kneeling on the eighteenth green. Eyes filled with tears, he gazed upward. “All right, Lord! If you want me, you’ve got me,” Billy declared. “If I’m never to get Emily, I’m gonna follow you. No girl or anything else will come first in my life again. You can have all of me from now on. I’m gonna follow you at all cost.”
Russian poet Boris Pasternak once said, “It is not revolutions and upheavals that clear the way to new and better days but . . . someone’s soul, inspired and ablaze.”
Billy’s soul was, indeed, ablaze. Unsophisticated, he was painfully aware of his limitations. But he was full of passion to fulfill what he believed God was calling him to: spreading the gospel, “the Good News,” as a message of liberation and love.
Yet as he focused and energetically began preaching and receiving ever more invitations to speak, he sensed increasingly that his eloquence could not persuade or transform. His deepening humility was anchored in fact. He knew he was not an outstanding speaker and that his personal charisma was not enough to fulfill the great call he felt weighing upon him. He had entered a life of helplessness—helpless to do this work that was far larger than his capacities.