George Zimmerman and Me

A revealing personal look at life & leadership

I find myself sympathetic to George Zimmerman, because I made some of the same fundamental errors many years go. No, I didn’t kill anyone, nor was I in reasonable fear that my own life would end. And my errors didn’t involve any racial overtones.

I was just dumb.

I don’t believe George was guilty of murder, manslaughter, or even a civil rights violation. But when you hear my own story, I think you’ll see that he probably did  break some cardinal principles for successful leadership.

I wasn’t the coordinator of Neighborhood Watch, as George was. Instead, my first leadership assignment occurred at age 10 when I was appointed as one of the “Safety Guards” on the playground of my elementary school.

I’ll admit, I was rather proud of myself when they handed me my red armband, the symbol of authority to keep order on the playground. And after only two days of patrolling, I had the first major opportunity to exercise my authority.

I happened to spot a disgruntled-looking student walking by himself and throwing stones at the ground. Here is my chance to straighten this guy out,  I reasoned. The boy was much  bigger than I was, but I figured there was no reason to worry. After all, I  was the one with the red armband.

In retrospect, I can see that the stones weren’t really a threat to anyone’s safety. He might as well have been throwing

Skittles  to the ground. But at the time, it seemed perfectly reasonable to stop a kid from throwing stones in the playground.

However, this angry young man refused to listen to my demand that he immediately stop his behavior. Not only that, but my effort to exercise my authority as a Safety Guard resulted in a serious punching match—one he got the better of.

Frankly, I don’t even remember the punching match. I just remember sitting in the school office with bumps all over my head, while the secretary called my mother to come and pick me up early. As Mom later put an ice pack on my aching head, I tried to explain to her that I was just trying to exercise my authority as a good Safety Guard.

I don’t think she understood.

Leadership Lessons from My Playground Rumble

In retrospect, I bet George Zimmerman wishes he would have handled his encounter with Trayvon differently. But the slow motion perspective of hindsight is always a lot clearer than what we see on the spur of the moment.

As I look back, there are some clear lessons that can be gleaned from my painful experience as a Safety Guard:

1. Authority must be based on more than titles or outward symbols.  I was thrilled when they called me a Safety Guard and gave me an armband so everyone would know of my authority. But true authority is more than that. Even though we may have a badge, a diploma, a clerical collar, a special robe, or some other emblem of our office, we cannot naively assume that everyone will follow our leadership.

2. To some extent, authority is not merely delegated, it must be earned.  While I certainly believe in the principle of delegated authority, as a practical matter people will not wholeheartedly follow a leader unless they see that the leader has “paid the price” and laid down his or her life for them in some way. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:2 that the Israelites were “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea,”  which seems to mean that Moses’ credibility as a leader was not really established among the people until they saw how he handled the crossing of the Red Sea.

3. Authority is best exercised where there is a relationship.  If I had known  the guy throwing the stones, I’m sure we could have worked out something without the necessity of a brawl. Authority that is impersonal, driven by titles rather than a relationship, will almost always result in rebellion or resentment toward the authority.

4. The manner in which the authority is exercised is nearly as important as having the authority itself.  My problem as a Safety Guard wasn’t a lack of valid delegated authority; my problem was in knowing how to properly exercise the authority I had been given. Leadership mishaps are likely to happen when people are given authority but never trained in how to handle it.

5. The timing in which authority is exercised is often crucial.  As I look back, I can see that I was much too eager to exercise my new authority as a Safety Guard. If I had just taken time to pause briefly and better assess the situation, I would have recognized that the guy throwing the stones wasn’t really endangering anyone. Some leaders, like I was that day, tend to be hasty in using their authority.

What about you? Do you have the character and maturity to properly exercise the authority you’ve been given?

We need to pray for George Zimmerman and the family of Trayvon Martin. Except for my pride, I’ve pretty much recovered from my introduction into leadership as a Safety Guard. But the lives of George and the Martin family will never be the same.

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