What Tired Leaders Know



"The world is run by tired men." - Attributed to Winston Churchill

I first heard the axiom about "tired men" reading Spiritual Leadership by J. Oswald Sanders. Recently, it surfaced again when I glanced at a post by John Piper entitled, "The Marks of a Spiritual Leader." Certainly it isn't just "spiritual leaders" who understand this truth. But anyone who leads for God knows that at times the path is hard and the days are long. Paul experienced this. We get a taste of the challenges he faced in his letter to the Corinthians:

Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? 2 Corinthians 11:25-29 ESV

Paul was not trumpeting his work ethic to get a pat on the back. He only spoke up to defend his efforts against false apostles who were threatening the church with bad teaching about Jesus.

Tired leaders know that fatigue is a part of their calling. What some deem "crazy busy" is often for them, "just another day at the office."  Knowing that, they stay focused on the task at hand: "chop wood, carry water."

I notice the same humble diligence and indefatigable spirit reading the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. The year is 1863 and Grant is moving his troops against the rebellion. In a very matter of fact way, General Grant describes a seven-day period of his life as a leader.

When I reached Grand Gulf May 3rd I had not been with my baggage since the 27th of April and consequently had had no change of underclothing, no meal except such is I could pick up some times at other headquarters, and no tent to cover me. The first thing I did was to get a bath, borrow some fresh underclothing from one of the naval officers and get a good meal on the flag-ship. Then I wrote letters to the general-in-chief informing him of our present position, dispatches to be telegraphed from Cairo, orders to General Sullivan commanding above Vicksburg, and gave orders to all my corps commanders. About 12 o'clock at night I was through with my work and started for Hankinson's ferry, arriving there before daylight. (Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, page 327)

General Grant endured long days and long nights. There can be no doubt he was tired. But tired leaders know that tiredness is a part of leadership. It goes with the territory. So what is a tired leader to do? Here are five things I am learning about tiredness in leadership:

1. The time to rest is when I am tired.

One of my mentors, Dr. Charlie McCall, was a physician at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Clinic in Houston. The man knows a thing or two about the human body. Charlie is a smart man, a godly man, and a wise man. Years ago he gave me this advice: "Tommy, you've got to listen to your body. The time to rest is when you're tired."

That is simple, but profound. If Jesus took time to rest, I must take time to rest.

That may mean a nap, a few extra hours of sleep, a day off, or an extended vacation. The key is knowing my own God-given capacities and working within them.

2. I must know where to go for renewal.

In the book, Spiritual Leadership, J. Oswald Sanders writes, "'The world is run by tired man.' Perhaps an overstatement, but there's a grain of reality here. The demands of leadership wear down the most robust person. But Christians know where to find renewal. 'Therefore do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day' (2 Corinthians 4:16)."

God grants me renewal through his Spirit in daily quiet times of reading the Bible and prayer . . . in good friendships (most notably my friendship with Shannan) . . . in worship . . . in quiet walks . . .  in good music . . . in good books. Where do you go for renewal?

3. My work does not define me.

It is very easy for me to begin to define myself by a title ("I'm a pastor"), by a location ("I'm a South Florida guy"), by a hobby ("I'm a car guy"), by my work patterns ("I'm an early morning guy"), or even by my family ("I'm the father of..."). All those things tell a little bit about me, but it is Jesus who ultimately defines me. Jesus said, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." Matthew 16:24

Ultimately, I'm a follower of Jesus, someone who has been graciously saved and made a part of God's family.

That's who I am. So my work is important and my work ethic is important and what I accomplish is important, but none of those things define me. Take them all away and I'm still a follower loved by Jesus. And it was Jesus who said, "Come away and rest for awhile." Mark 6:31

4. I must distinguish between a season and a lifestyle.

Like the Apostle Paul and Ulysses S. Grant, all leaders have seasons that are non-stop and pedal-to-the-metal. Leaders know this, but no leader can survive -- and thrive -- when a season of relentless activity becomes a lifestyle of relentless activity. It is a leader's responsibility to distinguish the difference between a season and a lifestlye and to make the necessary changes.

I need help with this, so I wrote a post entitled, "When A Season Becomes A Lifestyle" to help me work it out in my own life. You can click here to read it.

5. I must live in the tension of work and rest.

The same God who tells me, "It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest," i.e. burn the candle at both ends (Psalm 127:2), and who gave me the Sabbath, also gives me repeated examples of times when I have to "press on."

Work and rest -- it's a tension. It is my responsibility to learn how to live in that tension and to lead myself through it. I need the help of the Holy Spirit, a wise and loving wife, and some trusted friends to help me do that.

What tired leaders know ...

Leading is both privilege and responsibility. The privilege does not excuse me from the responsibility of working hard. J. Oswald Sanders sums this up well:

The spirit of the welfare state does not produce leaders. If a Christian is not willing to rise early and work late, to expend greater effort in diligent study and faithful work, that person will not change a generation. Fatigue is the price of leadership. Mediocrity is the result of never getting tired.



1. "Chop wood, carry water" ... This quote came from Phil Jackson's book, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success. Jackson uses the Zen saying to help convey the importance of staying focused on the task at hand. You can find more about that on pages 173, 245, 278, 291.

2. "'The world is run by tired men' perhaps an overstatement ..." from J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership, page 118.

3. "The spirit of the welfare state ..." from J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership, page 119.