Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

I spent 25 years of my life in the Air Force, flying, teaching, planning, and later commanding heavy bomber units. The experiences and stories I have from those days are often the source of some pretty hysterical leadership lessons. I want to share with you one event.

Map of Saudi ArabiaIn 1991, I deployed to Saudi Arabia with my unit, in preparation for what was to become Desert Storm. We arrived months before our unit in order to set up operations in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and to prepare for the bombers to deploy and operate from there in the event of hostilities.

There were eight of us living together off the end of the runway in a little compound surrounded by walls and armed guards. When we arrived, we dumped all of our bags of protective gear, including gas masks and charcoal suits, in a corner. We had all spent weeks prior to our deployment practicing getting this gear on as quickly as possible in the event of a chemical attack via SCUD missiles, but none of us thought we would ever need them.

After several months, the air campaign began and one night the SCUD missile alert rang out. Those of us who were on the day shift and were asleep scrambled to get out gear on, most importantly our gas masks.

We had practiced assembling our masks and putting them on in all kinds of conditions, and I watched with horror as some of my buddies fumbled and dropped their canister filters while trying to screw them in. I had mine on pretty quickly, and felt like I was ready for the worst that SCUD missiles could bring us. After the “all clear” siren sounded, one of my buddies pointed to my mask with a strange look on his face. As I took it off, I could clearly see the words “For training use only” stamped on the sides of the filters. I looked in my bag of spare filters; they ALL said that.

Training filters are made to look and outwardly function like the real thing, but possess no power to protect. I would have been a dead man—there I was, completely outfitted in protective gear, looking like I was safe, but being completely vulnerable to the threat. I went from feeling safe and secure and a little bit cocky to scared, angry, embarrassed, and a little bit (and rightfully so) humiliated.

Our military excels in training and educating its personnel, and it usually excels in staying on mission. Unfortunately, sometimes we experienced what we call mission creep. Mission creep often occurs with military units being sent somewhere without a clear end-state in mind, allowing the mission to grow and encompass other things. When that happens, you end up doing a lot of different things, and usually doing them all very poorly.

My bag of wrong gas mask filters was a result of mission creep. Our unit at home in the states was being pulled in a hundred different directions before the war and, in this case, failed to accomplish the necessary quality control and inventory procedures that could have cost me my life.

The job of the leader is to ensure that the main thing remains the main thing.

So often we get caught up chasing new programs that don’t match our mission because some money shows up from a donor who has an agenda and we have a hard time saying no—even if that agenda doesn’t match our organization’s agenda.

I have a good friend who was the president of a large college. A donor offered him tens of millions of dollars to begin a football program, to include building a stadium and financing all expenses, so his son could attend the school and play football. After some thought, my friend told the donor no. Astounded, the donor asked how he could turn down so large a gift. My friend told him that he knew when the donor’s son left, the money would stop and he would be left with the recurring operating expense for the football program, and he had other more pressing needs for money on the campus. Millions of dollars walked out of his office that day, and yet he never regretted it once. He kept the main thing the main thing.

Moses knew this principle as well. In Deuteronomy 6, Moses is preparing the Israelites to move into the Promised Land without him. He spends the next few chapters of the book reminding them what the main things were—that their existence revolves around loving and obeying the one true God. He also spends time instructing family leaders how to transfer truth to their children.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 6:5-7).

As we partner with parents and the church in carrying out the intent of the Shema Yisrael, remember our job is to teach the children diligently during their time with us. The proverbial three-legged stool of home, church, and school is now a bipod or a monopod in some communities. In some cases, as families break apart, schools have taken on the responsibility of parents. In other cases, churches have stopped teaching sound doctrine and become more interested in entertaining congregants than diligently teaching them.

While we operate in that environment on a daily basis, I encourage you to discuss and determine with your boards and with your staff what the main thing is for your school. We are not the home, and we are not the church, and our faculty and staff are often carrying out the duties of one or the other, as required. If this is keeping teachers from providing the best Christ-centered education possible, I’d suggest it is time for your school to discuss how you will keep the main thing—educating the next generation of Christ followers—at the forefront. Perhaps you need to invest in hiring a chaplain and/or counselors to take this burden off your faculty’s shoulders. Perhaps this can be accomplished through parental education programs and re-energizing your relationships with pastors in your community.

Don’t get me wrong: we can’t simply ignore the fact that this is the new reality, but if it is overwhelming our faculty and staff to the point where education is suffering, we need to do something about it. Tough stuff, I know. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you have done to creatively address these issues. It would benefit us all, and as a community of schools, we are better together as we share ideas and solutions to the difficult problems we all are facing.

– Joel Westa


Filed under Governance, Personnel Issues

2 Responses to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

  1. Phillip Nash

    Hi Joel. Wonderful and timely article as I have been wrestling with the same idea. What really is the main mission of our school (s) and how do we stay on target. I have come to the realization that while our vision and mission remain the same, and we have a strong commitment to them, it is the means to that end that should devote our energy to. I have come to realize that the quality and effectiveness of our teachers is vital to the success of our mission. It will now help to shape what we do going foreword, who we hire and what we invest in so the we do not end up in the battle with ‘training use only’ personnel!

    • Joel Westa

      Thanks Phillip! I couldn’t agree with you more that the quality and effectiveness of our teachers is vital not only to the quality of the education we provide, but are also (in a western context especially) one of the main reasons new parents choose our schools. In my principal’s workshops I tell them that their number one job is to ensure that the finest Christ centered teaching is happening in every classroom in their school. That takes time and effort. I tell Board members in our governance workshops that as well, to ensure they know that overwhelming administrators will take them away from this key task….which I believe is “the main thing!” Looking forward to visiting with you and your schools soon!

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