For Such a Time as This: Leadership Lessons from Columbine

By Guest Contributor May 13, 2015

By Brad Widstrom

It was largely overlooked by the majority of the country, but Monday, April 20 was the anniversary of the Columbine tragedy. Those of us in the Littleton community with strong ties to the school—my daughters are alumni and I still take on multiple volunteer roles at CHS—will always remember. Even though it happened 16 years ago, the memory is still fresh. Our journey has had its ups and downs, but for the most part we have settled into a new normal. There are triggers, though, that bring the memories crashing back. The yearly cycle of days, leading yet again to April 20, is one of them.

The week before this year’s anniversary, I met with my Wednesday morning men’s Bible study. Frank, the Columbine principal at the time of the tragedy, though recently retired, is a regular attender. His leadership at Columbine and in the Littleton community during the tragedy and beyond are a key reason we achieved our current level of health. (This was not without personal cost, but those are Frank’s stories to tell.)

With the anniversary approaching, our conversation turned to the tragedy, its aftermath, and where we are now. My reflections in this post grow out of that conversation and focus on how Frank was able to survive when many others would have imploded. And they lead to some takeaways for the rest of us in ministry leadership roles.

Two things come to mind when I think of Frank’s phenomenal leadership. The first is his strong, unflappable faith in the triune God. I find it no coincidence that God allowed—notice clearly that I didn’t say caused—the tragedy to happen at a school where the principal and many of his key administrators and faculty are Christ-followers. By banding together and turning in utter dependence upon God, they found the personal strength and wisdom to put one foot in front of the other as they stumbled forward. Human leadership skills, strength, and wisdom were insufficient.

Second, Frank realized he needed his own personal support system. The day after the tragedy, April 21, 1999, he strove to be strong for everyone else. Then a friend looked him in the eye and said, “If you don’t help yourself, you can’t help anyone else.” Thankfully Frank listened. He began leaning heavily upon his priest and got himself into counseling. Because he had his own caregivers, Frank was able to lead well and lean into the lives of so many who were deeply hurting. And as Frank unashamedly continues to say, he has to periodically return to these caregivers, “going in for maintenance,” to provide him with the necessary scaffolding to continue on in the leadership roles God continues to place before him.

“Leaders will never know the full results of their efforts in this lifetime.”

Just like Esther, Frank was raised up “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14). We in the Columbine community praise God for this. But there are lessons here for the rest of us, too. Among them are these:

1) Leadership is not about fame, glory, and personal fulfillment.

2) There is a cost to being a leader—and often it is beyond our personal resources.

3) God doesn’t call and then leave us alone. He is available, willing, and excited to come alongside as we lean into our leadership roles.

4) God gifts and empowers those whom he calls.

5) Humility, even to the point of admitting and embracing personal weakness, is a positive quality of the leaders God chooses to use.

6) Leaders need to be listeners and learners, relying on the wisdom of those around us.

7) Leading from the top may be a lonely place, but you must find those who can come alongside and pull the plow with you.

8) The mantle of leadership calls us to a long journey of faithfulness.

9) There is a reward and fulfillment in leadership that is hard to explain unless you’ve experienced it.

10) Leaders will never know the full results of their efforts in this lifetime.

I’m sure there are more lessons to be learned from Frank’s significant leadership role in the immediacy and ongoing journey following the Columbine tragedy. These are the few that come immediately to mind. So, here are our biggest takeaways: make sure you count the cost, keep your relationship with God fresh and strong, surround yourself with other of like mind, don’t be afraid to admit your needs and seek help, and keep faithfully stepping forward in the task for which God has called, gifted, and empowered you.

CC Image courtesy Jeffrey Beall on Flickr.

About the Author

Guest Contributor

The LeaderTreks Blog is proud to share the hard-earned wisdom of student ministry leaders from many different backgrounds and professions. From time to time, we will feature guest blog posts from writers other than our regular contributors. We include these posts to provide additional perspectives and insight that we’re sure will help develop you and your ministry…  Read More