Leadership Came Naturally

to Tom Hemingway

by John A. Knubel

For Tom Hemingway, leadership was a natural result of who he was. He was a committed Christian, who lived his faith and wore it as naturally as he did his clothes. It determined his leadership style as a family man, Marine and minister of the Gospel. We would do well to understand his style, and as God gives us grace, emulate it.

I first met Second Lieutenant Tom Hemingway, USMC, in the OCF bookstore in the fall of 1961. Located just outside Gate Three at the Naval Academy, the place was a haven for Middies trapped for the year and choosing between "books, walks, sports" or "sports, walks and books," with an occasional movie thrown in on Saturday night.

It was late November and I was a rising Youngster (Sophomore), just getting used to a little freedom after Plebe year. Officers were like gods. Plebes were trained to salute anything that moved, and I was still in that mode. I'd developed a certain fear of officers, some of whom were certainly deserving of such fear. Not Tom. It was Tom Hemingway that I met, not LIEUTENANT Hemingway.

I wanted to know why a robust, confident and clearly capable person like Tom chose to hang out at a Christian bookstore on a Saturday afternoon. Weren't there more interesting things to do? When he told me the bookstore was an interesting place for a committed Christian I wanted to know more about that too.

He had a magnetic personality that immediately called "follow me." He was the kind of guy you wanted to be like, to emulate, to be with; whose lifestyle you wanted to copy. It was authentic, unselfish, inter-active, servant-oriented and focused on worthy goals.

What were the other qualities that made him stand out? There were many, but here are some I observed:

  • He demonstrated an active interest in others and lack of self-interest. Tom was always more interested in what you were doing than he was in telling you what he was doing. He was action oriented but a good listener. He was, in a phrase, "...quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry..." (James 1:19).
  • He was genuine. He wore his faith naturally, without shame or pretense. It was a natural part of him. He didn't make a point of stressing it. If you got to know him, you experienced his contagious faith. He was "...always prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" (I Peter 3:15). Moreover, he was smart enough to know his leadership success depended on people liking and respecting him, and compassionate and understanding enough to know he couldn't ask people to do more than he would be willing to do himself. He spoke mainly with his life and "only used words when necessary," as St. Francis put it.
  • He was confident, strong spiritually, meek and humble. He was confident and resourceful without being arrogant. The optimism, self-discipline, pro-active leadership style and hope for the future which defined him was not built in his own strength but on having tested God in so many ways, in so many circumstances. His faith was a tested faith that had been lived out. He was tough physically, mentally and spiritually.
  • He was creative, spontaneous and willing to take a risk. He understood the need for process without becoming its slave. And he was decisive in dealing with process that had become self-justifying bureaucracy. He once told me that as a Vietnam assignment officer, he challenged a requirement for foreign language training for men who were to be assigned to all U.S. units and had no need for it. It was difficult to get the necessary support and it was risky even challenging the status quo. But eventually he was able to prevail. Men in the Vietnam pipeline had a few more weeks with their families and to prepare themselves in other more relevant ways before going off to war.
  • He was ambitious but principled. He was goal oriented but the end never justified the means. He was a servant leader who prayed for his people, held them accountable, and helped them achieve their goals. He helped and sympathized, but never lost sight of the reality that every organization both gave to, and demanded from, the individual. That was the condition of his servant leadership style. Specifically, a commitment to the goals of the organization and willingness to serve.
  • He was a man of faith whose self-reliance was based on a combination of his developed capabilities, but primarily a belief that even in combat God was in control.
  • He was a builder, not only in ministry for OCF but also physically. The month he died he had just finished supervising the construction of the second house he and Sarah built, in Charleston. The first he built in Spring Canyon practically with his own bare hands (except for specialties like electrical and plumbing etc.).
  • His was a life of committed integrity. He was committed to his wife, Sarah, and their family, his friends, OCF, and most of all, his Lord and Savior.

Our lives intertwined in many ways. Tom introduced me to my son-in-law to be, and was the best man in my daughter's wedding. Like many others who invested in our lives during those formative early years, he played a strategic role in my life that was way out of proportion to the time I spent with him. I attribute this primarily to the freshness of his life, and his integrity. One didn't need to spend a lot of time with him to know who he was, what he stood for, and how he lived.

Like a good play or concert, Tom's ministry here on earth ended too early for our liking. And like a good play or concert, his life ended with strength and vigor. He left us wanting more. We didn't even get a chance to say goodbye. But we know, as David did for his son Absalom, we will see him again. We're also left with profound gratitude for his life. A life well lived that will continue to be a "guidon" for those who knew him, or even knew about him.

I thank God I was privileged to meet him in that bookstore so many years ago and am able to follow his example through life.


Editor's note: Tom Hemingway, a servant of the Lord, died suddenly in August of 2000. This article, on the fifth anniversary of his death, is a remembrance by a good friend.