Leadership's longtime friend and sage Fred Smith, Sr., died on Friday, August 17, 2007 at age 91. Smith was an accomplished businessman, church leader, and mentor at the time Leadership journal was launched in 1980. He was featured in the first issue, and we have welcomed his sage advice in the journal's pages many times since.

When his health prevented him from leaving home for lectures and group meetings, Fred began inviting young leaders to his house for a weekly breakfast. That led to a website and new interaction with a new generation of leaders through his "Ask Fred" e-mails.

Even at his advanced age, Fred was learning what's really important in life and ministry. Here an excerpt from Fred's last article in 2005, the distillation of Fred's final years as a mentor.

It must be awfully safe to write to a 90-year-old, because I get lots of questions. Most of them deal with hard issues of character, spiritual growth, and suffering. I suspect many think of me as playing in my second overtime, so they assume that the answers may be coming from a little closer to heaven.

They tell me they believe I will give them an honest answer and that at my age I should have more answers than they do. I do my best to thoughtfully respond. But sometimes I just have to say, "I have been struggling with that same issue for all of my adult life, and I will be praying for you."

Pastors write anonymously of painful experiences with staff, boards, and members: "How do I know when it's time to move on? How do I know that God is speaking and not just some board members who want me to leave?"

Business executives ask about ethics and passion: "I am a key executive with a Fortune 500 company and hate what I do. My family depends on my income, and I feel locked into a life that I dread." They want to know how a Christian approaches such decision-making.

What do the "Ask Fred" questions teach me? I've come to five conclusions.

1. People need encouragement.

Truett Cathey says, "How do you identify someone who needs encouragement? Answer: That person is breathing."

There is breakdown in the church, in the family, and in the meaningfulness of work. All three arenas were given to us as blessings, but our culture has turned them into sources of hurt. Some pastors lead like CEOs instead of shepherds. But people long for shepherds.

Even though he headed a large institution, Pope John Paul II came across as a shepherd. He had character and love. The character appealed to young people-he was the rock. The love was the generous spirit he displayed.

When our politicians wave, it's in a way that says, "I hope you like me." John Paul didn't wave, he gave a blessing. People felt that they were being blessed by seeing him, that the encounter wasn't for him, but for them. That's encouragement.

And when he died, the occasion attracted 5 million people to the largest voluntary gathering in history.

2. Truth telling and wisdom are in short supply.

Dr. Phil is a runaway hit because he "tells it like it is." He listens, quickly diagnoses, and then lets them have it. They line up hours ahead of the taping to have an opportunity to be confronted by him. What they define as truth telling is actually a mixture of psychology and entertainment. Scripture commands us to "tell the truth, in love." Television ratings aren't mentioned.

As a parent, I noticed the striking transition in my role from power figure to wisdom figure. I was no longer "the boss" but "the consultant." In the "Ask Fred" questions, I clearly see men and women searching for trustworthy wisdom that comes without strings and without a hidden agenda.

"My dad is dying from lung cancer. What should I be saying to him and what should I be asking him to say to me?" I replied that if I were he, I'd want my children to remind me of specific incidents where I influenced them positively. I'd want to hear from them that my life has counted and that I am a child of God who is loved and eagerly awaited by those who have gone before me. I'd want to tell them that they are my significance. I'd want them to know that I love them. And I'd want them to know that knowing God is a worthy passion.

Continue reading Smith's article at Leadership's website.

Fred Smith was a long-time consulting editor of Leadership.

Character  |  Discipleship  |  Encouragement  |  Formation  |  Truth
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