Forming the Team: Get the Right People in the Right Positions and Watch Them Flourish

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This article is excerpted from Leadership Lessons from Billy Graham, a downloadable resource from


That's a word one hears often when leaders and scholars are asked to describe Billy's bringing together his early team, then effectively leading it and keeping it dynamic for more than half a century. Dallas businessman Bill Mead, the first chairman of Billy's executive committee, said when asked how so much had been accomplished, "He had perpetuity of his team! He knew how to get things done."

The odds against such perpetuity are long. Leadership literature indicates that "teams at the top" of an organization encounter far greater challenges than those of other teams. The team leading an organization must confront failures and adapt to successes, handle its own personnel disputes within the team, adjust strategy to brutal new realities, adapt to growth, resistance, and reversals—an endless list of dynamics that disrupt trust and bruise egos. Highly effective teams are tough to form and tougher to continually lead.

How could Billy's original team stay together as the BGEA (Billy Graham Evangelistic Association) ministry burgeoned, related organizations were founded, and the pace accelerated? How did the core leadership evolve and adjust, yet in chemistry and commitments stay the same?

A Different Era

The questions are especially intriguing in light of the era in which the team was formed. In recent years the words team and participatory management are givens. But when Billy was getting started, hierarchy was the traditional structure. After all, this was the period when Peter Drucker did his study of General Motors, which disappointed its leaders because he revealed how people were not being empowered. Drucker went on over the decades to write brilliantly about leading others, but at the time of Billy's forming his team, the wealth of today's significant insights about participative leadership was largely undiscovered.

In fact, Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus recently updated their classic book, Leaders, and stated that even two decades ago, important aspects of leadership were being "overlooked, or under-valued," among them, empowerment, building trust, and shaping values. The corporate, academic, and denominational worlds, heavily hierarchical in Billy's early years, often looked at those in Billy's movement as youthful upstarts.

"It seems to me that the Lord took several inexperienced young men and used them in ways they never dreamed," Billy responded when first contacted about the concept of The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham. His instinct was to immediately defer credit to God and to the team. "The ministry sort of took off and got away from all of us! We all seemed to be a part of a tremendous movement of the Spirit of God, and so many of the new organizations seemed to interrelate, or began as we talked and prayed together in our travels."

All that is true; Billy and his colleagues were part of a remarkable phenomenon. Late during World War II and after, thousands of Youth for Christ rallies sprang up almost spontaneously across the country. As YFC's first full-time employee, Billy traveled incessantly, speaking and engaging with pastors, YFC directors, and other leaders of the emerging evangelical movement.

YFC was a sprawling, sink-or-swim movement, indeed, with top leaders in its Chicago "headquarters" but directors in various cities carrying considerable clout. The quality of local programs depended on who was in charge. In some cities, YFC roared ahead as it evangelized young people with the support of a broad range of local churches; in others it limped along.

Leadership Counted

Leadership counted. Aspiring young leaders with fire in the belly could fail—or succeed beyond expectations. Energetic entrepreneurship drove the movement forward, but the nature of its passion made the results far different from corporate expansion. Its leaders believed they were dependent on the Holy Spirit, who could do the only truly valuable work. That meant prayer, and that meant a powerful bonding dynamic. Hundreds of leaders would pray together long into the night, kneeling on auditorium floors. They would confess sinful attitudes to each other and ask for God's cleansing and empowerment. Together they pored over the Bible to understand and implement their theology. Whenever a major challenge or event occurred, the key players met for serious prayer. Out of that brash, driven, try-anything culture came a spirit of teamwork.

Before his own team evolved, Billy spent years in those evangelical trenches, in both America and Europe, deepening his convictions, refining his strategies, and sensing who could be ministry soul mates. From the time of his conversion in Charlotte, Billy had been close to the Wilson brothers, Grady and T.W., and at various times held meetings with them. In Chicago he recruited George Beverly Shea to be his soloist. These men, with Cliff Barrows, became his core team.

Cliff Barrows was arguably the most crucial teammate Billy ever recruited. He was a skilled and charismatic emcee and musician, leading the program in giant gatherings, a creative force in leading new initiatives, a candid counselor, and a man who knew how to both follow and lead.

In the summer of 1945, shortly before a meeting in Asheville, North Carolina, was to begin, Graham learned that the scheduled song leader had left for Chicago. Cliff and Billie Barrows were on their honeymoon in the area, but they agreed to fill in. The talented couple more than filled the bill: Cliff song-leading and singing a solo; Billie playing the piano and joining Cliff in a duet. It was the beginning of a lifetime partnership.

In the fall of the next year, Graham invited the couple to join him and others for six months of ministry in England. Cliff, with his musical talents and excellent preaching ability, had a growing ministry of his own, but he accepted the invitation.

It is said people bond when they live together through crises or face large challenges together. Those cold six months in an England impoverished by the war challenged the Americans in many ways. Opposition from clergy, an exhausting schedule, lack of adequate money—these young men, still in their 20s, were amazed, stretched, deepened, enriched—together. The chemistry was right, and they were profoundly influenced by the breadth and depth of the churchmen they worked with: Anglicans, Plymouth Brethren, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians of various folds. Grady Wilson said the trip "changed Billy's life. It was the beginning of the team of Cliff Barrows and Billy Graham."

A Remarkable Team

By the fall of 1947, Graham was ministering in a campaign in Charlotte with his core team: Cliff Barrows, Grady Wilson, and George Beverly Shea. It was Barrows who most matched up to Billy in striking good looks, spiritual intensity, leadership, and platform charisma. Later, Barrows and his wife Billie were wrestling with the decision about their own trajectory. Billy had invited them to join him full time.

William Martin explains the difficulty that presented:

For Cliff Barrows, becoming the second member of the Graham/Barrows Campaign team meant the subordination of his own ministry to Graham's. Such subordination was not easy. When he and Billie were not traveling with Graham in Europe, they were enjoying considerable success with their own revivals, mostly on the West Coast. Cliff was a gifted preacher, and he and Billie combined talent, enthusiasm, transparent sincerity, and a remarkable lack of egotism into a highly winsome package. They clearly had the option to remain in a leading role with YFC or to establish their own independent evangelistic ministry, or to get off the road and lead a church.

When we talked to Cliff, we found that even after 60 years, he vividly recalled the difficulties he then faced: "I struggled with that decision for a couple of years, because I wanted to pursue preaching." The financial uncertainties of relying on the "love offerings" given to traveling evangelists was also a deterrent.

But eventually, after praying and weighing all the factors, "the Lord told me, 'Do the music for Billy and whatever has to be done, and I'll take care of the preaching opportunities,'" remembers Cliff. "When we made that decision, the peace of God came into my mind and heart. I went to him in Philadelphia on an early morning and said, 'Bill, you know the struggle we've had about whether we join your team, and the Lord has given us peace in our hearts. As long as you want us to, I'll be content to be your song leader, carry your bag, go anywhere, do anything you want me to do.'"

Cliff recalls that Graham said, "May we serve together until the Lord returns, or until one of us is called home to heaven."

Cliff's decision marked the beginning of a remarkable team, two men who recognized that their strengths were complementary rather than competitive. Together they could accomplish more than either could alone.

Different Roles at Different Times

It has often been said that a person who would lead must first learn to follow. Cliff Barrows pushed aside his own early dreams seeking a greater good, and he did so enthusiastically. Dallas businessman Fred Smith, who early in Billy's career led the singing in some of his meetings, told us about a music minister who was fired because he kept expanding his worship music, encroaching more and more on sermon time. In contrast, "Cliff Barrows, even in the smallest meetings," Fred said, "started right on time. He has a sense of broadcast and telecast; he knows how ingredients fit into a total program. For years I've watched Cliff during Billy's sermons. He's the most intense listener in the whole stadium."

Cliff, in saying to Billy, "I'll carry your bag, go anywhere," committed himself unreservedly. Yet team roles are not always comfortable. Once, someone taunted Grady Wilson, "Grady, how does it feel to be a caddy for Billy?" Surely Grady felt some sting at such moments, but he knew being part of an effective team requires different roles at different times. Count It All Joy, the title of his autobiography, is the phrase that captures his spirit. These men of high capacity saw the larger picture, and when Billy Graham spoke of his dreams, the dreams were theirs as well. Strong team members have strong egos, and playing second fiddle can feel unnatural. But team players know the greatest glory is the entire team's victory.

It helped that Billy's team knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that he was not in it for his own glory. They sensed his humility, and they also understood the price he paid for playing his role on the team day after day, year after year. At times Grady would have to step in for Billy at the last minute to preach or hold a press conference. Knowing how the press could spin anything, and how the slightest misstep could wound Billy's ministry, Grady felt the pressure. Once, after standing in for him, he told Billy, "I never realized what you go through night after night, standing before large crowds in these great auditoriums and stadiums. I'm a nervous and physical wreck after each time I've had to substitute for you."

Billy had many opportunities to meet with the powerful and to walk with royalty. But leadership always comes with a price. A team understands that each player contributes, each has burdens to bear and challenges to confront, and each must follow.

Billy found the balance, both leading and following. For instance, at a Christianity Today board meeting, in responding to a suggestion, he commented, "I don't think my board would allow me to do that." He led his board, and the trustees looked to him for leadership. He deferred to them, for "in the multitude of counselors there is wisdom." He sought accountability as protection, as a source of wisdom, as creating clear parameters for decision making.

Signals from the Coach

He also aggressively sought the counsel of his teammates and of his wife, Ruth. But the essential, defining part of his followership was his giving ultimate control to someone other than himself. He constantly sought to understand the signals coming from his Coach. He may have been quarterback, but he was determined that the ultimate plays would be called by the Lord he served.

Billy's marching orders came from hours of prayer and studying the Scriptures and praying with those who shared his convictions and were in the trenches with him. He was constantly asking the question, "What is God actually saying we should do next?" He was well aware of the story in the Bible of the apostle Paul's struggling with strategic issues, and after much prayer and counsel, a decision was made only after "it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us."

Such sensitivity to the Spirit has typified Billy's decision-making process over the decades. Throughout his ministry, Billy followed. He was a highly effective leader with clarity of purpose because he was determined that nothing would short-circuit his responding to the nudges of the Holy Spirit. In facing ambiguous circumstances and hearing competing voices, the complexities pressed him to long hours of reflection, prayer, and seeking the applicable biblical wisdom.

The Team is a term that has always permeated the Graham organization. It refers to the inner circle, the vitality of which radiates out to other key players and through the ranks. The team spirit extended to thousands of participants, even out to volunteers and local leaders who made the crusades happen in their hometowns. A counselor or coordinator, a team member or recruiter felt like a vital contributor, fully engaged, following the playbook, working in tandem with the players who were up front and leading the process.

But it all started with team followership in the inner core, and that started with Billy himself.

Image by Kevin Utting. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.

Post by Harold Myra, who previously served as CEO of Christianity Today, and Marshall Shelly, editor in chief of Leadership Journal.

Adapted from The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham, © 2005 by Christianity Today. Used with Permission.