— Louis-Alexandre Berthier was best in his field because he thrived being second in command.
Louis-Alexandre Berthier was a homely, awkward man, known for biting his fingernails and picking his nose. Given a command of his own, Berthier was as ineffective as a toad.
In the War of 1809 with Austria, France was in desperate times. Their fearless leader Napoleon was off in Spain fighting the Spanish and British allies. Hapsburg Archduke Charles saw a golden opportunity to strike revenge at the brash self-appointed Emperor of France, the one who had humiliated him in 1805 at Austerlitz. Charles assembled an army of 119,000 men in six corps and lumbered across the Isar River at Landshut, approaching France’s scattered forces and their German allies south of the Danube.
In the absence of Napoleon, the de facto leader of the French forces was Berthier. Berthier was no Napoleon. His aide de camp, Colonel Louis-Francois Lejeune, described Berthier as “trembling and sinking beneath the weight of responsibility.” Berthier was a wreck, issuing orders and counter-orders which confused and demoralized his forces. When Napoleon finally arrived on the scene, he found his troops confused and isolated before the Austrian onslaught. With his brilliant mind and aggressive action, Napoleon quickly saw the situation and set things in order. Berthier was relieved as he settled back into his familiar role as chief of staff, efficiently transcribing his Emperor’s orders with perfection and clarity. Within a few days, the situation was entirely reversed and Archduke Charles was soundly defeated.
Clearly, Berthier lacked the strategic vision and aggressiveness of his Emperor. Yet in his role as Chief of Staff to Napoleon Bonaparte, Berthier was brilliant. His ability to transcribe Napoleon’s furious orders into specific tactical commands was amazing. Some historians go as far as attribute some of Napoleon’s greatest victories to Berthier. His power of work, accuracy and quick comprehension, combined with his long and varied experience and his complete mastery of detail, made him the ideal chief of staff to a great soldier. In this capacity, he was Napoleon’s most valued assistant for the rest of his career.
When Napoleon returned from exile in Elba en route to Waterloo, Berthier was in a quandary. Should he stay loyal to his liege whom he had served for over a decade, or should he align with the newly re-established monarchy? So keen on following someone else, Berthier fretted with indecision. It was all for naught, for he died on 1 June 1815, two weeks before the historic battle of Waterloo. He was sorely missed by his Emperor. Reflecting back on his defeat in that fateful battle, Napoleon is quoted as saying, “If Berthier had been there, I would not have met this misfortune.”
Berthier’s administrational skills perfectly complemented Napoleon’s brilliant leadership. His example provides valuable lessons for members and leaders of organizations like a church.
For the church member, Berthier demonstrates the rare and exemplary qualities of poise, service, and proper self-awareness. In the forward of the book “Chief of Staff”, Professor Dennis Showalter wrote, “Berthier had no illusions about his role and no delusions of grandeur. He saw himself from first to last as Napoleon’s servant.” Berthier was content in his position as second in command, a refreshing change from the generally ambitious and self-promoting egotists running many churches today. He did not demand the title, recognition, nor authority. He knew his limitations. He knew his place, thriving in his role of service. It is this kind of submissiveness and loyalty Paul advises the lay person to adapt, suggesting that pleasing your authorities, however young or gifted or effective they are in their position, will be worth your while in the end:
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.” — Hebrews 13:17
Many Americans are uncomfortable with this kind of directive. Ask any churchgoer how to obey their leader, and I’m certain they will stare at you with a blank expression. We don’t think in those terms. It sounds too demeaning, too much an affront against personal liberties.
Those who hold this view underestimate the power of willing submission to a God-appointed authority. A submissive attitude towards authority finds favor with God (I Peter 2:18). The humble Moses found this to be a very powerful thing. God is not a pushover, is never beholden to any man, but when He favors you, He has a tendency to do what you ask of Him (Exodus 33:17).
At the same time, church members ought to have a healthy self-awareness. It is possible to be promoted above the level of your competence.
I’m a good engineer. I’m proactive, diligent, and a bit overconfident. About ten years ago, I was offered a promotion to department manager. I had responsibility for over 100 other engineers, team performance on over 30 Department of Defense contracts, and the advancement of a critical product line in our company’s portfolio. In my nativity and blinding arrogance, I gladly accepted the offer, believing it to be God’s way of honoring me for my hard work and humble heart. It wasn’t long before corporate initiatives, overlapping meetings, and difficult department challenges overwhelmed me. Three years later, I was ingloriously removed from my position and reverted to an “individual contributor” role. It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. I became a direct report to the visionary director of enterprise architects. My schedule cleared, and for the first time in my career, I was given a short list of challenging assignments and time to complete my assignments thoroughly and effectively. I thrived in my new role, earning an Engineer of the Year nomination three years after my fall from grace. It was a hard lesson, but a good one. I am more careful not to be captivated by the honor and prestige of titled positions when my gifts don’t align with what those positions require.
For the church leader, the question is, have you found such a willing spirit like Berthier’s within your congregation? And the follow-up question, if you have found such a one within your charge, have you employed them? If not, why not? Be on guard against do-it-yourself, martyrdom mentality that suggests you don’t need assistance. Beware of dismissing the value of a Berthier. Using the metaphor of the human body, Paul emphasizes the value of these less visible positions that are so vital to church effectiveness:
“…there are many members, but one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary.” — I Corinthians 12:20-22
Berthiers are the great go-betweens, transcribing the theoretical and notional into tangible directives. They are sharp-minded processors of information. They get things done. They are excellent sounding boards. They will honestly tell you what they think without self-promotion, without fear. Go find them, and employ them. They will make your job more enjoyable, and make you and your church more effective.