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AVOIDING THE PITFALLS OF KING SAUL
By Ralph K. Hawkins, Richard Leslie Parrott
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013 Ralph K. Hawkins and Richard Leslie Parrott
All rights reserved.
Why Study a Failed Leader?
What kind of leader blows up and throws a spear at one of his most trusted commanders? What kind of leader attempts to kill his own son, his designated successor, in the middle of a conference? What kind of leader customarily sits with his back to the wall so that he cannot be taken by surprise? What kind of leader slaughters the inhabitants of an entire town because they have harbored someone whom he perceives to be threatening his leadership? What kind of leader would do these terrible things, and more? Believe it or not, the leader who did these things is a biblical character, and one anointed by the famous prophet Samuel as Israel's first king—Saul of Kish.
Do these foibles sound extreme? Are they so far removed from present-day concerns as to be irrelevant? We do not think so, as our own encounters with problematic leaders both in church and in business seem to verify:
a church leader works against the pastor and other staff, seeking to divide the church because he cannot "get his way";
a pastor seeks to impose his agenda on the church, regardless of how many people protest the changes;
the manager of a retail store secretly wears merchandise home without paying for it;
a department head threatens and cajoles those under his supervision.
Each of these examples involves men and women who may indeed be "basically good and honest people," but who, like most leaders, struggle with shortcomings in their leadership.
When seen in perspective, many of Saul's foibles are not so exceptional. Leaders everywhere struggle with the tendency toward manipulation of others, the utilization of "spin," inappropriate behavior, and self-promotion. In Leadership Lessons: Avoiding the Pitfalls of King Saul, leaders will have the opportunity to lay bare the life of a "basically good and honest person" to see the ways he struggled to live and lead with integrity, and learn from the times when he succeeded in that endeavor—as well as from the times in which he failed.
Leadership books—both in general and business categories—have traditionally focused on "best practices," while our concentration will be on seeking to learn from someone else's shortcomings. Our approach of using the "worst practices" of a historical figure in order to teach positive leadership habits may seem unusual to some, though it is actually an emerging trend in leadership studies. When Sydney Finkelstein, a professor at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business, began to teach management by focusing on "worst practices," his students were skeptical. He offered "Learning from Corporate Mistakes" as an elective and, ultimately, the class became so popular that Tuck reworked its MBA program with this class as a required first-year course. Abandoning traditional management offerings, Finkelstein has raised eyebrows with his unconventional research. Students, however, have responded extremely well, and appreciate the profundity of real-life examples of leadership failures. Finkelstein published his findings in 2003 in Why Smart Executives Fail: And What You Can Learn from Their Mistakes, and the book has become a leadership classic.
While it may seem counterintuitive to focus on "worst practices," this approach is essentially saying: "Here is how people messed up. Don't do what they did." Everyone has heard the old adage, "It's good to learn from our failures, but it's an even better thing to learn from someone else's failures." This approach makes perfect sense; what could be more valuable than learning from someone else's failures? Professor Finkelstein, author of Why Smart Executives Fail, went on to create a management tool, in conjunction with Jackson Leadership Systems, called the SMART Early Warning System, that company boards and senior executives can use to identify the leading indicators that Finkelstein's research found to be predictors of trouble down the line. This tool provides a specific picture of the possible weaknesses and dangers companies face: "Armed with these critical insights, boards and top managers can turn their attention to the most pressing issues that need fixing, and avoid the calamities that have struck companies like General Motors, Enron, and AIG."
In recent years, several authors have begun to explore bad leadership and leadership failures. Among the first to take an interest in this topic were Gary McIntosh and Samuel Rima, whose 1997 book, Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership, was essentially a response to the very public moral and ethical failures of a number of prominent church and parachurch leaders in the last two decades of the twentieth century. In 2000, John Maxwell wrote a popular volume entitled Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success in which he sought to help people see their failures from a positive perspective. In the decade to follow, several writers have adopted this approach. The year after Finkelstein published Why Smart Executives Fail, Barbara Kellerman examined issues of leadership in Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters in which she presented more than two dozen case studies of bad leadership, with a view to moving from bad to better leadership. That same year, David Dotlich and Peter Cairo wrote Why CEOs Fail: The 11 Behaviors That Can Derail Your Climb to the Top and How to Manage Them. A few years later, Hans Finzel, the former president and CEO of the international non-profit WorldVenture, which has a staff of 550 workers in 70 countries worldwide, wrote The Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make. In 2008, Paul Carroll and Chunka Mui published Billion Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn from the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years. Most recently, Donald Keough, a former president of the Coca-Cola company, wrote The Ten Commandments for Business Failure, which is full of examples of failure, as well as advice on how to recover from mistakes and regain one's leadership footing. The study of leadership failure is a burgeoning field, and these are just a few of the books available on the subject.
This is the approach we take in Leadership Lessons: Avoiding the Pitfalls of King Saul. Our goal is to help readers rise from the ashes of Saul's failures and aspire to greatness by learning from someone else's struggles with the difficulties of leadership.
One of the unique features of this volume is that, in it, we take a sustained look at the life of a single, individual leader. This approach has a number of benefits. First, rather than arbitrarily selecting five or ten points upon which to pontificate, the selection of a key figure out of history and the examination of his life and leadership allow the problem behaviors under consideration to emerge naturally. In other words, the ten behaviors examined in this book were not arbitrarily selected nor were they invented by the authors. Instead, they emerged from Saul's own life story. They are rooted in reality. This means that, while these self-defeating behaviors are, to some extent, Saul's own character defects, they may also be, to some degree, common or universal problems.
A second benefit of tracing the foibles of one leader throughout his lifetime is that we are able to get a long-term perspective of how these problems arise and how they play themselves out if they are not addressed. Looking at the entirety of a leader's story allows us to get a real feel for how these problems can impact the overall tenure of leadership. In each chapter, we compare and contrast positive approaches with Saul's negative approaches, thereby showing specific ways we can learn from someone else's mistakes—and thereby build positive leadership.
A third benefit of studying the failures of this corrupt king is that there is something of King Saul in everyone—male or female—who is in a position of leadership. In his classic retelling of the stories of Saul, David, and Absalom, entitled A Tale of Three Kings: A Study in Brokenness, Gene Edwards writes that, while we may have our eyes judgmentally focused on the corrupt King Saul,
God has his eyes fastened sharply on another King Saul. Not the visible one standing up there throwing spears.... No, God is looking at another King Saul. One just as bad—or worse.
God is looking at the King Saul in you.... Saul is in your bloodstream, in the marrow of your bones. He makes up the very flesh and muscle of your heart. He is mixed into your soul. He inhabits the nuclei of your atoms.
King Saul is one with you. You are King Saul!
The church has always taught that humankind is hopelessly corrupt due to the Fall (Gen. 3), an idea that has been enshrined in some church traditions as the doctrine of original sin. Whether one accepts this doctrine or not, the basic idea that humankind is tainted due to the Fall is affirmed in each of the major divisions of Scripture. After the Fall, the Torah proclaims, "the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth ... every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually" (Gen. 6:5 NRSV). This is a very strongly worded verse that intends to say that humankind is permeated with corruption, an idea that is repeated in the books of the prophets. For example, Jeremiah observes that "the heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9 NRSV). The idea is also enshrined in the Bible's wisdom literature. The psalmist, for example, writes:
The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God. They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one. Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the Lord? (Pss. 14:2–4 NRSV)
And the Proverbs repeatedly echo the idea. Proverbs 20:9 rhetorically asks, "Who can say, 'I have made my heart clean; I am pure from my sin'?" (NRSV). The implied answer is, "No one." The point is that we are all prone to the bad leadership epitomized by King Saul. Barbara Kellerman writes that "patterns repeat themselves, and this means, among other things, that bad leadership will be replayed" according to typical scenarios. She cogently argues:
We cannot stop or slow bad leadership by changing human nature. No amount of preaching or sermonizing—no exhortations to virtuous conduct, uplifting thoughts, or wholesome habits—will obviate the fact that even though our behavior may change, our nature is constant.
Christians would certainly agree that fallen people cannot change human nature. But they would also point to the Scripture's teaching about the renewal of fallen people through Jesus Christ. God, through Christ's achievement on the cross and the Spirit's work in our heart, transforms us from an old self to a new person in Christ (Eph. 4:17–30). The change is pervasive and includes our attitude (v. 23), our communication (v. 25), our emotions (v. 26), our way of life (v. 28), and our relationships with others (vv. 29–30). The apostle Paul teaches that our old self—our old "Adam"—is put to death. He therefore asks:
What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? (Rom. 6:1–3 NRSV)
However, as the great Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth famously remarked, "Against the fact of the drowning of the old Adam is the fact that the rogue is an expert swimmer." While fallen people are raised to walk in newness of life when they become Christians (Rom. 6:4ff), they do not instantly become mature in Christ. Paul describes the process in terms of brilliance and splendor:
And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18)
They will be transformed into the image of Christ, but this is an ongoing process that will not be complete until the end of time (Rom. 8:19–30). Studying the leadership failures of King Saul is one way we can "get real" and "stay real" in the meantime.
When the nation of Israel clamored for a king, God chose Saul for them. Saul was a man who stood head and shoulders above the average Israelite. He was a man who was impressive to look upon and, apparently, adept in battle. He led the nation for forty years and made a number of important accomplishments for the nation. Presumably his reign had many positive facets, for even David, his successor, celebrated Saul's importance in a song following his death. And yet, for all this, Saul was considered by the biblical writer to have been a failure. Although Saul had been promised that his house would reign "forever," the prophet Samuel told him that God regretted making him king. As a result of Saul's poor performance as a leader, the kingdom would be taken away from him and his house—"forever."
The Pitfalls of King Saul Are Your Stepping-Stones to Success
In a gathering of several scores of leaders, we discussed how leaders learn best. I (Richard) posed a simple question, "Do you learn more from your successes or your regrets?" All agreed that leaders learn more from regrets. However, learning from an experience of regret, our own or another's, takes more than just going through the experience. Learning comes when we reflect both personally and professionally.
As you read about the failure of King Saul, you will learn best by following these guidelines for personal and professional reflection:
1. Identify with King Saul. You may find it tempting and even appropriate to be enraged by some of the behaviors of Saul. However, outrage does not often produce meaningful reflection. To reflect on failure, look below the surface of behavior. Ask, "What was King Saul's perspective? What were his emotions? What was his motivation?" Identify with what he saw, what he felt, and what he wanted. Ask why. You learn from regrets if you see them from the inside out.
2. Love your enemies. This is a guarantee: you will see the behavior of other leaders, sacred and secular, in the behavior of King Saul. You will come upon your own mirror images of situations reflected in the life of King Saul. Your own emotions will surface, feelings of anger and pain. It is appropriate and needful to experience the emotions caused by such negative and cruel behavior. However, the easiest way to become like your enemy is to hate your enemy. The most challenging command uttered from the lips of Jesus Christ was, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven" (Matt. 5:44–45).
3. Repent and rest. The characteristics of King Saul are found not only in the leaders around you but also in you. I doubt you will throw a spear at a rival, destroy a city that hides your enemy, or seek the magic of a witch. However, uncontrolled emotions, twisted perspective, and selfish or fearful motives creep into the mind and soul of all leaders. "In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength" (Isa. 30:15).
4. Be accountable. Contrary to the vast myth of American leadership, leading is not a solo sport. Leadership is a team activity. Leaders need one another to serve as a guard against poor decisions and aid in maturing in competency and confidence. Read this book with another leader or a small group of like-minded individuals. At the end of each chapter is a discussion guide that will help you reflect together on your own challenges and discover ways to help one another move forward.
5. Challenge yourself. The purpose of the biblical writers in giving us the history of King Saul was not to lambast the king in order that we might feel better about ourselves. The purpose of this book is not that we might lambast the bad leaders around us or beat up ourselves for our own failings. We don't need a book to teach us to deride others or ourselves; we are fully accomplished at these tasks. What we need is to reflect on a rich source of biblical material, often neglected, that guides us in learning to follow God as our King as we lead others in his name and character. At the end of each chapter is an opportunity for you to assess and analyze your own leadership and take action steps that work for you.
Colin Powell aptly shares the test of leadership failure: "The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you stop being their leader. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care." The story of Saul's failure is a story of soldiers losing confidence in their king and the king losing compassion for his soldiers. Let the story be your teacher and guide as you become a better leader.
Excerpted from LEADERSHIP LESSONS by Ralph K. Hawkins. Copyright © 2013 by Ralph K. Hawkins and Richard Leslie Parrott. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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