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David's career started out early and lonely, not on summits of power and achievement, but in lowly fields of service, in a time of preparation for later fulfillment. Like so many others, David practiced on a microscale the skills with which he would later write large. But most importantly, David's early life shaped the principles that would guide him on the extraordinary journey that lay ahead, the like of which no novelist would dare to invent.
As is so often the case among the truly great, David's origins were humble. He was a shepherd, a most demanding calling then and now, one that yields rewards only after the expenditure of much effort and skill. It was in these fields, in the pastures amid the flocks of his father Jesse, that David received his first lessons in the art of leading and in the disciplines of the executive.
Being a shepherd is exhausting. For one thing, the shepherd leads the flocks out into lands filled with danger: predators, hostile weather, starvation, and disease. For another, sheep are just about the most inept followers imaginable. Besides being plain stupid, they are easily panicked and annoyed and debilitated. Unable to defend themselves against wolves, they also need protecting from themselves; sheep are notorious for wandering off good pastures or away from sources of water, for destroying what good grass is available, and for placing themselves in one irretrievable situation after another.
As a result, David's experiences as a shepherd were many and varied. A shepherd has to think. He has to watch and plan and anticipate, making rapid decisions and taking quick and determined action, all valuable skillsfor the executive-in-training. The shepherd defends the flock from predators, and this requires anticipation and watchfulness. He guides the sheep on their way, directing them to green pastures and fresh waters. He watches closely for strife and conflicts that lead to disorder and confusion within the flock. The shepherd prepares fields in advance of the flock and calculates likely pitfalls and dangers. When they are rooted in one place too long he prods them forward; when they rush off heedlessly, the shepherd gathers them in.
Yet it was not mainly the skills that the boy David honed in those fields that so marked him for later glory. It was not the shaping of his hands, but the shaping of his heart. How true this is for us all. For while skills are essential, what sets apart the true leader is the heart. The aspirations. The dreams. The definition of success and the passion that drives him forward. David gained plenty of experience in those early years, but it was in his reflections upon that experience that his heart was molded and he was set apart from the crowd.
Reflection and meditation are things we seldom do today. In our early years of preparation, we are often too focused on making contacts and winning sterling evaluations, not realizing that the real task of these early challenges is to set first principles into place. How few reflect on the implications and lessons taught in the events of the working day and week and year. How few challenge their own decisions and draw conclusions, establishing parameters to guide future encounters. Diaries and journals are a thing of the past; quiet reflection, it seems, has been pushed aside by recreation and networking. And so experience leads just as easily to mindless patterns as it does to wisdom and understanding.
Perhaps it was because David had nowhere else to go in the few moments of relaxation that his busy to-do list afforded, but it is clear that he did indeed reflect. In fact, David's thoughts soared while his feet trod the Judean hills and his shoulders rested on the shepherd's crook. Furthermore, his reflections are not lost, for David took most careful notes that have come down to us. We know them as the psalms of the Old Testament, which are not only a record of David's emotional and spiritual journey but also finely crafted works of poetic art. They were set to music and sung by generations of his people, though their tunes are long lost to us now. No doubt David's voice filled the silence of evenings with poetic music, songs profound and penetrating and inspiring. And in those psalms we see his heart laid bare.
Undoubtedly, David's best-known psalm is his Twenty-third, one of the most well-loved pieces of literature ever penned. Though the time of its writing is unknown to us, there is little question that its origin comes from the hills where Jesse's flock roamed and David stood beneath vast skies. Psalm 23 opens a wide door into David's heart. It offers a penetrating glimpse into his life of faith, but is also a catalog of what he learned guiding those sheep and a record of his critical thinking on the task of leadership. Here we see David the follower of God, the lamb delighting in the care of his Heavenly Shepherd. Echoed in David's delight in the Lord's care over him is his own reflection on the task of the shepherd-leader.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
There are few more comforting images than "the Lord is my shepherd." It evokes a feeling of security, and reassures us that God is interested and involved and in control of our lives. No human, of course, can fill God's shoes, but captured in these stanzas is David's conception of those blessings true leadership offers. The shepherd lives among the sheep. He identifies with them in his heart and takes note of them on his weekly planner. The shepherd shares the hardships the sheep must face, the risks and the dangers as well. Indeed, the shepherd stands among the sheep both figuratively and literally, leading through personal presence and intimate acquaintance.
Hidden in the words "The Lord is my shepherd" is a concept that has radical implications regarding our understanding of leadership and the heart of the shepherd-executive. In the mind of the shepherd, the goal of his leadership, the result of all his planning and effort, that outcome for which he is responsible, is the followers themselves. Not a cluttered list of stakeholders--though like any other executive, the shepherd has many. Not a sophisticated index of ratios. It is the sheep that are his preoccupation, his burden, and his joy. This is the thought that made David delight in the leadership of his God, and it is evident that this was his understanding of his own role as shepherd.
To put this in slightly different terms, how did David conceive of the organization over which he served? For years, American corporations have been conceived of primarily as financial entities. Profit and loss, cash flow, debt-to-equity ratios, and stock price do not merely describe the organization; these are what the organization is. This view of the company is dominant today (and we wonder why so few are inspired by our leadership!). More recently, much productive thinking in the realm of quality management presented the corporation primarily as a collection of systems. Different processes, all interconnected, define what the organization is.
But for David, the organization was defined by flesh and blood relationships. What we will find all through his career is that he conceived of every organization he served and led as a living entity, one in which men and women learned and dreamed, sacrificed and rejoiced. For young David, his little company was defined by relationships. Trust between sheep and shepherd, sheep and fellow-sheep. Close affection and mutual commitment. These were the dynamics of success for young David, and they became hallmarks for all his life and achievements.
What a radical conception of the organization and the role of executive! For the shepherd, the product is the follower. Not profits, not market share--these are the products of their labor. The followers themselves are the product of the shepherd's efforts. When the sheep grow strong, when they survive the hazards of the journey, when they return to the village transformed from lambs into strong rams, then the shepherd has faithfully and successfully discharged his duty. Yes, the sheep who followed David must be led and cajoled and motivated for performance. But it was they who filled his thoughts as he slipped into sleep at night and for them that his eyes searched when first light signaled each new day. The shepherd is the servant of the sheep; it is their growth and nurture that define his task and set the agenda for his success.
I believe that it is in just this way that David is a model for those executives today who seek not just to carve out success for themselves, but also to achieve a lasting and meaningful legacy. It is the executive who acts as a shepherd over an organization, seen first and foremost as a human community, who will capture the hearts of employee and customer alike, and who will in turn achieve what no leader could ever command.
The life of the shepherd is given for the sheep. The results of his planning and implementation, of her passion and sacrifice, are seen primarily in those who follow. Success is evidenced in the followers' inspiration, their growing confidence, new capabilities, and fresh achievements. Experience leadership today does not itself produce sales or production. It produces committed and capable followers, who themselves make the sales and deliver the goods. How easily this insight is missed--but David captures its essence in these brief words, "The Lord is my shepherd." Being a shepherd is all about the guidance and nurture and protection of the sheep. So it is for true executives; their role is very much like the shepherd's, however rarely it may be conceived of in this way.
The executive as shepherd, then, captures what was in the heart of young David, poised at the start of his epic career. In the rest of the Twenty-third Psalm, he goes on to sketch implications as to the tasks thus required.
First, he hums his pen to the task of direction. Because of his own Shepherd, David rejoices, "I shall not be in want." For sheep, of course, the issue is safe and rich grazing grounds, and the availability of fresh water. "He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters." So the executive must make decisions and communicate effective plans, monitoring and intervening along the way. Thereby, David muses, "he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness." To the shepherd, this is the finest reward--that his knowledge and experience and insight direct the flock in the right way--and so he guides them "for his name's sake."
Second, David reamed in those fields the importance of the leader's presence in instilling confidence. He sings, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me." In the journeys through the hills, the flocks often had to pass through narrow valleys--places of danger that rightly unsettled the sheep and endangered the whole enterprise. In the shadows of the passes lurked wild animals, and the valleys were the sites of sudden storms and floods. There was menace in the changing scenery, as there often is on today's shifting corporate landscape. The flock thus recoiled in apprehension, instinctively casting their eyes about for a sight of the shepherd. His personal presence gave the sheep assurance, calming and moving them forward because of their trust in his watchful care. This need for trust is the same in human organizations; David's early experience would be repeated over and over, proving that every effective leader must learn to instill confidence and assurance in times of threat and turmoil.
How insightful are David's words that follow: "Your rod and your staff, they comfort me." These were the tools of the shepherd's trade and the ever-present symbols of his authority. Indeed, the staff is emblematic of the shepherd himself. It is what he rests his weight upon in weariness and plants in the dirt before each step. Its purpose is primarily for supervising the sheep themselves: the crooked end was bent just so in order to slip around the wayward neck, coaxing the stray back onto the right path. How familiar are the sheep with the sight and the feel of the shepherd's staff. It comforts them, for it assures them that there is someone watching over and drawing them back from the error and folly.
The staff is the authority the shepherd wields over the sheep. David's thought here is keen: he himself is comforted by the fact that God wields the staff over him with the care and authority of a shepherd. Followers expect the executive to exercise authority in order to rightly shape behavior, to nudge this one to the left and yank that one back to the right. Especially in times of danger or uncertainty, the follower is comforted by the leader who assertively and wisely wields authority. So too must he wield the rod, a short and blunt weapon. Just as sheep were comforted in the valley of shadows to see the shepherd ready to strike and defend. So also do men and women today look to the executive to wield power to protect and defend. "Your rod and your staff," David reflects, "they comfort me."
These, then, were the first reflections of young David upon his experience in the fields. The shepherd stands among the sheep, making the journey with them, providing direction, wielding authority, and exercising might for their defense.
Two more reflections will complete the psalm, the first of which is that the shepherd provides recognition and reward to the sheep. "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies." The banquet table was prepared for celebrations and commemorations. There, the faithful servant was commended publicly and thus vindicated before those who would oppose him.
It is interesting how David has now expanded the scope of his psalm far beyond the needs of the animals he himself was serving. Enlarging on his theme, he expresses a distinctively human need, one so vital that he turns to God for its fulfillment. No doubt, this was what he was trusting the Lord to do--to vindicate and recognize the faithful service of His follower, so overlooked and despised among those of his fellow men who looked down on the lowly state of a mere shepherd. Followers do look to the leader for vindication and recognition, even so large-hearted a follower as David.
Along the same line, David sings, "You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows." In the dry and dusty Palestine of the ancient world, soothing oil for the face and head was a blessing rarely bestowed. So also the cup which overflowed with wine, refreshing the parched throat of the sojourner. Rewards do matter (the Bible consistently speaks of faithful service being rewarded) and for David this payment served to validate and appreciate his hard-earned achievement. But it was not merely the reward that was given, but the Giver of the reward that mattered above all. "You anoint my head," he sings, and it is a relationship that he celebrates as much as the reward itself.
Finally, David's great psalm closes with a hope that is widely shared by men and women of all ages: "Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." David turns to his own Shepherd with the hope of belonging, of membership in something worthy and meaningful and enduring. It is not David alone whose thoughts rise to such heights. For it is true that people will work for wages and are motivated by recognition and reward. But at the heart of working men and women is the longing--though oft forgotten and sadly despaired of--to participate in something greater than themselves, to belong to a cause that is meaningful and to share in a legacy that endures. David as shepherd could offer his sheep little of this, but turning to the Shepherd of men and women he dared to dream of so great a prospect for himself. This, to David, was the centerpiece of these early and formative reflections on the task of the leader, and it is the highest calling for all those who, like God, stand at the head, not of beasts, but of soul-bearing women and men.
It is David who introduces this theme of the leader as shepherd to the pages of Scripture, one that is picked up by many subsequent biblical writers. But it is in the work and words of Jesus that what David began reaches its crescendo. Jesus said of Himself, "I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me . . . and I lay down my life for the sheep" (John 10:14, 15). Here all that David pointed to is narrowed to these mighty essentials: The shepherd knows and is known by the sheep, and he offers himself for their sake.
For Jesus, as for David, leadership is defined by these two principles: it is personal, and it is sacrificial service. Personal leadership does not always demand contact with each individual follower, particularly from those executives entrusted with a large organization. But the shepherd knows the sheep and the sheep know him. They are not, to him, a faceless mass. They are not human resources, but people. The leader knows his people--he understands their frustrations and fears, perceives their weaknesses and their strengths; she knows when they must be prodded forward and when they must be brought along still waters. To them he is not a distant calculator of numbers, an obscure maker of policy, but rather their shepherd, their leader. They know his dreams and the principles he holds dear, and they are themselves being shaped by his character and personality.
This, above all, is what they know about the shepherd-executive: He lays it down for the sheep. She spends herself for their sake. He can be trusted and believed in because he sacrifices himself for their sake.
Here, then, is the young David whom God found and saw as the man after His own heart. Here in Psalm 23 we see him longing not just for success, but also for purpose and meaning; peering within his heart we see both love and self-sacrifice. How strongly would the imprint of these poetic words, this stunning aspiration, be evidenced in the years to follow. No doubt David often fell short of it, particularly in those early days of trial and test. But we can see him singing, softly and intently, words that shaped the self-consciousness of the leader he would later become: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want . . . I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."