G2A #6: "Great Leaders & The Mistakes They Make" – Numbers - 1 Kings
At this point in the Biblical story the Israelites have settled in the promised land and divided along tribal lines, only uniting when threatened by outside military powers. On their own, the Israelites came to the conclusion that their best option would be to do what everyone else was doing–have a king lead them. After all, what could possible go wrong when someone’s motivation for doing something is, “Everyone else is doing it!” Actually, the more appropriate sentiment would be “Every other nation that rejects our God is doing it, so why shouldn’t we?”
God’s response is, “Don’t say I never warned you!”
It is here, with the Israelites’ decision to appoint a human leader, where this portion of the Biblical story strikes the richest soil. Their first two kings, Saul and David can be described in the same way: they brought military victory and were exactly the type of leader the Israelites desired, until they turned out to be big selfish jerks with violent tempers and a tendency to indulge their own interests, with disastrous consequences (does the name Bathsheba ring a bell?).
Both Saul and David are kings whose leadership included great success and great failure. But of the two, only King David is regarded with esteem. King David is so esteemed that he is named more than any other figure in the Hebrew scriptures. In the same way that the peoples’ freedom from slavery in Egypt is the most influential event in Old Testament history; David is the most influential person in Old Testament history.
Before we address the question of why David was so esteemed even with his grotesque failures, let’s talk a little about leadership.
One of the most effective leaders that I have ever personally spent time around was the senior pastor at the church in Tempe, Arizona where I served as a pastoral intern for one year. It was easy to admire him because he and I were very much alike (yes, I realize how bad that sounds, but let me explain!). It wasn’t just that he and I were alike, but rather that he excelled in the areas in which we were similar. We were both quiet, but whereas people tended to think my quietness was as sign of insecurity, his quietness was interpreted as a sign of authority. We were both reflective, but his periods of reflection and contemplation would yield profound insights. We both enjoyed golfing, but he was actually really good at it.
I’m saying this a bit tongue-in-cheek, of course; but there’s truth here. Think of someone who you consider a great leader, chances are you see this person as a better version of yourself–a version of yourself that commands more power, authority, and respect; a version of yourself that has accomplished more with his or her life than you have; a version of yourself that affirms your own preconceived understanding about life.
It is a core human truth that we evaluate effective human leadership along the lines of how much we see the leader as a more effective version of ourselves, which is probably the reason God warns against the people choosing a king in the first place. God’s leadership was more than sufficient for the people, but it was leadership that looked radically different from their own impulses and desires. Actually, it was leadership that they could not even see! So the people rejected God’s leadership in favor of leadership that looked decidedly more like their own impulses and desires.
Upon further reflection, I realize that I was certainly drawn to the senior pastor due largely to the ways we were similar; however, our similarities had little to do with his effectiveness as a leader. What made my supervising pastor such a successful leader was his ability to use his mistakes and imperfections as tools of effective leadership. When he made a mistake he told people about it, apologized for it, and learned from it. He knew in his heart that he was a person infused with the gift of God’s grace. Therefore he was not a prisoner to his mistakes and imperfections.
Which brings us back to the two kings: Saul and David. Both are guilty of atrocious crimes, but David is held up as the hero. Why? The answer lies with God’s activity, not David’s.
In response to Saul’s wickedness and inability to follow God’s commands, God rejects Saul. However, in response to David’s wickedness, God’s promise remains with David. It doesn’t seem quite fair, but that’s the difference. God created a covenant with David that Saul was never privy to. And while David faced harsh punishment for his sins, God’s promise remained valid. It was not David’s leadership that makes him a great leader; rather, it is the way in which God’s promises rested with him in spite of his imperfections.
The promise God made to David was a promise that laid the groundwork for the expectation of the Messiah–a descendent of the line of David in whom God would establish his eternal kingdom (2 Samuel 7:12). This promise would be echoed by the angel Gabriel in the address to Mary–a promise of a son who will “be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33).
The difference between Saul’s mistakes and David’s mistakes is that God forgave David’s mistakes and enabled him to lead as an imperfect person. Saul was a victim of his own imperfection. David was a strong leader because of his imperfection.
The good news is that as children of God through Jesus Christ, we too are heirs of the promise of the eternal kingdom. We too are heirs of the promise that grace will sustain us through every mistake and misstep. We too are heirs of the promise that we are greater than the sum of our failures. We too are heirs of the promise that God will not take God’s steadfast love away from us.
As we go about our lives as employees, students, parents, children, citizens, and church members, we are called to be leaders who are sustained by grace. We are not called to be perfect. We are simply called to spread the message of forgiveness to those who seek to harm us as well as those who are ignorant to the ways they harm us and the wider world.
And we will know that God has blessed us as leaders not when people hoist us up on their shoulders in victory, but rather when we are able to shoulder the burdens of others and provide a shoulder for others to cry on and lean on.