The Winners and the Leaders

The Winners and the Leaders

At the end of last week I asked a beautiful assistant (my wife) to draw two names at random from all those who have requested new subscriptions to “Seasons” over the past few weeks. I’m happy to announce that of the 23 new subscriptions, Robert and Nancy will each receive a copy of A Life That Is Good: The Message of Proverbs in a World Wanting Wisdom. The good news for all those who didn’t win is that they can still order their very own copy through Amazon or their favorite Christian book source.

Meanwhile, I share another excerpt today from chapter 9, “Which Way Did They Go? The Wisdom to Lead,” words I wrote almost two years ago:

Over the years, especially during my short time in academic leadership, I read my share of the most popular books in leadership and management. While I found overlap in the principles identified by Proverbs and contemporary books, I also discovered one glaring difference. Consider, for example, the four keys of leadership described by Markus Buckingham and Curt Coffman:

  1. Select for talent

  2. Define the right outcomes

  3. Focus on strengths

  4. Find the right fit. [1]

…Books about leadership typically emphasize the wisdom of identifying goals, managing time, recruiting and supporting the right personnel, and taking time for personal renewal. The book of Proverbs, however, begins with the leader’s character including disposition, temperament, and truest self. This idea has minimal presence in contemporary discussions of leadership. In fact after the 2016 presidential election, it was not unusual to hear someone on either side explain their vote by saying, “I set character issues to the side and voted only on the policy positions taken by the candidate.” Not unusual perhaps for non-believers, but alarming for those of faith who want their leaders to be wise, especially when Proverbs makes it clear that no leader can be effective or wise unless they pursue character development in relationship to God and other people.

A wise leader with “upright” character brings strength to a home (24:3–4); the upright exalt a city (11:11); and righteousness establishes a king’s reign (16:12; 20:28; 25:4–5). When people of good character triumph, “there is great glory” (28:12a) and “the people rejoice” (29:2). When a ruler is committed to what is right, just, and fair, as opposed to what is convenient or self-serving, the land retains stability (29:4). In the same way, those who give special attention to the poor and vulnerable also establish stability in the land and enjoy a long reign (29:14). These character qualities take us back to the definition of wisdom at the beginning of Proverbs as acting with “righteousness, justice, and equity” (1:3), built on the foundation of “the fear of the Lord,” the right type of relationship to God.

Proverbs also attests to what happens when leaders lack wisdom and good character. “When the wicked rule, the people groan” (29:2b) and “go into hiding” (28:12b, 28:28a) because a wicked ruler is “like a roaring lion or charging bear” (28:15), or simply put, “a cruel oppressor” (28:16a). The sages assert with force what we often ignore: character matters. When the wicked rule, we should expect trouble:

When the wicked are in authority,
transgression increases. (29:16a)

If a ruler listens to falsehood,
all his officials will be wicked. (29:12)

People who lack good character created by wisdom cannot promote values higher than their own. Instead, their wickedness will spread through lower ranks of government and to following generations, a principle for which we find a case study in the story of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (1 Kgs. 12–2 Kgs. 17). In fact, not only did the Northern Kingdom of Israel fall because of the iniquity of the leaders, the Southern Kingdom, Judah, also suffered the same fate. Manasseh “misled them to do more evil than the nations had done that the Lord destroyed before the people of Israel” (2 Kgs. 21:9). Not even later reforms could stop what Manasseh put into motion among the people (2 Kgs. 23:26–27; see also 22:14–17).

As for Jeroboam, first king of the Northern Kingdom, he was afraid that he would lose the kingdom the Lord had promised to him, so he established two shrines to rival the temple in Jerusalem, competing holy days, and an open priesthood, and had two golden bulls fashioned to equal the ark of the covenant (1 Kgs. 12:25–33). Originally, the bulls were no more “gods” than was the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem. Jeroboam’s intent appears to have been to adapt local Baal culture by using the bulls as the Lord’s portable throne, just as the Ark of the Covenant was a portable throne. Soon, however, the bulls became the objects of worship, and the king led the nation into a long era of revolt against the Lord, with the people following the king into sin (1 Kgs. 12:30). In fact, every king to follow Jeroboam is compared to him. A few are better, some worse, and most about the same. Together they set a low standard of leadership above which the people were unable to rise. (See the explanation of the Northern Kingdom’s downfall in 2 Kgs. 17.)

We learn from Jeroboam the danger of leading from a position of fear. Instead of trusting the Lord, he was afraid of losing the nation and his life. Jeroboam’s fear overrode his ability to fear the Lord and trust in him. So Jeroboam, and most other Northern Kingdom kings, took matters into their own hands, a move with only one possible outcome: failure and collapse from their pride (Prov. 29:23a). The wicked may rule for a time, but eventually “the righteous will look upon their downfall” (29:16).

(A Life That Is Good, pp. 163-165)

[1] Markus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, First Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999).

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