Lessons Learned From Unlikely Sources

February 27, 2013
Randall Bach
Randall Bach

By Randall Bach

When leaders fall, the good or impressive aspects of their leadership often fall with them. As Shakespeare’s Marc Antony said of Caesar, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” We so rebuff fallen leaders that we fail to learn from them. By completely rejecting fallen leaders we can also miss positive aspects of their leadership.

One of the most reviled presidents of modern times is Richard Nixon. He resigned office in disgrace in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. Since that time he has been looked upon with contempt and disgust. (When Presidents’ moral failures are closer to and more common as those among the people they serve – such as sexual wrongs – a greater willingness is demonstrated to excuse or forgive the President.)

Had it not been for the colossal failure of character and integrity that stamped his leadership, Richard Nixon demonstrated great agility in creating innovative policies and obtaining bipartisan support for them. In many respects he was actually far ahead of his time regarding welfare policies, economic development, and international diplomacy. Although ultimately overwhelmed by his failure of character, Nixon’s intellectual and tactical savvy could be brilliant. It was his singular boldness and far sightedness that opened Communist China to the world (in spite of his reputation as a fierce opponent of communism).

Whatever good Nixon may have accomplished it was obliterated in people’s minds when the potential largeness of the leader was betrayed by the smallness of the person. Somewhere during his presidency Richard Nixon morphed from serving the nation to serving self, and he duped himself into confusing the two as the same objective. How tragic. What a burden of worldwide disgrace to carry through the remaining years of his life. What pain for his family to continue to carry after his death. Historians heap scorn upon the Nixon legacy. With the exception of Henry Kissinger, virtually everyone associated with Richard Nixon as President has preferred to minimize or avoid that connection. It would be difficult to consider applying any of Nixon’s governmental and economic strategies today, even if they could possibly be beneficial, because the negative association with his name would outweigh the appeal of the innovation.

King Saul was in some respects the Richard Nixon of his day. He could be a commanding, decisive leader, standing above his peers. But his insecurities, driving need to have his way, and panicky passion to protect his position caused him to defy God’s instructions and betray the nation he served. No one had Saul’s ear because he was too occupied with listening to himself. He duped himself into thinking he was clever enough to successfully play with God’s commands, given through Samuel, and could give the appearance of obedience while actually only fulfilling his own selfish motivations. When the ruse was embarrassingly and undeniably revealed by bleating sheep, Saul looked more like a buffoon than a leader. He convinced himself that protecting his leadership was synonymous with protecting those he served, a conclusion that is inevitably fatal to leadership. It was a sad and terminal flameout. As is usually the case when a leader fails, he did not pay the price alone; his family and nation suffered the consequences.

Did Saul get anything correct? Does his titanic collapse of leadership mean everything he did was bad? With the exception of leaders whose purposes are diabolic from the beginning, even failed leaders usually have some successes or at least implement some forward-looking decisions. What Saul did correctly was have an eye for exceptional young leaders. Note what he did, as recorded in 1 Samuel 14:52, “So whenever Saul observed a young man who was brave and strong, he drafted him into his army” (NLT). Saul knew what to look for in young prospects. Two significant markers stood out, brave and strong. It is what all capable leaders should search for in people. Importantly, the young men were not yet tabbed as or called leaders. That would require training, experience, and additional demonstration. But they possessed the requisite raw materials, the “right stuff.” Saul knew he could put the best-looking and recommended candidates through leadership training and offer them battle experience but if they were not brave or strong they would not become effective leaders.

It is difficult to see far ahead, to accurately measure whether someone will turn out to be a leader, and what kind. We have all blown that. I recall people for whom I had high leadership hopes, only to be disappointed as they washed out. Conversely, I have been pleasantly surprised by people who initially underwhelmed me with their leadership potential but became competent leaders. What a joy those men and women are! In both types of cases it is possible I did not start by looking for indications of bravery and strength. Not just attitude and bearing, intelligence and good heart, or willingness and loyalty – bravery and strength. A lesson learned from an unlikely source, a failed leader.

Of course, the very attributes Saul looked for in young men were also the seeds of his own downfall. David possessed exceptional bravery and strength, so much so that it threatened Saul. Although at first supportive of him, Saul was never the same after seeing David take on and conquer Goliath. When Saul heard people in the streets singing about the magnitude of David’s exploits compared to his, he burned with animosity. He probably stopped looking for brave and strong men, preferring docile and meek ones because they would not intimidate or threaten his leadership. It was no longer about the Philistines; it was about protecting his position. Saul’s demise was in view, but he was blind to it.

Are you on the lookout for brave and strong men and women? Are you recognizing those characteristics as seeds of leadership? Are you “drafting” them for service, making room for their development and training? Are you secure enough in your own leadership that when you find a young prospect with talents and gifts that might outshine yours you will still become his or her developmental sponsor? We can learn from both the positive and negative traits of Saul’s leadership. We can learn much from unlikely sources.

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