Why Study a Failed Leader?

Lessons Learned Bad 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 failed 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 failed leaders. 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?

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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” (Matthew 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” (Isaiah 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.
  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.

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.

Photo credit: George Doyle (Photos.com)
Richard Parrott

Dr. Richard Parrott is Professor of Education at Trevecca Nazarene University. He teaches classes in Leadership and Research. He is also the Director of C.L.E.A.R. (The Center of Leadership Effectiveness and Renewal). Dr. Parrott has thirty years of experience that he puts to good use as the Founder and President of Seize Your Life, a corporation devoted to helping individuals and organizations take hold of life’s full potential.

Ralph Hawkins

Dr. Ralph Hawkins is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at the Sack School of Bible and Ministry at Kentucky Christian University. He is co-chairman of the Society of Biblical Literature Joshua-Judges Consultation group. Ralph teaches Bible and archaeology courses, is an ordained minister, and speaks frequently to church audience about biblical leadership.

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