Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

Bad bosses and big breastplates

breastplate3DURING MY FOUR decades-plus career, I’ve had the privilege of working for some bosses whom I would have happily followed to the ends of the earth. And the misfortune of working for some who I wished would find their own way there and leave the rest of us alone back here.

One thing that has become clear to me is that leading and managing are most often two different skill sets. Unfortunately, we tend to lump them together as interchangeable. But my experience is that the old distinction is true: leadership is knowing the right thing to do, while management is doing the thing right. Being gifted in one does not necessarily mean you’re gifted in the other.

Another thing I’ve come to believe is that—more often than not—poor leadership isn’t about the big cheese being overconfident. It’s actually about the leader’s insecurities. And, like the Bible poster boy for poor leaders, they tend toward one of two errors. These flaws can be seen clearly in the life of Saul, who had great potential but blew it.

You’ll recall he was kinging when the Israleites had their stand-off with the Philistines, and no one wanted to go out and take on Goliath. Then this young shepherd boy arrived and declared he’d go and fight the big bad guy. The account of 1 Samuel 17 contains what I see as two common leadership mistakes.

Control. When Saul agreed to let David go and fight Goliath, “he clothed David with his armor” (verse 38). In other words, he put something on David; he decided that David should do things the way he, Saul, would do them (if he had the courage). But that was literally not a good fit for the younger man; it weighed him down. David needed to be free to do things his way, drawing on his own experience, rather than being micro-managed.

It’s interesting to read on a bit in the next chapter and see how Saul’s son, Jonathan, handled things differently. Admittedly he did not have the same authority over David as his father, but when Jonathan connected with David, he “stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, and even his sword and his bow and belt” (1 Samuel 18:4). He gave of himself and his resources without requiring David to use them.

Jealousy. Some might see Saul’s putting his armor on David as more of a well-intended gesture than an act of controlling. Maybe, but I wonder if there wasn’t another motive, too: he wanted the glory. It would have been clear that his big breastplate and other armor was too large for David, so if the issue had just been protection, why didn’t Saul get one of the other soldiers to loan the lad a better-fitting outfit?

This is speculation on my part, but I suspect that it was because Saul wanted to be sure he would get the acclaim; after all, his kingly armor would likely have been pretty disincentive. Everyone watching would have probably assumed Saul was the one out there swinging at Goliath, not a stand-in.

Both these leader weaknesses stem from a lack of clarity and confidence about who they are and who they are not. For me, the best leaders direct others instead of dictating to them. The best leaders celebrate others’ successes; they don’t steal the credit.

Photo credit: mharrsch via Foter.com/CC BY-NC-SA

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