How to Fail as a Leader
Four Lessons from King Saul
The Bible is filled with examples of admirable leaders we should imitate, those who honored God with their positions and were used by him for great works. But the Bible also includes tragic examples of leaders who did not obey God’s commands, follow the Spirit’s guidance, or heed godly advice — and we can learn from them as well.
One such example is King Saul, who, despite beginning his reign as God’s anointed king, provides a devastating model of how not to lead. Here are four leadership lessons from Israel’s first failed king.
1. Pick and Choose from God’s Commands
Choose for yourself which of God’s commands you will lead your followers to uphold and to what extent, compromising those that deny the flesh or seem less important.
In disobedience to God’s command, Saul led the people to spare King Agag, the best of his livestock, and all that was good, devoting to destruction only what was despised and worthless. As a result, the Lord regretted making Saul king (1 Samuel 15:1–11).
When God’s commands seem inefficient or inconvenient, we are tempted to choose for ourselves which ones to uphold based on our understanding or the world’s advice. We may ignore his instructions and compromise his standards even as we aim to serve him in doing so. For example, we may be generous in giving money that we gained by being unjust in our deals. We may be kind to our teammates while slandering our rivals. Or we may go above and beyond our work responsibilities at the cost of forsaking our family at home.
Instead, we can remember that God deems wholehearted obedience better than sacrifice (1 Samuel 15:22). Because every command of his word will stand forever (1 Peter 1:25), we can be sure that every good and faithful act of obedience we take as leaders (and every step we lead others to take as they follow us) will be seen and rewarded by him.
2. Resent Those Who Disagree with You
Assume people to be your enemies who, though they disagree with you, are actually more helpful and faithful than even some who agree.
Saul repeatedly ignored godly counsel, resenting those who challenged his unreasonable emotions and misinformed judgments. Gradually, Saul’s paranoia and fear drove him to surround himself only with those willing to confirm his wrong beliefs, believing they were the ones showing true compassion (1 Samuel 23:19–21).
When insecurity tempts us to see the disagreements of teammates, fellow leaders, or those we lead as threats to our success, we can grow defensive and resentful with self-preserving pride. Arrogantly assuming our plans and priorities are always best, we may wrongly expect that others unquestioningly consent to our leadership, ignoring valid concerns we need to hear.
Instead, we can intentionally surround ourselves with people courageous enough to question or oppose us when we are wrong. We can welcome others’ new ideas, diverse viewpoints, and unique perspectives as invitations to sharpen one another like iron (Proverbs 27:17). In fact, God may be using the challenges of others to reveal our blind spots and fortify our weaknesses, since in the abundance of counselors there is victory (Proverbs 11:14).
3. Deflect Blame
When you are caught in your errors, respond in self-defense by lying, deflecting, or blaming, rather than accepting responsibility and humbling yourself in repentance.
Saul, when confronted by Samuel over his sin, first lied about having performed God’s command. He then tried to deflect the blame from his sin by pointing to the good he had done. Finally, he accused the people of persuading him to error (1 Samuel 15:12–22).
When others see our mistakes and give corrective feedback or a stern rebuke, we may stiffen with resentment, determined to try to preserve a reputation of excellence. We can be deceitful about our actions, gloss over our mistakes with our good works, or accuse others of persuading us to sin. This may cause our hearts to harden, our counselors to dwindle, our accountability to weaken, and our errors to propel us farther down a path of destruction.
Instead, we can humble ourselves to acknowledge the truth in others’ reproof. With gratitude for needed correction, we can confess our sins to those we have harmed and, ultimately, to our merciful God. We do so in faith that all convictions over the many mistakes we will make as leaders are invitations to be washed thoroughly from iniquity, cleansed from sin, and restored to the joy of God’s salvation with a renewed spirit and clean heart (Psalm 51:1–12).
4. Prioritize Your Status
Prioritize your status and recognition over God’s work being accomplished however and through whomever he pleases.
Saul was jealous as the people rejoiced over David’s greater victory in battle. As king, Saul should have rejoiced in the success of their common mission, no matter whom God used to achieve it (1 Samuel 18:6–9).
We will be tempted to make the goal of leadership our own recognition and exaltation at all costs. In endless, maddening competition with perceived rivals, we can pursue quickly forgotten awards and fleeting applause that will never satisfy our souls. In the process, we are likely to leave a wake of destruction with all those we used, hurt, or ignored to achieve it. We may even find ourselves trying to oppose God’s unthwartable plans (Job 42:2).
Instead, secure in the assurance that God himself establishes and removes leaders (Daniel 2:21), we can trust all appointments of earthly positions to him. Resisting temptations to envy or conspire against those around us, we can humble ourselves to joyfully embrace our unique role in God’s story while cheering on all others in theirs. When God’s name and renown are the desire of our soul (Isaiah 26:8), we remain unfazed when either we or others get credit. Our confidence is rooted in faith that the true measure of greatness is not in our earthly recognition as leaders, but in our heavenly approval as servants of the King (Matthew 20:26).
Man After God’s Own Heart
When we pick and choose from God’s commands, ignore those who disagree with us, deflect blame, and prioritize our status, we lead as Saul did — which results in neither God’s glory nor our good.
In contrast to the self-reliant, anxious, glory-seeking King Saul, we are called to be much more like the humble, courageous, God-fearing shepherd king who followed. King David, the man after God’s own heart, was ready to do all God’s will (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22), shepherding his people with an upright heart and guiding them with skillful hand (Psalm 78:72).
Most of all, we are called to reflect the example of the King of kings and Good Shepherd himself as leaders and shepherds after his own heart (Jeremiah 3:15). We too are to lead others with cords of kindness (Hosea 11:4), seeking to serve rather than be served (Mark 10:43–45). We are to faithfully feed our sheep at the proper time and not only ourselves (Ezekiel 34:2; Matthew 24:45–47; John 21:17). We are to stoop to wash our followers’ feet (John 13:14–15).
With unshakable confidence in God alone, we remember that our authority as leaders is a gracious gift from him (Romans 13:1). We operate in the conviction that to whom much is given much is expected (Luke 12:48), remembering that he opposes and brings down the proud from their thrones but exalts and gives grace to the humble (Luke 1:52; James 4:10; 1 Peter 5:5). Ultimately, we take up the sobering privilege that we will give an account for the stewardship God has given to us, all in service to the greatest Leader of all.