1 Kings 12:6-8
6 Then King Rehoboam took counsel with the old men, who had stood before Solomon his father while he was yet alive, saying, “How do you advise me to answer this people?” 7 And they said to him, “If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever.” 8 But he abandoned the counsel that the old men gave him and took counsel with the young men who had grown up with him and stood before him.
I have never been much for digging into the Bible to find basic leadership lessons. In general, passages are not presented to us so that we can become better managers. But I will make a slight exception as I think about this little section of Scripture. If we watch the life of Rehoboam in this one moment, we see one of the greatest leadership errors in human history.
Rehoboam has taken the reins of leadership in the united kingdom of Israel after the death of his father, Solomon. Right away, Rehoboam is faced with a crisis. Two clear alternatives are before him. His decision will change the course of history.
Rehoboam is approached by people who have been driven hard by Solomon, their former king—their previous boss. Solomon accomplished great things with these people, but he also drove them to fatigue. Now the people approach Rehoboam, their new king, and ask for relief.
Rehoboam makes one correct decision, he seeks counsel. Rehoboam talks both to older and younger counselors about what he should do. The advice that he receives comes in polar opposites. The older counselors tell Rehoboam to speak gently to the people. They argue that if he gives the people rest and relief now, they will be faithful to him forever. The younger counselors counsel the opposite, demanding that Rehoboam drive the people even harder to show his power and authority.
As a read through the rest of the chapter reveals, Rehoboam rejects the advice of the older and wiser counselors. He tries to get tough with the people, but the people have had enough. Because Rehoboam cannot see the wisdom of the older men and because he wants to drive his people even harder, Rehoboam loses most of the kingdom. From that point forward, the kingdom is divided into two kingdoms, Israel and Judah. It is never reunited.
As a disclaimer, let me also point out that these events were from God (1 Kings 12:15). God was doing something behind the scenes that Rehoboam could not see or understand. But this fact does not change the truth that Rehoboam made a dramatic error in leadership which cost him his kingdom.
What is the leadership lesson? Perhaps you could say that it is smarter to listen to people who have been around for a bit than to listen to young and naive people who have little experience. But I think the lesson is even more clear in the content of the counsel each side gives.
As a leader, we all have the opportunity to choose how to treat those we lead. We can choose to try to lead by force or by servanthood. We can choose to push people, whipping them into action, or we can recognize the need of people to have seasons of rest and refueling. I think this passage shows us what happens when you attempt to drive people by force. Eventually, you will see them have enough, tire out, and then turn against you as a leader. But, if you lead people with grace, with sweetness, with kindness, with understanding, and with servanthood, you will solidify their commitment to you and to the vision you are trying to communicate.
I’m not, of course, saying that we have to become such softies that we never ask people to complete a task. This would no longer be leadership. We are called to help people that we lead and to direct them toward the goals that must be accomplished. But a wise leader leads with both strength and gentleness, with focus and flexibility, with a plan and with the understanding that plans change, with a goal in mind but with the understanding that people are more important than goals.
Really, this whole passage and Rehoboam’s mistake all boil down to a question about how do you as a leader value people. If you value projects over people, you will eventually have no people to lead. If you press people when they are in need of grace, you will lose them. But if you learn to take care of those who work with you, valuing them more than deadlines, they will jump into the task with you and be loyal to you for as long as they can be.
If you are a leader, ask yourself questions like these as you consider how you might avoid Rehoboam’s error:
· Do I spend time with my people, getting to know them and caring for them?
· Do I ever talk with my people about anything other than work?
· Do I spend time with my people outside of the task environment?
· Is my encouragement that I offer my people genuine, or is it something I only do because I know I am supposed to?
· Are my people showing signs of fatigue?
· Would a little rest now help revitalize my people’s commitment in the future?
· Do my people see me as harsh?
· Do I treat people or performance as more important?
· Do I help people work where they are gifted and where they find joy?
· Do I listen to my people?
· Do my people see me as committed to their good?
What would you add? How do you balance productivity and personal relationships? How do you lead people without squashing them in the process?