Could our current presidential candidates learn anything from the biblical example of David, either before or after he became king? A recent invitation to lecture on “David and Leadership” for the Smoky Mountain Institute for Christian Leadership set the wheels turning in that direction.
U.S. presidents are not kings, and they’re not called to be religious leaders, but they might still learn something from David ”both positive lessons from the upwardly mobile David that we meet in 1 Samuel 16 – 2 Samuel 10, 21-24, and also from mistakes made by the downward-spiraling David in 2 Samuel 11-20.
Today I’ll look at some of the positive lessons. In tomorrow’s column, I’ll consider some of the less admirable decisions that can still be instructive. I’ll suggest seven of each ”not for a homiletical purpose, but because that’s how many I found.
1. Good leaders strive to be well-rounded. When David got his first government job as a musical therapist for the manic-depressive King Saul, the person who recommended him said, “I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite who is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence; and the LORD is with him” (1 Sam 16:18). How would you like that for a resume? David was not one-dimensional, but was musical, courageous, skilled in competition, discerning in speech, physically fit (in Hebrew, “man of good presence” describes his appealing physical form), and blessed by God.
2. Good leaders develop impressive relationship skills, and use them. We wouldn’t expect the new president to adopt David’s habit of marrying well ”and often ”but we hope he might learn from David’s uncanny knack for building positive relationships with both friends and enemies, building strategic alliances both inside and outside of the country.
3. Good leaders surround themselves with capable associates, and depend on them. David relied on military commanders, religious spokesmen, and astute advisers. Biblical writers were so impressed with the extent of David’s network of leaders that they took time to explain how he organized and deployed them for the good of the country.
4. Good leaders exhibit courageous confidence that inspires others. The story of David’s defeat of the Philistine giant Goliath is just one of many instances in which David led by example, showing courage when others were fearful, trusting God and inspiring others to have confidence in both him and their country.
5. Good leaders make careful, strategic decisions. David knew when to step forward, and when to step back. He understood the importance of public relations, he was a good military strategist, and he made brilliant political decisions, such as the placing of his capital in previously neutral Jerusalem, designed to build unity in the country.
6. Good leaders lead by consensus, not command. David could ”and did ”make decisions on his own, but abundant evidence suggests that he remained in tune with the general public as well as his close advisers, and considered their input when making decisions. Before bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, for example, he “consulted with the commanders of the thousands and of the hundreds, with every leader,” people who represented “the whole assembly of Israel” (1 Chr 13:1-4). He moved forward when “the whole assembly” agreed to the wisdom of his plan.
7. David trusted God for leadership, and followed. David recognized that neither he nor his country were the final authority. The biblical narrative relates multiple times in which David “inquired of the LORD” as he sought to make good decisions. We trust that our next president will do no less.
We will discover, I think, that David’s life can teach us much about leadership in a variety of venues, from president to pastor to parent to participant in daily life.
Tony Cartledge is associate professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School and contributing editor to Baptists Today. This column appeared previously on his Baptists Today blog.