The Truth About Leadership: Think Outside the Box
I was talking with one of our new members, Jeff Wilson, just the other day about his job. Jeff works in the schools in PG county with kids who need a little more individualized guidance than a large classroom can provide. Jeff is a chess teacher, so he’s always coming up with new ways to help the kids learn an idea or skill.
He told me about a conversation he’d had with his colleague in the classroom next to him, a conversation about how she didn’t know how she was possibly going to keep her own kids busy and occupied through a long summer with no school. Not only was she going to have to keep them out of trouble, there were some jobs that had to be completed…she was lamenting just how she would ever get her kids to comply.
“Make the job into a game,” Jeff suggested.
Jeff’s colleague looked puzzled, so Jeff asked her to give him a scenario. Well, she told him, for one thing, both kids had to be forced, kicking and screaming, to try on every piece of clothing in their closets and drawers to see what still fit and what needed to go.
Easy, Jeff told his colleague (at this point I was intrigued, too, as even with big kids now, we still struggle with this one). Line the kids up, Jeff suggested, and make the whole process into a relay race. Ready, set, go, run to the other side of the room, try on an outfit, and run back. First person to get back with the outfit on wins a prize!
Great idea. Great idea. Wish I had thought of that when my kids were younger.
Jeff’s tale of making tasks into a game made me think this week about the passage from 1 Samuel that we read in worship this morning. We’re continuing our series, learning the stories ofIsrael’s monarchy, and trying to figure out what we might learn about leadership in the process. Today’s story seems to be teaching us that a good leader often sees situations differently than they first appear.
What, for example, seems like an odious summer task for parents and kids alike,—if you look at it differently—might in reality be a really, really fun relay race game. How one might actually cultivate this quality of good leadership—the ability to see things differently than they appear—is our spiritual challenge this week in the light of our story from 1 Samuel.
Let’s review what was going on with the Israelites up until this point. You might remember from last week that the Israelite people really, really, really wanted a king. They wanted a king because all the countries around them had kings…they only had prophets to mediate disputes and to bring direction from God. But they wanted to be like everybody else.
I guess their mothers never asked them what mine asked me: “If everybody else jumped off a cliff would you jump off a cliff??”
No they wanted a king, and even though Samuel warned them that it wouldn’t be a good idea, the people persisted. God gave in to their desire for a king and the people got one…boy did they get one. He was a man from the tribe of Benjamin, and scripture says he was a handsome young man…not only was he handsome, the text says that there was no one in all of Israel who was taller or more handsome than he. Sounds like a fairytale, doesn’t it? The first king of Israel’s name was Saul, and Samuel the prophet anointed him at God’s direction.
It’s kind of a funny story how Saul was chosen…Saul’s father’s donkeys got lost. So Saul was sent out to look for the lost donkeys and, after searching for some time unable to find them, decided to go visit Samuel, the prophet, to see if Samuel by any chance knew where they were. God told Samuel to anoint Saul king, and having left his home a son looking for lost donkeys, Saul returned home anointed king of Israel. Not bad for a day’s work!
Well, in a series of events you can read about all through the book of 1 Samuel, it turns out that Saul was not the greatest choice after all. He was tall and handsome, alright, but those qualities somehow did not translate to exceptional kingship. Our story begins today with God revamping things. The text says God was sorry he had made Saul king over Israel, and God wanted to start over fresh.
Poor Samuel. Geez. First he was overruled on the whole king issue, then he anointed the first king who didn’t work out so well, now today he is sent on a journey to find Israel’s next king. I don’t know for sure, but I would guess that Samuel’s level of job satisfaction right about then was pretty low.
Buck up, was basically what God told him.
Fill your horn with anointing oil, set out to the house of Jesse the Bethlemite, and prepare yourself to choose the next king of Israel.
Thinking about how Samuel must have felt in this situation, I did what the prophet Samuel would have done if he’d had an Internet connection: I googled how one might choose the winner of a contest such as this, and I came across a Youtube video entitled “How to Judge a Beauty Pageant.” See, Jesse the Bethlehemite had a whole bunch of sons who might potentially be king—eight to be exact—and Samuel was walking into a beauty pageant of sorts, in which he was going to have to choose the winner.
What I found in my research on Samuel’s behalf was a very helpful Youtube video recorded by Liz Fuller, the owner of the Ms. Great Britain pageant. Ms. Fuller has recorded a video that tells exactly what to do if you are suddenly called upon to judge a local beauty contest—or choose a king or whatever.
Ms. Fuller suggests first that someone judging any kind of beauty pageant first of all arrive on time. This will give you a chance to observe the contestants ahead of time. Second, she suggests that you take every opportunity to quiz the contestants on current events—you don’t want to select a winner who can’t speak with coherence about what’s going on in the world. (And don’t help a contestant out if she seems stumped—let her stumble around and try to figure an answer out. After all, you want to always select a winner who can land on her feet.) Next, be sure to select someone who has charisma, that certain something that makes her walk with good posture and stand out in the crowd. Fourth, be sure you observe contestants when they don’t know you’re looking. See if their behavior when they think they aren’t being observed jibes with what you see when they’re in the spotlight. And fifth, never, ever be taken in by a sob story—apparently use of a sob story is a common strategy among beauty pageant contestants in an attempt to engender sympathy and favor from judges. Overall, beauty pageant judges have to remain removed from the fray, above it all, able to judge with clarity, and free to choose the exactly right person to be the winner.
I don’t know if Samuel had actually given strategic thought to how he might choose the next king, but in he went to the town where Jesse and his family lived and invited him with all his sons to a big public sacrifice. Jesse didn’t know it, but his sons were being judged, vetted, by Samuel to see which one would be the newly anointed king ofIsrael.
So Samuel started looking. First he saw Eliab, the eldest son of Jesse. Yup, he’s it, Samuel thought. Eldest son, also tall, also good looking, kingly looking…but God said no, not this one. Next came Abinadab. Samuel thought—hey, this one looks pretty good! God said no again. Shammah was next…God said no. One by one the sons of Jesse passed by Samuel. One by one Samuel evaluated them favorably—this one’s pretty good!—and one by one God said no.
At a loss, Samuel had now eliminated all the sons of Jesse…except one. The last son was the youngest and he was not even at the sacrifice…instead he was out in the fields tending the sheep. Samuel asked for this last son to come in and he did. David was his name, and he looked good too…but he was the youngest and most insignificant of the sons. When David came in, God said yes. This is the one.
Turns out studying up on beauty pageant judging via Youtube would not have helped Samuel after all. All of the things that he’d thought were important, all of the qualities he was looking for inIsrael’s next king, were irrelevant. Samuel had not had a chance to quiz David on current events—David was out tending sheep. Samuel didn’t even get to observe David parading in front of him…David was the youngest and an afterthought. By all reasonable estimations, David was NOT the right choice for the winner of this pageant. But God explained it to Samuel this way: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature…for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
God sees things differently. And God was asking Samuel to do the same…to think outside the box, to look at things from radically different perspectives, to exert the kind of leadership that can see totally different possibilities than what popular opinion might dictate.
The Hebrew word used in this passage for “see” is critical to our understanding of the text. It’s used in four of the thirteen verses in 1 Samuel 16 and it seems to suggest that this passage is more than a story of how David was anointed the second king overIsrael.
God had already looked at the situation into which Samuel was going to choose the next king, and God had “seen” the one who would be the unlikely choice. Samuel had gone into the task of choosing the next king and “seen” several candidates who looked right to him. In light of this, we can realize that this passage is really not so much about David being anointed king as it is about Samuel learning to “see” a situation in a different way altogether. God was asking Samuel to exert good leadership, to think outside the box, to imagine what could happen if we looked past what seems obvious to imagine something completely different than what we thought when we first looked.
What does all of this mean for us? Perhaps it means exactly what Samuel learned through this experience: that our faith calls us to look at situations from radically different perspectives than the world might dictate. What about who we are as Calvary Baptist church might need to be viewed from a different angle altogether? What if taking the obvious next steps in our 151st year is not what God has in mind for us? What would our life together look like if we viewed it from a totally different vantage point?
Perhaps even more important, what does this quality of leadership call out in our own lives? What would happen if we looked at our lives and saw them, not as we see them day in and day out, but saw them through the eyes of God…whom as we know looks and sees not what’s so obvious, but the things that lie beneath and beyond.
The bottom line is that God can see things in us that perhaps we wouldn’t notice at first, that perhaps we might write off in preference for choosing what seems obvious at first glance. But God is not a God of easy fixes or obvious answers. God looks on the heart, into the deep potential of everything we can be on our own and together.
And while we’re thinking just like we’ve always thought, God is perpetually thinking outside the box.
What might happen, if we did, too?