Applying Ancient Wisdom To A Different Era David, The Role Model For Inspired Leadership

Posted: July 09, 2000

Crouched in the back of a cave, an exiled courtier and his adherents hold their breath in amazement. The very king from whom they are hiding has entered the cave without his bodyguards. Oblivious to the danger, the monarch squats to relieve himself.

The band urges the fugitive to seize the opportunity, and he creeps up behind the king, dagger in hand. But instead of killing him, the exile stealthily slices off a corner of the royal cloak.

Moments later, the fugitive - David of the Bible - confronts the monarch - King Saul - with this evidence of his mercy and courage. Saul, overwhelmed, breaks down and begs forgiveness for his murderous vendetta against David.

Not sound business practice on David's part, conventional wisdom would say. Eat or be eaten. To the victor go the spoils.

But times are changing, and that paradigm no longer serves, according to the Rev. Richard Phillips of Philadelphia, author of a faith-based guidebook titled The Heart of an Executive: Lessons on Leadership From the Life of King David.

Though employee loyalty and the "company man" may seem like things of the past, Mr. Phillips maintains they are becoming the wave of the future. The companies that survive in the long run will be those that value trust over suspicion, a sense of mission over quarterly income, and the health of the organization over individual perks, he says - and sages like David can help show them the way.

Mr. Phillips brings to bear his perspective as a graduate of the Wharton School of Business, as well as associate pastor at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Center City and former CEO of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, a national network of conservative Christians.

The biblical David, he argues, represents a "shepherd-servant" model of leadership that emphasizes the nurturing of a healthy organization.

"You will not find fulfillment by acquiring the trappings of success," Mr. Phillips says. "Serving a cause in a community of people, whom you are playing a role in building up, is a far better view for defining success."

The David book was released by Doubleday last year and reissued in paperback by Galilee in February. Thomas Gerrity, a former dean of the Wharton School, applauds its perspective.

"One of the really important principles that [Mr. Phillips] elaborates on in the book," Gerrity says, "is that the fundamental objective of a leader is to build a healthy, viable group of people who can sustain the quality of the organization over the long run. He speaks very much to the heart of leadership, which too few books about leadership speak to."

Mr. Phillips maintains that effective leaders must always bear in mind the guiding principles communicated to others by their actions. For him, those are the Judeo-Christian principles articulated in the Bible. But whatever the principles are, they must be larger than individual gain if they are to inspire followers.

As a 10-year Army veteran, Mr. Phillips places a premium on inspiration.

"An Army officer's job is to inspire," he says. "You have to motivate people, lead from the front." Motivated adherents are more likely to take risks and make sacrifices than cowed underlings are.

For instance, upon becoming king, David made it a priority to unite Israel as a people rather than establish ascendancy for his own tribe of Judah, even at the risk of alienating his support base.

Years earlier, during a prolonged standoff with the invading Philistine army, King Saul - who, for Mr. Phillips, is the prototype of ineffective leadership - is reduced to bribery and bluster before the taunts of the enemy's outsized champion, Goliath. Sizing up the situation, the shepherd David strides through the lines and challenges the giant, felling him with a stone from his humble sling.

Who was this uncircumcised Philistine to defy the armies of the living God, David asked. As hamstrung as those armies were under their earthly leader, Mr. Phillips says, David was able to step into harm's way because, while Saul saw only the giant, David looked beyond and saw the presence of God. Galvanized, Israel rallied and routed the invaders.

Investing in God is hardly the kind of strategy taught in MBA programs. For Mr. Phillips, such investments pay off in the coin of character.

"The choices you make determine the kind of man or woman you're going to be," he says. "The first step in inspiring trust is being trustworthy, and trusting. Is that risky? You bet it is. There's no guarantee that you're going to succeed. But I believe that truth and love and justice are more powerful than their opposites."

David was, therefore, wise to spare Saul in the cave. It inspired in his followers the same trust that he showed to his adversary.

"So when you realize that another department in your company has a long-standing animosity towards you," Mr. Phillips asks, "are you willing to go over there and say, 'I'd like to start a new day'? Because it's those people [who do] who are leaders."

Mr. Phillips has been there. After graduating from Wharton, he enrolled at Westminster Theological Seminary and financed his new vocation by working as a management consultant. He grew disillusioned with American corporate leadership as he found bosses belittling employees, abusing power, and focusing on personal prestige.

Also, he argues, the profits-over-people mind-set that has made the quarterly balance sheet the center of corporate life is a departure from normal, healthy business practice.

"The organizational life we've grown used to in the post-World War II era, where you could avoid the human element of organizations, is an irregularity," he says. Now, with a tightened labor market and a groundswell against unregulated international trade, we are entering "an historically more normal era."

His book is part of a spate of religious-based titles on leadership - Laurie Beth Jones' Jesus, CEO, Robert Dilenschneider's Moses, CEO, the John Maxwell leadership series. They seem to flow from a stream of management theory in which old ideas are new again.

"These practically minded books fill a need and tend to sell very well," says Jana Riess, religion book review editor for Publishers Weekly. "They are part of a larger trend of authors trying to make Christianity apply to all areas of life: work, parenting, personal finance, food and eating, etc."

Riess traces the genre to The Man Nobody Knows: A Discovery of the Real Jesus, a 1924 best-seller by Bruce Barton that depicted the Nazarene as an athletic and decisive man's man. Most of the subsequent books have also promoted "The Gospel of Iron John," she says, and are pitched to evangelical men.

"It's a fascinating mix of gender messages. On the one hand, the idea of 'servant leadership' brings to mind the Victorian, feminine Jesus, but the virile models chosen in these books - David, for example, who slays Goliath and beds Bathsheba - emphasize a masculine kind of leadership."

But Mr. Phillips, in the end, extols a trait far different from virility.

He says David - by owning his mistakes, showing trust in people, taking a broad view of crises, and upholding long-term stability over short-term gain and unity of purpose over a divisive spoils system - gained what no tyrants can muster in their followers: love.

"David was rescued by the people who loved him and served him well," he says. "They were there for him because he'd won their hearts and inspired them. It's never a bad idea to treat people well."

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