Leadership and Doing the Unprecedented – Lessons from the Life of Gideon

What is a Leader? compass 1What is the difference between a leader and someone who simply holds a functional place in an organization?  Leaders have a commitment to act in unprecedented ways – sometimes with little empiric evidence of future success.  They have a vision, they understand the cost, yet they see (indeed almost taste) a different future that must change the present. Functionaries are precedent keepers afraid of failure almost as much as they are afraid of rocking the boat or standing out.

As part of my own development and personal renewal I read through the Bible every year. The experiences the Bible records of the intersection between faith and leadership is more than inspirational – I often find it deeply challenging. If the Bible is read with the humanness of its characters in mind (not simply read as a mystical book of inspirational thoughts) then it jumps off the page with a contemporary vibrancy that is astonishing.  Men and women portrayed in the bible face the same challenges of: decision-making, risk mitigation, managing outcomes, building trust, ensuring long-term results, building strong teams, delegating, developing others, courage, and resilience every leader today faces.  I find myself sometimes cheering them on and at others bemoaning their stupidity and the consequences that emerge as a result.

I read through Judges this week. The context of the book is that the third generation since their exodus from Egypt had forgotten the fundamental values and commitments so hard-won in their grandparent’s generation.  The parallels to what occur in family business the third generation from the founder are uncanny. Stalk and Foley note:

In the United States, a familiar aphorism—“Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations”—describes the propensity of family owned enterprises to fail by the time the founder’s grandchildren have taken charge. Variations on that phrase appear in other languages, too. The data support the saying. Some 70% of family owned businesses fail or are sold before the second generation gets a chance to take over. Just 10% remain active, privately held companies for the third generation to lead. In contrast to publicly owned firms, where the average CEO tenure is six years, many family businesses have the same leaders for 20 or 25 years, and these extended tenures can increase the difficulties of coping with shifts in technology, business models, and consumer behavior.[i]

Israel found themselves under the competitive pressure of a group called the Midianites who had dominated them and were in the process of pillaging their livelihood.  Gideon was no one of particular importance prior to where the narrative picks him up. He was however an apparent cauldron of burning questions.  What unfolds in the narrative presents five principles of leadership emergence that I see played out constantly. The case study of Gideon is worth the time for every organizational leader to review to avoid the trap of precedent. For every future leader the narrative should be mandatory so that they understand what they are getting into.   The five principles listed here are explained below:

  • Principle 1: the emergence of leadership begins by pondering a different future, a different reality. Emerging leaders interrogate the present by asking, “why?”
  • Principle 2: facing the test of their personal fears and sense of inadequacy is the first hurdle in acting on their vision of the future.
  • Principle 3: facing the test of public scrutiny and backlash clarifies the leader’s vision and galvanize their deepest commitments and values.
  • Principle 4: the greatest challenge a leader faces is not failure but success.  It is success that tempts them toward arrogance.
  • Principle 5: leaders who successfully pass the test of arrogance are positioned to create systems that sustain greatness.

Principle 1: the emergence of leadership begins by pondering a different future, a different reality. Emerging leaders interrogate the present by asking, “why?”

Gideon was approached by an angel who greets him with a destiny shaping statement, “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior.” (Judges 6:12 RSV)  This divine encounter uncorks a flood of pent-up reflection. (I won’t make a defense for the presence of angelic beings here – if you have ever had a divine encounter you need no one to convince you of the possibility or the impact. The fact is that the presence of questions does not need a divine encounter for the principle to apply.)  The observation is that leaders spend time considering the unprecedented which makes those around them nervous.

If you work with a leader you have no doubt learned to (1) be sounding board for their “why” questions and their exploration of alternative futures and (2) manage your own cognitive dissonance and emotion as you help these leaders focus on the next productive action.

If you are a leader like this, understand you are not the only one who generates puzzled looks and nervous laughter from those closest to you. Like other leaders you may have received your share of veiled threats from those serving around you that aim to reign in your “insubordination.”  The most important thing you will wrestle with if you are a leader like this is the realization that what you see as possible not only alters your destiny but the destiny of those around you.  This presents the responsibility inherent in leadership to not “go off half-cocked.” Leadership decisions impact other people’s lives. At the same time you have to ask the questions. These “why” questions are the beginning of innovation.

Principle 2: facing the test of their personal fears and sense of inadequacy is the first hurdle in acting on their vision of the future.

The answer to Gideon’s “why” question was unexpected. “Go in this your strength and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian.  Have I not sent you?” (Judges 6:14 NASB) The acceptance of personal responsibility is the differentiation between lazy negativity masquerading as insight and true leadership.  Anyone can complain – it takes courage to act. This point really brings up three aspects of effective leadership: (1) legitimization; (2) courage; and (3) authenticity.

If you work around this kind of leader you will see that they work from a vision larger than themselves. Your support and their larger vision is the authentication of their leadership. Gideon received an invitation to put faith to work – or using a colloquialism – to put his money where his mouth was. Leaders who ask the “why” questions discover a deep passion within themselves to act on what they see.   God asked Gideon to put his own faith to work. Wrestling with destiny questions always ultimately forces leaders to make a choice to act or stop asking the questions.

If you are a leader, courage is required. To act Gideon must do the unprecedented and work against the prevailing mental model of his community.[ii]  The idea of leading has the idea of going first. Think about being the first one to try something.  How often have you stepped up to be the first?  Many so-called leaders prefer to have someone else (like a younger sibling) go first.  Then, if all goes well the so-called leaders can step up and claim credit for the success.  It takes courage to go first.

If you hang out with real leaders it doesn’t take long do discover that they are authentic – not super human.  If you are a leader you need people around you who can listen to why you are not the best person to go first. Like Gideon you may not have the experience, or the recognition (pre-established support or track record), or the confidence in your ability to lead.  Some people see this as a contradiction in leadership.  It really is a deeper wrestling with an intuitive awareness of the risks involved in leading.

Principle 3: facing the test of public scrutiny and backlash clarifies the leader’s vision and galvanize their deepest commitments and values.

Gideon’s first act was to topple the community idol and offer sacrifice to God.  Theologically speaking, an idol is any symbolic source of security, provision, protection, or reverence that has usurped the place of God in a person’s life. Idols become symbols and explanations of success. The problem with these symbols of success is that: (1) they are never causative and (2) they empower mental models with an aura of unchallengeable authority. The result is that a defensive reasoning emerges as a means of self-protection. Defensive reasoning is a learned behavior for dealing with difficult situations.  These mental models set up a bifurcation between espoused theories of action and a very different theory-in-use.[iii]  The latter are usually resorted to in times of stress.

Theories-in-use in organizations have four similar values: 1) unilateral control; 2) maximization of winning and minimization of loosing; 3) suppression of negative feelings; and 4) appeals to rationalism.  The stress of introducing change to any system results in defensive reasoning because it alters the political and symbolic frames of the organization or group i.e., it attacks their idols.

If you are a leader don’t avoid conflict.  Conflict pushes the theory-in-use to the front of everyone’s conversation and causes them to test the utility and actuality of their mental models.  If conflict is avoided then the myth of a mental model’s unassailability will continue to keep people from knowing a new reality.  They will remain under the thumb of whatever belief keeps them from moving to an alternative future.

For leaders conflict clarifies their thinking and helps them galvanize their actions. In Gideon’s case an important theological assumption emerges. Notice that in the conflict Gideon does not stand alone, he has a first follower – his dad, Joash. Joash made this statement when the community threatens to kill Gideon for tampering with their idol, “Will you contend for Baal, or will you deliver him? …If he is a god, let him contend for himself, because someone has torn down his alter.” (Judges 6:31 NASB)  What is the important lesson?  God is self-authenticating.  By extension the most important thing a leader gains in conflict is: (1) the emergence of first followers – early adopters; and (2) the awareness that their motivation for acting is self authenticating to those who do step in as first followers.  The synergy that formed between Gideon and his first followers became contagious as it does of any leader in this situation.

Principle 4: the greatest challenge a leader faces is not failure but success.  It is success that tempts them toward arrogance.

The potential for failure at any point in the story of Gideon seems more probable than success.  For leaders who have stepped out and faced the conflict inherent in challenging the mental models of those around them failure is sometimes seen as a preferable exit. Why do I say this?  I have seen leaders in the middle of success and conflicts orchestrate their own failure to escape the pressures of leading. Success in leadership is the greater challenge. Success can lead to arrogance and hubris that ultimately undoes a leader who believes they can do anything they want and still experience success.

Gideon recruited a significant army as a result of the synergy developed in conflict. However, God asks him to cut the numbers of volunteers so that a victory would not be misunderstood to be the result of purely human effort but the intervention of the same God Gideon questioned at the beginning of the narrative. It is interesting to me that every great leader “…apportion credit to factors outside themselves when things go well (and if they cannot find a specific person or event to give credit to, they credit good luck)” according to Collins’ research.[iv] Whether or not you belief in God’s intervention great leaders understand that it is not their efforts that ultimately lead to or sustain significant discovery or sustained success. It is luck or divine intervention.

This is why the development of character in leadership is imperative if success is to be sustained over a life time and leaders are to grow in their capacity to lead.  Peter said, “Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge; and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness; and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. For if these qualities are yours and area increasing, the render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:5-8 NASB) Leadership character is appropriately defined by Peter’s admonition to develop these virtues.

Principle 5: leaders who successfully pass the test of arrogance are positioned to create systems that sustain greatness.

Unfortunately sustained greatness was not the case with Gideon. He was tested by the request of the people to be their king and he initially rejected that offer pointing them to God as king. However, in rejecting the offer he determined to commemorate his victory with a gold-embroidered garment often used as a symbol of priestly authority by ancient Israel. The commemorative garment became an idol. Gideon had a chance to significantly alter the political and social values, symbols, and commitments of the country but it seems that he preferred to return to a quiet life away from the challenge of leadership.  His meager attempt at commemoration rather than transformation set up ultimate failure. Leaders today face the same temptation.

Conclusion

What is your leadership context? Have you been irritated with nagging “why” questions?  Are you honest about your questions? Will you accept responsibility to make a difference in what you see or do you find it easier to simply join the chorus of cynicism and negativity that exists somewhere in every organization?  Are you authentic in your self assessment? If you are willing to make a difference do you see that conflict is unavoidable?  How will you process these questions and ultimately how will you finish well in life?  The lessons of Gideon are still lively and troubling.


[i] George Stalk and Henry Foley. “Avoid the Traps That Can Destroy Family Businesses” Harvard Business Review. January – February 2012. Source: http://hbr.org/2012/01/avoid-the-traps-that-can-destroy-family-businesses/ar/1. Accessed 20 Mar 2014.

[ii] Mental models: Beliefs, ideas, images, and verbal descriptions that we consciously or unconsciously form from our experiences and which (when formed) guide our thoughts and actions within narrow channels. Source: http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/mental-models.html#ixzz2wXvPmx1x. Accessed 20 March 2014.

[iii] Chris Argyris. “Good Communication that Blocks Learning” in Harvard Business Review. July August 1994, 77-85.

[iv] Jim Collins. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Other Don’t (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2001), 35.