Humility, Faith, and Failure: Essential Characteristics of Godly Leadership

Introduction

Each weekday morning around 9:00 AM, every single student in every school in Turkey will stand in their class lines and recite an oath. From kindergarten all the way through high school, they will say the same thing. My English translation of that oath goes something like this: “I am a Turk. I am honest. I am hard working. My principle is to protect the small and to respect the great. I will love my land and my country more than myself. Oh, great Ataturk! On the road that you have paved, I will walk without hesitation. My talents are dedicated to Turkish existence. How happy is the one who can say, ‘I am a Turk!’ ”

While an American might consider it odd for an entire people to make a pledge of allegiance to a man long dead, it is the most natural thing in the world for someone in the Middle East. This is not something that stops at childhood either. It is illegal for anybody to publicly say anything bad about Mustafa Kemal, commonly known as Ataturk (the father of the Turks). More than just a pledge and a rule, I have learned by hard experience that the quickest way to end a friendship is to even hint that Ataturk was anything less than the greatest leader in history.

Such a mindset seems completely foreign to someone with a Judeo-Christian mindset, but for the Muslim mind, it is the most natural thing in the world. Many of the same leaders that are found in the Bible are also found in the Quran. Men like Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and David are considered prophets. They have a version of their stories told in the Quran as well as the Old Testament. The big difference is that in the Quran, any hint of failure, sin, or imperfection has been removed from these characters’ stories.

From a Christian perspective, there is much that we can learn both from the successes and failures of biblical leaders. As Forrest has written, “There are plenty of negative leadership practices that can be uncovered by a careful examination of failed leaders in the Old Testament.”  From a Muslim perspective, this is not possible. Not only is there no lesson to be learned from their failures, there never was any failure in the first place. From a leadership perspective, this is a dangerous mindset for someone to have. In addition to humility and faith, an acknowledgment of and a healthy response to failure is an essential characteristic of good leadership.

Humility

Before we can take a closer look at failure, we need to first examine the first two elements that are also essential characteristics of good leadership. The first of those is humility. For the purposes of this paper, humility is defined as the recognition that ultimately it is God who leads and the willingness to defer the glory for any success to him. This humility is a common feature found in many leaders throughout the Old Testament. It is the attitude that both Joseph and Daniel displayed when brought before their respective rulers to interpret dreams. Both of them said, “I can’t, but God can” (Gen 41:16, Dan 2:27-28).

Humility of Moses

No examination of humility in the Bible can be complete without first looking at Moses. Of him, the writer in Numbers said, “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3) Many examples can be given of his humility in the face of the recalcitrant people of Israel. Our best glimpse of this, however, can be seen when he is advised by his father in law, Jethro, to delegate some of the responsibilities that are wearing him down. One sure sign of an insecure leader is their unwillingness to hand off any of their responsibility to others. But as Forrest writes, “To Moses’ credit, he did not choose the route of pride when given this option. Rather, he chose the path of humility to the benefit of all involved and to the glory of God.”

Humility of Joshua

Long before Moses left the scene we get a glimpse of Joshua. He first enters the Biblical narrative as the general leading the fight against the Amalekites (Ex 17:9-14). He then nearly disappears from the scene as Moses’ aide. He is with him when Moses goes up the mountain to talk with God (Ex 24:13). He is one of the twelve spies sent to scout out Canaan (Num 13:16) and one of only two to bring back a good report (Num 14:6). Then for forty years, he serves in relative obscurity until the end of Moses’ life.

All too often we want attention and recognition immediately. This is especially true for those who have experienced success or recognition early in life as Joshua did against the Amalekites. It is a rare thing to see someone with the humility to fade into the background after being publicly successful and recognized.

Humility of David

Like Joshua, this is a trait David is also known for. He is anointed as a young boy (1 Sam 16:13), but then he goes right back to tending sheep (1 Sam 17:15). He kills Goliath (1 Sam 17:50), but he still is acting as Saul’s musician (1 Sam 18:10). Even after Saul grows jealous of David’s growing fame and begins his obsession with killing him (1 Sam 18:5-11), David refuses to respond in kind and twice spared Saul’s life when he had the opportunity to kill him (1 Sam 24, 26).

Humility of Gideon

While it is important to walk humbly, recognizing that God is the ultimate leader in any endeavor, we should also be careful not to allow insecurity to masquerade as humility. Gideon is one Biblical leader who came very close to crossing that line. About his early career, Forrest quotes J Cheryl Evum as saying, “No character in the book receives more divine assurance than Gideon and no one displays more doubt.”

Faith

Faith of Gideon

When we humbly step out in obedience to what God has called us to do, this is faith. When we do not do so under the false pretense of humility, this demonstrates insecurity. While Gideon treads closely on that line, I believe that his demonstration of faith showed that, at least early on in his life, he was still on the proper side of it. This can be seen when he stepped out in obedience and tore down the altar of Baal, even though he did so at night. (Judg 6:25-26) It can also be seen when he summoned for the army to gather, even though he then twice laid a fleece before the Lord (Judg 6:34-3-40). Finally, Gideon obeyed God in culling the army from 32,000 down to three hundred (Judg 7:1-8), and with that army took on a force of 135,000 (Judg 8:10). But before that battle, he needed one more sign of encouragement (Judg 7:10-15).

Gideon is an encouragement for those who have been called by God to lead but do not have the typical personality profile of a leader. He continued to step out in faith time and again even though he was never truly confident that his steps of obedience were the right ones. As Howell writes, “A fearful Gideon is threshing wheat in a secluded winepress when he receives his commissioning as a ‘mighty warrior’. But in the end, the transformation of Gideon from fearful wheat thresher to bold commander makes that title seem appropriate.”

Faith of David

Like Gideon, David at first did not seem to be a good choice as a leader. While Gideon did not have the right personality, David did not have the birthright. When Samuel was sent to anoint the next king, the runt of the litter, David was the last candidate he had in mind. In fact, he was so unlikely that his own family forgot about him when everybody was summoned for the sacrifice (1 Samuel 16:5-11). However, the next time we see David he is stepping out in faith to face Goliath. This overlooked youngest child was the only one in Israel with the faith to confront Goliath (1 Sam 17). As Forrest writes, “David does not fear his youth, the rebuke of his brother, the seasoned Philistine warrior, or death, because he trusts in the Lord and because he understands that the battle is the Lord’s.”

Faith of Joshua and Moses

Another leader who did not at first feel secure in his leadership would be Joshua. Joshua was following one who could be considered the most influential leader in the Old Testament. He had incredibly big shoes to fill and in reading between the lines, it is clear that he did not feel up to the task. Three times in the first ten verses of Joshua 1, God tells this new leader to “be strong and courageous” (6,7,9) These same words are the very last in the chapter (18) but this time it is the people of Israel that are giving him encouragement.

As we continue on in the story, it is clear that Joshua took these words to heart. A short while later God told Joshua to “go stand in the river” (Josh 3:8) So Joshua turned to the people and said, “Let’s go and cross the river.” It was not until their feet got wet that the waters parted (Josh 3:15-16). Again, God told Joshua to march around the city, then shout and the city collapse and you can go straight in (Josh 6:2-5) So Joshua turned to the people and said, “Advance!” (Joshua 6:7)

I am absolutely certain that Joshua was thinking, “What if they all shout and nothing happens?” Before that, “What if the priests step into the water and it just keeps on flowing.” In the same way, I can easily imagine his mentor Moses thinking, “These waters are bitter. What if I throw this tree into those waters and nothing happens except I look like a fool?” Or when Pharaoh’s army was advancing, “What if I stretch my hand towards this water and while I am holding it there, all of Israel gets slaughtered?” Even earlier, he might have been thinking, “What if I confront Pharaoh, he laughs at me, kills me, and everyone else is still a slave?”

Responding to Failure

I can easily imagine these faith-filled leaders wondering things like that because I have thought similar things myself. What if the leading I thought I heard from God was not? What if I step out, and I am wrong? Or worse, what if I step out in the wrong direction. Two things that can quickly stifle leadership is the fear of future failure and the pain of past mistakes. This is true for all leaders everywhere but it is doubly true for those who have been raised in an Islamic culture. They have been indoctrinated to believe that all of their past spiritual leaders were perfect. This belief, coupled with an acknowledgment of their own imperfection, has stifled many who have the potential to be great leaders for God. This is why an acknowledgment of and a healthy response to failure is the third essential characteristic of a good leader.

The Failure of Moses

The same Moses who confronted Pharaoh with the message from God to “let my people go” had just shortly before begged and pleaded and argued with God to send someone else (Ex 3:1-5:1). The same Moses who stretched out his hand and the Red Sea parted also struck the rock with his staff in anger and deliberate disobedience to God’s command (Ex 14:21-22, Num 20:7-13). Even the most humble man on the face of the earth (Num 12:3) fell prey to moments of fear and impetuous anger.

The Failure of Joshua

The same Joshua who followed God’s command in crossing the Jordan river and fighting the battle of Jericho also failed by relying on his own wisdom in the battle for Ai and in making a treaty with the Gibeonites (Joshua 7:1-5, 9:1-15). We all have a tendency at times to rely on our own strength rather than on the Lord and we can learn much from Joshua’s failure.

The Failure of Gideon

The same Gideon who was once so unsure of himself that he needed multiple reassurances from God became proud. He took revenge on those who refused to help (Judges 8:4-9), he took for himself many wives and concubines (Judges 8:30-31), and where he once raised up an altar to God he now built an idol of gold (Judges 8:24-27). Of Gideon’s latter days, Forrest writes, “Pride is the leader’s constant enemy, an ever-present temptation… Leaders must always remember their own humble journey and God’s grace in their lives, and then be an instrument of that grace to others in their journey – Gideon sorely failed in this matter.”

The Failure of David

Finally, David, who fought Goliath and humbly served and honored a jealous and spiteful king, was guilty of adultery and then murder as a cover-up (2 Samuel 11:1-17). Even after this was exposed, once he repented and was forgiven, David failed time and again in his role as a father. We can see this through the actions of his sons Adonijah (1 Kings 1:6), Absalom (2 Samuel 19:1-7), and Amnon (2 Samuel 13:1-22). About David and Amnon, Howell writes, “Although [David] was angered by Amnon’s act, there is no record of him taking disciplinary action against his son. In fact, it was David’s indulging attitude toward Amnon that brought Tamar into the compromising situation in the first place.”

So we see that the Biblical heroes and leaders found in the Old Testament are far from perfect. Each one had flaws and failures and this should be an encouragement to potential leaders of our day because each of us also has flaws and failures. It is because of David’s failure that we can now pray with him what is one of the most beautiful prayers in all of scripture.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you and you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge… Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. (Psalms 51:1-4, 10-12)

Conclusion

About a week before quarantine measures came into effect here in Turkey, I was at a meeting with one Turkish Christian and eleven Muslims. This Christian had begun holding meetings with anyone who wanted to know more about or had questions regarding Christianity. I watched as he shared the Biblical concept of sin and how it was the same or different from the idea in Islam. Then I watched the light go on in the eyes of those Muslim seekers as they realized that even according to their own scriptures Adam, a supposedly sinless prophet, was a sinner.

This Turkish believer is an excellent example of how humility, faith, and a healthy response to failure are essential characteristics of good leadership. A couple of years earlier, this young leader had been kicked out of the only Turkish speaking church in my city because of his foolishness and pride. Before becoming a believer, his goal in life had been to join the Muslim Brotherhood and become a martyr for the cause. He is an unlikely candidate to now be walking more than twenty college students down a journey from creation to the cross.

But this young man had the humility to recognize his failures and work through reconciliation. He had the faith to share with his family that he had become a Christian even though it meant being kicked out of his house at fifteen. He also had the faith to step into leadership after nearly a year of being prompted, prodded, and cajoled into doing so. This young leader has recognized and responded to his own shortcomings and failures in a healthy way and he continues to be held accountable because he recognizes that, even as a leader now, he has not yet arrived at perfection. The life of this young man, as well as the lives of Old Testament biblical leaders like Moses, Joshua, Gideon, and David, are lessons for us all.

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