Leadership has always been a buzzword among the self-help gurus. Books, seminars and training sessions abound, aimed at helping people hone their leadership skills and effectively learn how to take control of their professional and personal lives. And while it is always helpful to learn from the CEOs, psychologists and motivational speakers who have dominated this market, we should not overlook the leadership lessons found in our own history. As the melech is the pinnacle of leadership, let us examine the stark contrast between the first two kings chosen by God and anointed by the prophet, who set the bar for all future leaders of Bnei Yisrael and from whom we can glean the most fundamental lessons for any kind of leader.
Shaul was a fitting choice to be the very first king. He was a man of solid character, from a fine family, of imposing height and impressive stature, all tempered with his sincere trademark humility. Shmuel HaNavi, who anointed him, was clearly invested in his success and it did not take long for Shaul to win the acceptance of the people, even the initial skeptics. Dovid, second to take the throne, was an unusual choice. He was the black sheep of his family who questioned the legitimacy of his birth and in their shame, relegated him to the fields as an out-of-sight shepherd. When Shmuel came to Yishai’s home in search of the next king, Dovid was only brought out as an afterthought at the prompting of the prophet. His biological father didn’t understand the potential of his youngest son; his heavenly Father obviously did.
In the course of their reigns, both Shaul and Dovid made mistakes for which they paid dearly. Shaul did not follow Hashem’s command on two separate occasions—once in battle against the Pelishtim and again during the war with Amalek. He was punished by having the malchut taken away from his lineage. Dovid sinned by having an inappropriate relationship with Batsheva and by arranging for the death of her husband to cover it up. He was punished with the death of the son born to him and Batsheva and with terrible tragedies befalling three more of his children.
Why did Shaul lose the kingship when Dovid secured it for eternity? What leadership qualities did Dovid possess that made him the paradigmatic ruler, and what qualities did Shaul lack that disqualified him from passing the mantle of kingship onto his descendants? Chazal teach that there are two approaches to understanding the divergent paths of these two great men.
The first approach is that Dovid learned early on that he could not count on the support or approval of others. Because he was a descendant of Ruth the Moabitess, he was not fully accepted by his community. He had what Chazal call a “kuppa shel shratzim,” the equivalent of skeletons in the closet, and that set him apart from everyone else. Dovid grew up expecting not to be popular or beloved. He was not subject to the whims of the people or to popularity polls. The royal decisions he made were motivated by God’s will and God’s approval, because he knew from life experience that that was what truly mattered. That is what made him such an effective leader. Shaul was different. He was unquestionably a righteous man, but he knew how comforting and reassuring it was to have the support and confidence of his people. Tragically, he chose the will and approval of the people over Hashem’s explicit commands—both in battle against the Pelishtim when he was supposed to wait for Shmuel to arrive but instead capitulated to the fears of the people, and in battle with Amalek when he was commanded to destroy everything but gave in to the people who wanted to preserve the choicest livestock. A leader must have the ability to do what is expected of him, what is right, even if it will make him unpopular.
Chazal also focus on both leaders’ response to sin. It would appear as if Dovid’s offense was much greater. Even though Dovid was not technically guilty of adultery or murder (Batsheva had the conditional divorce all soldiers gave to their wives, and Uriah refused a direct command of the king and was therefore deserving of the death penalty as a moraid bemalchut), nevertheless he was guilty of serious improprieties that no Jewish king should engage in. Shaul’s mistakes were much less scandalous and much better intentioned—to assuage the fears of the people and to offer sacrifices that would be pleasing to God. But according to this approach, the offense is not the issue—rather, it’s each king’s response when confronted with his failing. Shaul tried to justify his actions—he had a difficult time understanding that he had done something wrong. Dovid, on the other hand, simply uttered two words: “chatasi laHashem, I have sinned before God.” Rather than trying to excuse what he had done, he engaged in teshuvah that has become an archetype for anyone needing to repent. It is a given that leaders will make mistakes. The difference is how they respond to their failures. Taking responsibility and seeking to change and improve is the hallmark of a great leader.
Many of us assume positions of leadership. In our professions, our communities and our families, others look to us in some way or another for guidance and direction. Real leadership transcends successful habits, tipping points or how much we have gotten done before breakfast. Through the tragedy of Shaul and the triumph of Dovid, we see that serving our people means serving God first. We see that we must own up to our failures. Leadership is not just a buzzword; it is about being worthy of the position of influence and authority, being mindful and reverential of the responsibility and appreciating the far-reaching consequences of failure or success.