Perhaps the most revered figure in the history of the Jewish people is their beloved King—David. Although certainly not perfect, David seems to embody what God is looking for in leaders, he is a man after God’s own heart; and is therefore a leader worthy of much attention. The biblical record of the life of David begins with his teen years and continues until God calls him home. This complete narrative of David’s growth as a leader is probably why Dr. Elmer Towns selects him as the model of a growing leader. Certainly it is ridiculous to even think that only some types of leaders grow or develop. One is not a leader if he is not growing; he may be a manager or supervisor but not a leader.
In Spiritual Leadership, Henry Blackaby is correct when he states, “the greatness of an organization will be directly proportional to the greatness of its leader” (Blackaby, 2001, 31). According to Lawrence Richards in the Teacher’s Commentary, “two rich sources to help us understand David’s growth toward greatness. The first is the historical account of his life, found in 1 and 2 Samuel, in 1 Kings and in 1 Chronicles. The second source is the Psalms that were written by David himself. These psalms portray David’s rich emotional life, and reveal his attitudes and feelings at various stages of his life” (Richards, 1987, 214). Towns is right as he describes David as “the growing leader” (Towns, 2007, 94). The life of David provides a remarkable example worthy of discussion and attention of how God uses circumstances, events and others to develop (or grow) His leaders into their God given potential.
Towns and others use Psalm 78:70-72 as a key text in describing or illustrating how God began working in David’s life as a young man, a shepherd boy, and led him down a Sovereign path which prepared him to be a great king. Towns describes several examples of how growing leaders develop. For example, a pastor of a small church who continues to grow with his church such that both develop and eventually he is leading a staff and a substantially larger church. Another example, not given by Towns but similar, is the young second lieutenant who begins with a platoon but, because he grows with the Army and shows potential for more responsibility, becomes a company commander and some grow more into battalion, brigade and even division commanders. These men and women share something in common with King David- they continue to grow as leaders. They actively participate in leadership training and continually seek to improve themselves.
Towns states that David’s training began with an opportunity “to serve King Saul in the palace” (Towns, 2007, 96). Certainly Towns is referring to training in a formal sense because the biblical record seems to link the shepherding experience David gained as a boy to the shepherding he did as King of Israel. In an article, “Heart and Hands of Leadership,” John Hartog III, Ph.D., believes the time David tended sheep was formative in his growth as a leader. He writes,
David's leadership training took place within the sheep paddocks where he learned patience, compassion, courage, and responsibility. [He] learned compassion while working with his ewes. In Israel the shepherd leads his flocks, ‘but the ewes that suckle their young need his special attention, and those he follows with his eye and if needful with his steps, to watch over them and protect them from harm. (Hartog, 2009, n.p.).
In reality, no one knows exactly how formative those years were for David, but there is clear evidence showing that what David overcame as a shepherd gave him courage to tackle greater obstacles as a warrior. In 1st Samuel 17.34, David relates past experiences to describe how he can have courage to tackle the giant. Likewise, growing leaders draw on previous victories, which initially appeared insurmountable, to gain confidence for the future.
Next, the historical narrative in 1st Samuel 16 shows how God moved Israel’s future king to the palace as a servant to learn presumably what life in the King’s administration looks like and how it operates. Then 1st Samuel 18 records that Saul set David over men of war. Certainly this had to be an incredible time of growth in the life of this young man. Although not specifically described in scripture, it is fair to assume that David participated in training, maneuvers, and was mentored to some degree by someone on the King’s staff. Later, the reader sees that David has been promoted to a leader of about one thousand men (which would be comparable to an infantry battalion in today’s Army). David is growing as a leader. This is an interesting balance of growth, in so much as, God used David’s shepherding experience to develop key character traits of courage and compassion. David plays a harp, writes poetry and lyrics and is a warrior. This is quite the combination and seems to give evidence to the complexity of David, which is probably why we have him rising to the level of King. Without the benefit of books, seminars, and other leader training events, David is still maturing and developing through God-ordained circumstances for the purpose of establishing a shepherd leader who will foreshadow the coming King of the tribe of Judah. One commentator described it like this, “David had been brought into the palace of the king as musician and warrior so that he might acquire the experience of statecraft. Though an uninitiated novice at the time of his anointing, he was eminently equipped to be king of Israel at his coronation some 15 years later. But his education was not always pleasant” (Walvoord, 1985, 1:449).
David seems to have a remarkable balance that is difficult to fully comprehend and may have changed depending on the position of authority he had as he first oversaw sheep, then served in the palace and grew through various military commands. This was providential leadership development (Ibid.). During some very intensive periods of testing, David proved to be loyal to King Saul which demonstrated the incredible degree to which David was loyal and would receive loyalty from his followers. David led by example and modeled the behavior he expected the people to have toward God, His law, His appointed King and prophets, and sin. John Maxwell makes specific reference to how King David as a warrior set the example and developed no less than five hundred “mighty men” in 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (Maxwell, 1998, 164). Concerning this period of testing Richards writes, “David was not ready yet [which implies he had to grow and did grow]: he had to undergo further testing. Like his descendant, Jesus, David had to learn ‘obedience from what He suffered’ (Heb. 5:8).God uses stress in this way in all our lives” (Richards, 1987, 217).
After King Saul’s death, David was promoted to King of Judah and would once again have to adapt to the changing duties and responsibilities (2 Samuel 2:4). The manner in which David led four hundred men in opposition to King Saul would not be appropriate for the King of Judah just as an army brigade commander should not command a brigade like he led an infantry platoon. Once again, God chose to allow David to grow into the position of King. Initially, King David served only one tribe. Towns specifically makes mention of how the growing leader may develop in state government before going on to the national government (Towns, 2007, 94). It appears that David experienced a similar growth pattern as he went from what would be similar to governor of a large state to King (president) of the 12 tribes of Jacob. David remained in the office of King of Judah for seven years which included a protracted campaign between the house of Saul and the house of David (2 Samuel 3:11). God used the crisis of children of Abraham killing each other in a civil war as another means of preparing David to shepherd all of His people. David’s loyalty to one tribe would have to grow to all of God’s people. Certainly the tender side of David helped him minister to people who were emotionally and physically scarred from war.
Even as the King of all of Jacob, David’s leadership style reflects an appropriate fear of God and a willingness to continue growing spiritually. When David falls into immoral behavior with Bathsheba, he does not allow his evaluated position of influence to interfere with hearing from God’s prophet. Growing leaders must be on guard to remain humble and sensitive to God’s Word. Positions of authority tend to affect people in different ways, but Towns suggests that growing leaders may mature and come to a position where they “believe they have arrived” (Towns, 2007. 96). David does not seem to experience this “above the law” leadership style. Instead, when the prophet confronts David with his sin with Bathsheba he is willing to continue growing in his sanctification (2 Sam 12). Psalm 51 reflects a man who is willing to examine himself and determine what need to be fixed. This willingness to subordinate himself before God and accept the rebuke of the prophet must have enabled the people to see David’s growth and maturity as a leader. The incident with Nabal and Abigail in 1 Samuel 25 is another great example of how David grew as a leader.
The final dimension of David’s development includes David’s growing relationship with the Holy Spirit. This began at his anointing when the “Spirit of the Lord came upon him from that day forward” (1 Sam. 16:13). The Psalms are replete with discussion of David’s relationship with the Holy Spirit and, in Ps. 51:11, David is concerned that God is going to take His Holy Spirit from him. In Spiritual Leadership, Blackaby believes “there is an added dimension to the growth of a spiritual leader that is not found in secular leadership development. That dimension is the active work of the Holy Spirit in the leaders’ life” (Blackaby, 2001, 42). David grew because of the Spirit’s role in his life. Every Christian leader must seek to see the Spirit of God developing his character and leadership style.
Perhaps what needs to be learned the most from David’s life is how he grew into the shepherd leader God intended for him to be through God’s role in his life. The Bible does not explicitly describe this “shepherding leadership style,” but a thorough examination of the person and life of David will provide much insight into God’s expectation that His leaders serve others in their position of oversight. God’s leaders are servants. Moreover, they must serve as shepherds who tenderly care for their people. The Apostle Peter instructs leaders not to lord over God’s people but be examples to the flock (1 Peter 5), and Paul instructs elders to protect the flock (Acts 20). This intentional linkage between God’s men, His shepherds and His people as sheep, serves as a continual reminder that God expects His leaders to shepherd His people in the same manner that the good, great, and chief Shepherd led and leads people (John 10, Hebrews 13, 1 Peter 5).
Blackaby, Henry. 2001. Spiritual Leadership. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group.
Hartog, John III., 2009. “The Heart and Hands of Spiritual Leadership.” Faith Pulpit. http://www.faith.edu/seminary/faithpulpit.php
Maxwell, John. 2002. The Maxwell Leadership Bible. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.
Maxwell, John. 1998. 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Business, Inc.
Richards, Lawrence. 1987. The Teacher's Commentary. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
Towns, Elmer L. 2007. Biblical Models for Leadership. Mason, OH: Cengage Learning.
Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B. 1985. The Bible Knowledge Commentary : An Exposition of the Scriptures. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.