How are the mighty fallen!

                     - when leadership fails (from chapter 7)


‘We only really learn from our failures.

Our successes confirm us in our habits’.  Clive James


He just sat there sobbing uncontrollably. He was 18 months into a job he had been unexpectedly and strongly encouraged to apply for. It was a newly created post and he knew it would be a challenge, but he had accepted, believing that God was calling him. Now, so soon, he was exhausted, bewildered, crushed by the experience and feeling both unsupported and guilty that he couldn’t cope. There was no one he felt he could talk to about his struggles. If his confidence had not been so low he would have been very angry at being so misled – not least by God.

No leader chooses to fail. Leaders deserve our gratitude and compassion, and it is very painful to watch someone sinking in a job that is overwhelming them or to which they are simply ill suited.  


The story of 1 & 2 Samuel is a sustained reflection on the experience of failure.

At its mid point, where it is customary in Bible stories to find the central message, comes David’s moving lament over the deaths of King Saul and his son Jonathan. Three times we hear the cry, ‘How the mighty have fallen!’ (2 Sam 1.19). That anguished refrain becomes a lament over a whole lost era.


On the surface it all started with the people’s request for a king (though of course the real story began long before in a quite different place). Israel’s leadership was at a critical point; its present life failing and change clearly needed. But a king? Samuel is sent to warn the people what to expect – someone who will abuse his powers, oppress, exploit and ‘take’ (1 Sam 8.11-20). So much would have been apparent if the people had simply looked over the border to neighbouring nations. ‘Leadership’ always comes with a health warning in this narrative and the people’s determination to have a king seems misguided at least. They are attempting to solve a problem without recourse to conversation, theology or discernment. They have not thought – let alone prayed – things through, and then as now, ‘what is not owned is not transforming’ (Hirst, 2006:115).


It is Yahweh who makes clear the most serious implication of the request for a king. Samuel’s fierce denunciation of the evils of ‘kings’ is followed by an even sharper divine judgement on the kind of people who ask for them in the first place. The people are ‘casting aside’ their God he says to Samuel (1 Sam 8.7-8) – something they have done repeatedly through history. The consequences will be catastrophic. The nascent hopes and ambitions for monarchy and nationhood that Israel entertains will die in a far country in the bitterness of exile. City and Temple will be reduced to rubble.


This story undoubtedly offers material for profound reflection, but just in passing, we might wonder what Samuel or Yahweh would have to say to a contemporary world so preoccupied with organisational change and ‘leadership’, and struggling unevenly to find a sound theological basis for its vision.


From another perspective ‘Leadership’ in this narrative is revealed to be an almost impossible task. Every leader in the story fails – a thought that draws wry smiles of recognition at leadership seminars. However committed we may be to developing skills and competencies, those involved in leadership cannot be unaware of its challenges. It is unrelentingly hard work, can be brutally thankless, and is never more costly than when it seeks to be godly and just. Leadership ‘takes’ from leaders and is not always good at giving back. It is lonely and can be very bad for your health. The church leader who does not, at least at times, find the thought of stacking shelves in the local supermarket an attractive alternative, is the exception rather than the rule.


There is a Bible passage, commonly read at ordination services or at the appointing of ministers, which begins, ‘for the love of Christ compels us’. It goes on to insist that we must live with the perspective of Christ in all things and not judge people or situations from a human perspective (2 Cor 5.14-20). Moving and inspiring though this may be, leaders would do well to take note of the verse immediately before:: ‘If we are mad – it’s for God!’ (2 Cor 5.13, my trans.)


Are we allowed to feel sympathy for Saul? There are a few signs of compassion in the narrative. He is a lonely, hesitant character, seeming lacking the very particular skills it would take to lead an organization or community into a significantly new vocational identity. It may well be that the expectations, tensions and hopes that were loaded onto Israel’s First King would have sorely tested the abilities of the most gifted leader. Perhaps Saul was the monarchy’s scapegoat?


Then again, the whole enterprise was ill conceived. At the time of writing a Premier football club has just appointed its seventh manager in five and a half years. The new manager admits that many of his colleagues think him mad for taking the club on. A fresh face or personality, however gifted, will not be the answer while the real problem remains undiscerned. ‘New blood rarely thwarts malignant processes anywhere. Indeed with both cancer and institutions, malignant cells that appear dead can often revive if they receive new nourishment’ (Friedman, 2007:6).


Saul is treated even more harshly in the Book of Chronicles, the other record of this history, where he is tersely referred to as one who ‘died for his unfaithfulness . . . therefore the Lord put him to death’ (1 Chron 10.13-14). Perhaps that is not surprising. When any business or organization sets out to rebrand itself before the world, the choice of leader for the new era is vitally important. The stakes are very high. The world is watching. Israel specifically restructured its national leadership around a model that was meant to make it look and feel like the world around and things went tragically wrong. It was a very public failure.


For all the things working against Saul – including being professionally under-resourced for the job and clearly undermined by those whose task it was to offer help (Samuel frequently questions or criticises him) – notice that throughout the story he is treated as responsible and accountable. We are a long way from a contemporary victim and blame culture here. Saul’s own freedom and selfhood is honoured, and for all the signs of his hesitancy, there is a strand in the narrative that suggests Yahweh never lost belief that Saul’s reign could have succeeded. Now as then, the primary vocation, and perhaps the hardest to be faithful too, was the way of radical, naked trust in Yahweh. No amount of training and strategy could substitute for that.


In the end Saul’s downfall was a failure to trust and obey. Yahweh says he has ‘turned back’ from doing his will (1 Sam 15.10). We first met Saul as he turned back without finding lost donkeys in the wilderness. He needed to turn his back on Samuel in order to take to heart the role of king. In the end the task of ‘turning’ both defines and eludes him.


Not everyone fulfils their potential, but it may be that what really matters in the end is to have the courage to fight our fear of failure, to learn, to explore, and to take the risks we need to in order to grow. We live in a culture that instils a terror of failure, and that is very unhealthy.

Fear & Trust


In exciting and uncertain times like ours where the

ways forward are often not clear where are we to

find the wisdom we seek? One place is the ancient

world of 1&2 Samuel. People there have so much

in common with us. They too were travelling

through unsettling change. Like us they were

searching for solutions, 'answers' (and especially

'leaders'). They too were struggling to discern

and trust God's presence (and absence) in it all.  

And time and again transformationcame through

the faithfulness  of the most vulnerable,

powerless and unexpected people. 1&2 Samuel

is story telling by the wise, offering wisdom for any age or people who find themselves journeying through profound and uncertain transition.



SPCK 2011

ISBN-10: 0281063893 ISBN-13: 978-0281063895