Heart of a Leader

1 Samuel 16:7: “But Yahweh [God] said to Samuel, “Do not look on one’s appearance or on the height of one’s stature… for I do not see as mortals see. They look on the outward appearance, but I look on the heart.”

It’s a great verse for the ugly, fat, and impotent! Power and looks are something that we are all meant to aspire to and never quite be satisfied with. Wouldn’t it be great if Hollywood chose its stars on the state of their hearts?

The context of the verse though is leadership – it is part of the ‘Rise of King David’ legend. And it is still as relevant today in the context of political and church leadership as it was when the biblical writers first ascribed these words to God.

As you may recall Saul preceded David as king. He was the first king of Israel. Saul had not aspired to kingship. He had considered himself the ‘least of all people in Israel’[i]. The prophet Samuel and Yahweh the God had other ideas. Saul was to be the solution to the Ammonite and Philistine problems. They were persistently pesky neighbours. The former he dealt to, the latter he tried to but failed.

It is maybe not surprising that when victory seemed elusive that the writers turned against King Saul. This is standard political behaviour – failure to produce results is not tolerated for long. Consider too that they were writing in King David’s time and needed to explain Saul’s demise and why the mantle of Yahweh’s favour was transferred to David. The authors portray Saul as fated to fail: exhibiting bouts of unrestrained violence, obsession with control, irrational jealousy, and, behind it all, military impotency. The troubles of this emergent monarchy were psychologically transferred onto its leader.

Leadership often attracts such response. People then and now psychologically project their fears and hopes onto their leader. If he or she does not act decisively, deal to the enemy, or exhibit some other way of being strong, the populace reject him or her. Leadership unfortunately is frequently the art of appearances. It is often hard, as is the case currently with the U.S primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama, to see beneath the appearances to the substance and character of the leader.

Our story today has the prophet Samuel, the same who anointed/appointed Saul travelling to Bethlehem intent on anointing/appointing someone new. Samuel is acting rebelliously to bring Saul’s kingship to an end. So he goes with the alibi of making a sacrifice to Yahweh. The people however are not fooled [v.4], they know what his mission is and are very apprehensive.

Samuel gets instructions to check out the sons of Jesse and discern who is destined for power. Starting with the eldest, who would naturally have primacy, Samuel works down the male members of the family. Yahweh whispers to the prophet not to look on their height [read military prowess] or their good looks. Yahweh is interested in male hearts.

Of course after this anointing of David the royal apologists write up David as having military prowess, as shown in the slay-the-giant saga, and as being handsome. Goliath comments on how tanned and handsome David was [NIV 1 Samuel 17:42]. It seems that although the Divine might look at the heart we humans quickly forget about hearts and concentrate on leaders’ power and appearance.

It is somewhat unnerving to consider how relevant a passage of Scripture written in some 2,500 years ago can be to today. I think it behoves us to spend a few minutes contemplating what might be involved in heart leadership.

Firstly, heart leadership involves compassion. The roots of compassion are important. The leader must deeply sense that they are special only because everyone is special. The leader must not think they are uniquely talented and chosen in a way that makes them look down on others they or associates deem to be untalented and unchosen. Leaders need to have a strong sense of solidarity with all humanity. When the people hurt they must feel that hurt.

Allied with this is the humility to accept the gifts that others bring, and the realization that one person doesn’t have it all. People need a leader who makes them feel part of a team, an enterprise. A leader uses the word ‘we’ often. A leader depends on the strengths of the team, and vice versa. A leader is not the only person in the eye of the camera. There is nothing bad about needing each other. The myth of the self-made, self-contained man or woman needs to die on the humble altar of acknowledging our need of each other.

The power of a heart leader is that of influence not authority. I think theology has something to teach us in this regard. I believe God is like an animating spirit of love that works through people. This spirit of love has a power - but it’s not the power of armies, wealth, and empire. It is not the power of control. It is instead the power of a changed heart, a forgiving spirit, and a fearless hospitality. This is not the power of coercion, violence, or manipulation. Therefore it is seemingly not all that strong at all. But it is the power of self-giving love that I believe and hope has the strength to endure beyond every despot, and every inflated ego.

A heart leader must have the courage to risk being unpopular. My colleague Clay has a metaphor about earning and spending poker chips. A leader earns chips [goodwill] from his or her constituency as he or she works for them, building trust and respect. There comes though a time when a good leader will spend the chips – namely ask the people to follow him or her even if they disagree with them. I think the recent passing of the law curtailing the convention of smacking children is a good example of both major parties choosing to do what was right rather than what was popular. I long for the day when vicars and bishops will spend their ‘chips’ and support social changes that the majority of New Zealanders may be uncomfortable with. Goodwill needs to be spent for the betterment of the marginalized.

Lastly a heart leader needs to call us beyond our own needs and wants. Most leaders today seem to be managers – ably, or not so ably, managing budgets, people, projects, and expectations. In a diverse and cosmopolitan society political practice quickly becomes the art of management. People, like the media, are problems to be managed. Appearances and power need to be maintained.

Leadership however is different. It offers people a vision of joining with something bigger than themselves. Something so big every barrier is broken, every prejudice challenged, every person embraced, and every heart expanded. When faith, hope, and love are reduced to membership cards of an elite club we have lost the big picture. Real faith is the courage to risk, real hope is the energy of making dreams come true, and real love is self-giving generosity. These don’t belong in any club or party. They are wild and free.

I hope in this year of elections that those who aspire to leadership will know the importance of compassion, the importance of solidarity with all, the importance of the need of others, the importance of the power of love, the importance of the courage to risk, and the importance of calling us to something bigger than ourselves.

As Jesse’s sons were paraded before Samuel the Hebrew verb ‘to see’ occurred repeatedly. The focus is on how one sees when choosing leaders. There is always the temptation to see what is on offer, what is exceptional in appearance, what meets accepted standards, what is impressive, what is beautiful, what seems secure, appropriate and fitting. But in God’s eyes such things are irrelevant. The prophet Samuel courageously seeks out more alternatives. It is the heart that is at stake – the heart of the leader and the hearts of the people.

[i] 1 Samuel 9:21


Dear God I Don't Want To Be Saved

Dear God,
All things considered life is very good.
So, without sounding ungrateful,
I don’t want to be go to heaven,
I don’t want to be rescued,
and I don’t want to be saved.
If that’s all religion is you can keep it in a church.

I do though want to be part of something big.
Something much bigger than me.
Something so big that every barrier is broken,
every prejudice challenged,
every person embraced,
and every heart expanded.

If faith is only for the faithful,
if hope is only for the deserving,
and if love is only for the lovable,
then they are worthless, glittering imitations.
For real faith is the courage to risk,
real hope is the energy of dreams
and real love is the essence of divinity,
wherever, and among whomever, they are found.

So God,
shape with me, don’t break with me;
make with me, don’t take me;
join with me, don’t redeem me.
Let’s risk, dream, and love together
joining hands with believers and unbelievers,
the saved and unsaved,
the pious and the pagans…
for life is very good.
Lets make it better.


Keeping the Balance

A parable by Paulo Coelho:

“A certain shopkeeper sent his son to learn about the secret of happiness from a wise man. The lad wandered for many days and finally came upon a beautiful castle. It was there the wise man lived.

Rather than finding a ‘saintly’ man, though, the lad, on entering the main room of the castle, saw a hive of activity: tradesmen came and went, people were conversing in the corridors, a small orchestra was rehearsing, and there was a table covered with mouth-watering food. The wise man conversed with everyone, and the boy had to wait two hours before it was his turn to be given the man’s attention.

The wise man listened attentively to the lad, but told him that he would have to wait to hear the secret of happiness. He suggested the boy explore around the palace and gardens and return in two hours.

“Meanwhile,” I want to ask you to do something”, said the wise man, handing the boy a teaspoon that held two drops of oil. “As you wander around, carry this spoon with you without allowing the oil to spill.”

The boy began climbing and descending the many stairways of the castle, keeping his eyes fixed on the teaspoon. After two hours he returned to where the wise man was.

“Well,” asked the wise man, “did you see the Persian tapestries that are hanging in my dining hall? Did you see the garden that took the master gardener ten years to create? Did you notice the beautiful parchments in my library?”

The boy was embarrassed, and confessed that he had observed nothing. His only concern had been not to spill the oil that the wise man had entrusted to him.

“Then go back and observe the marvels of my world,” said the wise man.

Relieved the boy picked up the spoon and returned to his exploration of the palace, this time observing all of the works of art on the ceilings and walls. He saw the gardens, the mountains all around, the beauty of the flowers… Upon returning to the wise man, he related in detail everything he had seen.

“But where are the drops of oil I entrusted to you?” asked the wise man.

Looking down at the teaspoon he held, the boy saw that the oil was gone.

“Well, there is only one piece of advice I can give you”, said the wise man. “The secret of happiness is to enjoy all the marvels of the world, but never to forget the drops of oil on the teaspoon.”

The wise man in the parable is familiar with some of our realities. He is busy with multiple demands!! He is not a ‘normal’ wise man. Usually in stories the wise are in a serene state, seemingly unimpeded by demands and expectations. Furthermore the wise are quite detached from wealth and live in poor surroundings. Neither is the case in this parable. The question is therefore posed: “How does one remain wise while living with responsibilities and possessions?”

The lad who is seeking happiness undergoes the teaspoon test twice, and fails both times. The first time he is completely focused on the oil. That teaspoon symbolizes his inner world. He tries to engage with the outer world, the wondrous world he meets in the castle and its grounds, but can’t shift his focus from his inner world.

The inner world, the soul, certainly needs to be cared for. This is the place where the ground of love is prepared, where dreams take root, and where hope is watered. Yet when the inner world becomes one’s sole preoccupation it leads to self-absorption.

In churches we sometimes get people who are totally engrossed with their own spiritual journey that they overlook - sometimes purposefully - the world around them. Their faith is all about them and God. They nurture that teaspoon to the detriment of everything else. They begin to believe the teaspoon is everything.

The second time the lad undergoes the test he is alerted to the outer world. He generously and hospitably welcomes new thoughts and feelings. But in doing so he overlooks his own soul.

The outer world is noisy, busy, and demanding. It is also often colourful, interesting, and exciting. It wants our attention. Indeed it wants our adherence to the latest product it’s peddling. These products are often good, and so we go along.

I had a friend who lived almost solely in the outer world. He was gregarious and welcoming. I imagined him running a great pub. He listened to and discussed life with all and sundry. But I was never sure whom I was talking to. Was I talking to him or to the person he was last talking to? Did the spinning merry-go-round of his life have a centre? Or was it all spin?

“What does it profit a man or woman to gain the whole world and lose his or her own soul?” [Mark 8:36]

The parable reminds us to the importance of both the outer and inner world. It reminds us of the importance of our interaction with the subcultures and issues of our time and the importance of our own soul. It reminds us that neither can be dispensed with.

[1] Adapted from Coelho, Paulo The Alchemist, New York : HarperCollins, 1998, p.32-34.