This paper has been published in the Journal of College and Character ©2001.
Moral Leadership: Ancient Lessons for Modern Times
Hershey H. Friedman, Ph.D.
Professor of Business and Marketing
Brooklyn College of the City University of New York
Dr. Hershey H. Friedman is a Professor of Marketing and Business in the Department of Economics of Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. He holds a B.A. and M.A. from Brooklyn College, an MBA from Baruch College, and a Ph.D. from the Graduate Center of City University of New York. He has published papers in numerous scholarly journals including the Journal of Markets and Morality, Journal of Macromarketing, Radical Pedagogy, Thalia: Studies in Literary Humor, The Journal of Leadership Studies, Journal of Business Ethics, Decision Sciences, and the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing.
The Bible does not hide mistakes made by great people. This makes it an extremely valuable text for teaching moral character. In fact, the lessons learned from mistakes often provide a more lasting and powerful impact than those learned from doing things right. These lessons are not only valuable for individuals in positions of leadership but all people who wish to improve their character. Stories of the following Biblical personalities are examined: Jacob, Joseph, Balaam, Samson, Saul, David, Solomon, and Haman. This examination indicates that the purpose of leadership is not fame, power, fortune, or settling old scores, but to lead people with truth and righteousness. Leaders must be ethical and should not cover up injustices, even on the part of loved ones.
Scholars have examined everything from films (e.g., Dunphy and Aupperle, 2000) to literature (e.g., Clemens and Mayer, 1999) to history (e.g., Kaltman, 1998) to come up with helpful insights into what it takes to achieve success as a leader. Interestingly, very few studies on leadership have focused on the Bible. This, despite the fact that the Bible has had a profound effect on a countless number of people. To the believer, it is the word of God and provides a blueprint for how individuals should lead their lives. Even non-believers recognize the Bible as an important work of literature and a valuable tool for teaching timeless lessons to humankind. The Bible is the most popular book of all time -- it is estimated that as many as 6 billion copies have been sold -- and is the source of many metaphors and scenarios that can be very helpful to those teaching principles of moral leadership. Even for those who have no interest or inclination to lead, an examination of the deeds and misdeeds of Biblical leaders can be useful in understanding the importance of ethical behavior.
Some researchers have found worthwhile lessons in leadership by studying the stories of Abraham and Moses, two of the great leaders of the Hebrew Bible (Herskovitz and Klein, 1999; Friedman and Langbert, 2000). The current paper, which extends and complements their work, will briefly examine the lives of several Biblical leaders. Since the Bible does not hide mistakes made by great people, this makes it an extremely valuable text for teaching moral character. In fact, the lessons learned from mistakes often provide a more lasting and powerful impact than those learned from doing things right. These lessons are not only valuable for individuals in positions of leadership but all people who wish to improve their character.
Jacob was one of the patriarchs, a grandson of Abraham, and father of the twelve tribes. His major mistake as a leader of the clan was to designate Joseph as his successor when Joseph was still young and somewhat irresponsible. Jacob gave Joseph the coat of many colors, a symbol of leadership, when his son was only 17-years old. Joseph, however, was immature and reported his brothers shortcomings to his father (Genesis 37:2). Needless to say, his brothers did not like him.
Jacob was prescient and recognized the potential of Joseph. Indeed, Joseph would eventually prove to be not only a good clan leader, but would become one of the great leaders of Egypt -- one who would get Egypt through seven years of famine. Unfortunately, at this point in his life, Joseph was not yet a good judge of human nature and further aroused the envy and hatred of his brothers by recounting his dreams to them. Relating a dream in which the sun, the moon, and eleven stars bow to him -- a dream that was not very hard to interpret -- infuriated Josephs brothers who made it clear that they would never accept him as a ruler over them. Joseph was sold as a slave by his brothers and did not become a leader of Egypt until he was 30-years old.
The lesson that can be learned from Jacobs mistake is not to designate a successor prematurely and not to show favoritism to one child. It usually takes time for people to recognize and appreciate the qualities of others. A successor has to be groomed. With time, Joseph would have matured and his siblings might have accepted him as the leader of the clan, or at the very least Josephs siblings would have been unable to forcefully sell him into slavery. Sometimes successors have to be prepared for positions of authority. In fact, Joshua was groomed for 40 years by Moses before being designated as Moses successor by God (Numbers 27:16-23). Josephs mistake was in bragging about his dreams. Little good can come from making other people envious of oneself.
Joseph was sold by his brothers as a slave and was ultimately purchased by Potiphar (Genesis 39). His master recognized Josephs abilities and appointed him over his entire household. Potiphars wife attempted to seduce Joseph and he did not succumb because he felt: "how can I perpetrate this great evil and sin against God" (Genesis 39: 9). Joseph did not want to behave in an immoral manner even though it would have been very easy to rationalize given that he was Potiphars slave. A good leader has to behave in a moral, ethical way and do the right thing even if no person is watching and there is no way of getting caught. Joseph proved that he had matured and now had the moral character to become a leader.
Josephs talent was the preternatural ability to interpret dreams. He never attributed this extraordinary capability to his own efforts. When Joseph was in prison, he noticed that Pharaohs butler and baker -- two men who were also in the same prison -- were depressed. Joseph, who cared about people, asked them why they appeared so downcast. They told him that they dreamt a dream but had no one to interpret it for them. Josephs reply to them was (Genesis 40:8): "Behold, interpretations belong to God. Please recount it to me." Some two years later, Pharaoh had Joseph brought to the palace and asked Joseph to interpret his dream. He mentioned to Joseph that he heard of his ability to interpret dreams. Josephs reply was (Genesis 41:16): "That is beyond me. It is God Who will respond regarding Pharaohs welfare." An effective leader must be self-confident and sure of himself or herself; arrogance, however, gets in the way of effective leadership. Joseph knew with certainty that he would be able to interpret the dream, but he was modest and did not desire to take credit for his abilities.
Josephs brothers had wronged him in the most horrible way imaginable: they sold him as a slave. Joseph was sold at the age of 17 and toiled as a slave for 13 years. He had the opportunity to get even, and could easily have justified it, but Joseph had no interest in vengeance. The story of Joseph is not the story of The Count of Monte Cristo. Joseph tested his brothers to determine whether they had changed. Once he established that his half-brothers were treating his only full brother, Benjamin, properly -- indeed, Judah offered himself as a slave in place of Benjamin -- Joseph revealed himself to his kin. The Bible states (Genesis 45:15): "He kissed all of his brothers and wept on them." Joseph had no interest in avenging himself and made clear to his kin that he would take care of their entire families during the seven-year famine.
When their father Jacob died, the brothers thought that Joseph might take vengeance against them. Joseph made clear to them that he had no intention of avenging past wrongs (Genesis 50:19-20): "Fear not! For shall I then take Gods place? Although you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good." A good leader is not concerned with avenging slights to his or her honor. Rather, she cares about what is best for the entire organization and will overlook personal slights. Individuals who spend their days trying to get even do not make upright people and certainly are not suitable as leaders.
Balaam was a prophet with unique capabilities: Balak, king of Moab said about him that "whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is accursed" (Numbers 22:6). He also had the ability to see into the distant future and prophesied the futures of Moab, Edom, Seir, Amalek, and Assyria (Numbers 24:17-24). It is not surprising that leaders of countries such as Moab and Midian would consult with him. What did Balaam do with his exceptional talents? He became a hired gun and cursed people for a fee. In fact, elders of Moab and Midian hired him to curse the Israelites who were about to enter the Promised Land.
Balaam realized that the Israelites were no threat to either Moab or Midian since their route into the Promised Land would not require that they attack either country. Moreover, the Israelites were specifically commanded not to harm Moab (Deuteronomy 2:9). Balaam could have told the Moabites and Midianites not to worry about the Israelites since they would not invade their country when conquering the land of Canaan. Even though God initially told him not to go along with Balaks entourage and not to curse the Hebrews because they were blessed (Numbers 22:12), Balaam was finally able to get permission to go. It is obvious that his intention was to find a way to convince God to allow him to curse the Hebrews and this is why an angel with a drawn sword was sent to punish Balaam (Numbers 22:22-23).
Balaam did not curse the Hebrews -- in fact God made him bless them -- but did advise the Midianites and Moabites to use their women to seduce the Israelites (Numbers 31:16) and then get them to worship the idol Baal Peor. His advice resulted in the deaths of 24,000 Hebrews through a plague that was a divine punishment for the idolatry and sexual immorality. Balaam was eventually killed by the Hebrews in Midian together with five of the Midianite kings (Numbers 31:8).
Balaam is a good example of an individual who misused his divine abilities rather than using them to improve humankind as did other prophets (e.g., Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah). He was driven by greed and hatred, not by love of humankind and justice. Leaders, including those heading businesses, should not follow in the footsteps of Balaam but should be inspired by Isaiahs message (Isaiah 1:17): "Learn to do good, seek justice, vindicate the victim, render justice to the orphan, take up the grievance of the widow."
Samson was a leader of the Israelites for 20 years. He had many qualifications for leadership including courage and love for his people. His major blunder was falling in love with Delilah and revealing the secret of his strength to her. Delilah was bribed by the governors of the Philistines to find out what gave Samson his preternatural strength. Delilah put a great deal of pressure on Samson and discovered that as long as Samson remained a nazirate to God and did not have his hair shorn he would retain his strength. Delilah revealed Samsons secret to the Philistines and they shaved off his hair while he was sleeping. Samson was seized, blinded, and made into a public spectacle by the Philistines.
The story of Samson demonstrates that sexual immorality can undo the achievements of even great leaders. Furthermore, confiding secrets to others, especially lovers, is a recipe for disaster, and many governments have collapsed because an official was indiscreet and revealed state secrets to a mistress.
Saul was the first king of Israel and had the potential to be a great ruler. Saul was a man of great humility when first chosen by the prophet Samuel, but demonstrated his courage and ability to lead the people in defeating the invading Ammonites (I Samuel 10:20; 11:04). Unfortunately, Saul became insanely jealous of his son-in-law David. After David killed Goliath, Saul overheard women saying "Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands" (I Samuel 18:7).
Saul was determined to kill David and this obsession caused him to wipe out an innocent town of priests for providing a fleeing David with food (I Samuel 22). Saul and three of his sons died in a battle with the Philistines -- a battle the Israelites might have won with the assistance of David and his men. David and his band were quite formidable and defeated the Amalekites who destroyed the town of Ziklig (I Samuel 30).
Jealousy is a dangerous trait for leaders, especially when it becomes an obsession. As noted above, Saul was totally distracted from his mission as leader of the Israelites and instead was driven to the brink of insanity by jealousy of his own son-in-law. David was not only extremely loyal to Saul but was extremely close to Sauls son Jonathan. Getting even --especially for imagined slights is also something that leaders should not indulge in. The attempt to avenge some previous insult not only distracts leaders from more important agendas, but can also boomerang. Leaders must motivate their followers; seeking revenge for old slights, even when real, is not a way to inspire followers. On the contrary, retaliation is a way of sending a message to followers that one is small-minded.
David was one of the great kings of Israel. He was not only a great warrior, but also a poet, psalmist, and musician. The story of Davids affair with Bath-Sheba is well known and David was punished for this transgression (II Samuel 11-12). Davids mistake in the matter of Amnon and Tamar caused more problems for his kingdom than his affair with Bath-Sheba and almost resulted in the loss of his kingdom.
Amnon was Davids eldest son and in line for the throne. Amnon fell in love with his half-sister Tamar and raped her (II Samuel 13). David heard about this and "he was very angry" (II Samuel 13:21). David, unfortunately, did not punish or even rebuke his son. Absalom, Tamars full-brother, was furious at what Amnon had done, bided his time, and two years later he arranged for Amnons assassination. Eventually, Absalom organized a rebellion against David and forced his father into exile. David ultimately defeated Absalom, but at a great cost in human lives. David was himself devastated by the death of Absalom (II Samuel 18).
The above story indicates what might happen when injustices are covered up rather than dealt with honestly. Had David punished Amnon for what he did to Tamar, Absalom might not have felt the need to take the law into his own hands. Moreover, he would not have lost respect for his father and would not have had the audacity to rape his fathers concubines and rebel against him. Leaders have to be scrupulous about justice and should not ignore injustices committed by subordinates, even if they are designated successors.
God appeared to Solomon in a dream and asked him to request anything that he wished. Solomon asked God for "an understanding heart" to judge the people and the ability to "distinguish between good and evil" (I Kings 3:9). Apparently, Solomon understood that a leader needs wisdom, compassion, and a sense of justice to succeed and noted that David, his father, walked before God with "truth and righteousness and with an upright heart" (I Kings 3:6). Indeed, under Solomons reign, there was great prosperity and peace and his fame spread throughout the world. Solomon spent seven years building the Temple in Jerusalem (I Kings 6:38). It was a huge undertaking and 70,000 people were needed to carry the burdens and 80,000 to hew the stones (I Kings 5:29). It took Solomon 13 years to build his own palace which was larger than the Temple (I Kings 7). He then made himself a magnificent throne of ivory: "Nothing like it had ever been made for any of the kingdoms (I Kings 10:20). Solomon kept an enormous stable of horses and chariots -- 1400 chariots and 12,000 riders (I Kings 10:26). In addition, Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. The cost of supporting such a vast household was obviously enormous and the people did eventually complain to Rehoboam, Solomons son and successor, about the heavy tax burdens.
Solomon was a great ruler who sowed the seeds of the dissolution of his empire and his kingdom was split into two after he died. Solomons blunder was that, as he got older, accumulating personal wealth became more important than building up his country. His love for foreign women caused him to accumulate a ridiculous number of wives (I Kings 11:1-4). As Solomon himself noted, leaders need wisdom, understanding, righteousness, and truth to ensure the success of their reign. Wealth, fame, beautiful women, and incredible edifices are not what leadership is all about. God himself praised a young Solomon for choosing wisdom and justice over wealth, longevity, or power over his enemies (I Kings 3:10-11), but it seems that he forgot about his mission.
Leaders have to realize that the goal is to build up the organization (or country) one heads and to help ones followers realize their potential, not to use ones position for personal aggrandizement. Wealth and fame might be a byproduct of successful leadership, but are not its purpose.
Haman was the major advisor to Ahasuerus, King of Persia. Happily married to Zeresh, a very bright woman, he was very wealthy and had ten sons. He was successful by any measure. Yet he could not stand the fact that one Jew, Mordechai, one of the Jewish elders, would not bow to him. Mordechai did not bow to him because he was a Jew and for religious reasons would not bow to a mortal (Book of Esther 3:2-6). What he should have done is ignored this "slight" since it was not meant to offend, or, alternatively, he could have punished Mordechai for this infraction. Haman, however, decided to eradicate the entire Jewish people for Mordechais "offense" and paid the king 10,000 silver talents for the right to wipe out an entire people.
Haman did not know that Esther, the queen, was secretly Jewish and had been raised by Mordechai, her uncle. Ultimately, the tables were turned on Haman and he and his 10 sons were hanged and their wealth expropriated by the government. To this day, the Jewish people celebrate the holiday of Purim to commemorate this event.
Haman was guilty of a mistake made by many leaders. He was so obsessed with personal aggrandizement that he was willing to destroy an entire people, regardless of the consequences to Persia. Moreover, why was it so important that every single person bow to him? Apparently, the desire for honor became of overwhelming importance to him and made him forget what leadership is all about. Finally, wiping out an entire people because Haman felt that executing Mordechai alone was beneath his dignity (Book of Esther 3:6) is not only evil but stupid. It is a lot easier to kill one man than wipe out millions. Vengeance, especially on such a large scale, is not appropriate for a leader.
This paper supports what Longfellow once said, i.e., "sometimes we may learn more from a man's errors, than from his virtues." Careful examination of the lives of several leaders described in the Hebrew Bible indicates that the purpose of leadership is not fame, power, or fortune, but to lead people with truth and righteousness. Leaders, as well as ordinary people, must be ethical and should not cover up injustices, even on the part of loved ones. They must also realize that no good comes from being interested in vengeance and settling old scores.
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