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Leadership Lessons | Book Review

In Leadership Lessons: Avoiding the Pitfalls of King Saul (Thomas Nelson, 2013), Ralph K. Hawkins and Richard Leslie Parrott outline ten principles for leadership building from the life and failures of King Saul of Israel. Leadership Lessons uses the “worst practices” model of instruction, learning through the examination of the failures of others, much in the model of Gary McIntosh and Samuel Rima’s classic Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership. Beginning with an explanation of why leaders should study Saul (he was quite the failed leader after all), Leadership Lessons contextualizes Saul and then traces his failures as king of Israel, from his lack of humility and isolation to his inaction and failure to make necessary changes. Especially important are chapters on Saul’s failure to love his people, his neglecting to think before he spoke, and inability to trust God as his true leader. Overall, Leadership Lessons provides leaders of all types an opportunity to profitably learn from the mistakes of Israel’s first king.

As with many other good “leadership” books, Leadership Lessons comes filled with principles and practical steps for effective leading. Among the most important for appropriately learning from Saul’s mistakes (and not just reading about his experiences) consists of identifying with King Saul, remembering to love your enemies, the importance of repentance and rest, accountability, and the need to challenge oneself and reflect upon the lessons being learned. A key part of the reflection process involves the end-of-chapter “Group Discussion and Personal Reflection” sections. Included here are several questions for general or group consideration, as well as questions for personal use which help readers assess their life in relation to the lessons of the chapter, analyze how to meaningfully learn from those lessons, and then act upon suggestions to implement those insights into leadership situations. These end of chapter “pauses” are one of the great tools of this work, as they not only force you to consider what you have just read, but also invite serious application to your life.

Sometimes books in the “leadership” genre take a certain approach to the Biblical text, often along the lines of “everything we’ll ever need to know is right here in this one story about leadership and only in this story as applied to our contemporary situation” (or something like that). One of the greatest strengths of Leadership Lessons is not only the rejection of this model, but also the authors’ willingness to engage the Biblical text contextually, theologically, and historically. This book full of suggestions for other books and resources on leadership that take a different approach, and considerable time is taken to reflect upon why Christians should be interested in developing leadership skills, how to contextualize Saul within the context of the early Israelite monarchy, and what the textual and contextual difficulties of learning from Saul’s life might be. Never before have I seen a leadership book pause and engage what Biblical scholars have to say about a textual ambiguity; Leadership Lessons does, and that is a great thing.

Furthermore, Hawkins and Parrott are extremely well read and bring into play numerous stories, lessons, and insights from a wide variety of sources. They draw upon the lessons of church history well, using voices from a variety of traditions, denominations, and eras. The stories and examples used are entertaining, insightful, and relevant for the message of this book.

Occasionally there will be several pages of commentary which do not immediately pertain to the overarching theme of learning from Saul’s failures as leader, but even these digressions are useful as contextualization and explanation of the themes, ideas, or insights developed in Leadership Lessons. Especially beneficial are the forays into the practical application of some lesson or principles; not only pastors, but leaders in a variety of settings will come away with good praxis-oriented ideas and as better leaders if they engage this text.

If there is any critique of Leadership Lessons, it is that the authors only occasionally follow the canonical model of contrasting Saul to his son and successor, Jonathan and David, respectively. Where Saul fails, Jonathan and David generally succeed,1 and it would have been nice to see the Biblical portrait of those who overcame Saul’s leadership shortcoming, instead of seeing just the “negative” side of things. Generally, however, Leadership Lessons is one of the most balanced, historically and contextually involved, and practically oriented Christian leadership books available today. The overall contents of the book are well worth engaging, and there are nuggets of especially useful and profound advice throughout. Occasionally leadership books, even those written for a primarily Christian audience and ostensibly using Biblical examples, will focus exclusively upon the “business” or “practical” side of leadership, staying away from theological reflection. Leadership Lessons rightly stays away from this model, and instead makes a central facet of its project the necessity of Christian love as a guiding leadership principle. The importance of love in leadership run throughout this book, but comes across especially well in the chapter on how Saul failed to love his people.

In conclusion, Leadership Lessons: Avoiding the Pitfalls of King Saul comes highly recommended for Pastors, teachers, and personnel working in Christian churches and organizations, is a great resource for those working outside of “religious institutions”, and would be a great small group book for those interested in learning more about leadership. The adage of learning from the mistakes of others is true here, that it is better to learn from Saul’s leadership failings than to repeat his mistakes ourselves. As leaders, an important part of taking responsibility and effectively guiding our teams involves learning and improving ourselves, and Leadership Lessons is a superb resource to that end.

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Jacob Prahlow

Jacob Prahlow

Christian. Husband of Hayley. Father of Bree and Judah. Lead Pastor at Arise Church in Fenton, MO. Alumnus of various institutions. Cubs Fan. Co-Founder of Conciliar Post.

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