June 2011


In this blog, I’ve unpacked the stories of a number of leaders in the Bible, but as I reflect back, they’ve been overwhelmingly male. In my unwitting focus, I’ve missed one of the most fascinating leaders in the Bible: Abigail. She’s featured heavily in only one chapter. After 1 Samuel 25, she only makes bit appearances. But chapter 25 describes an amazing woman.

Who is Abigail? She’s a sensible and beautiful woman married to a rich, crude, mean, ill-tempered and foolish man. I have trouble with her choice of husband until I realize she probably didn’t have any. (I can imagine a sensible young lady hearing from her parents that they’ve arranged a marriage with a guy named “Fool.” I bet that didn’t go over well! Her father probably retorted, “But he’s rich!”)

Observing Nabal’s behavior and hearing Abigail’s own description of her husband in verse 25, it’s hard to imagine where his riches come from. I can only conclude either he inherited it or his wife manages it for him. Judging by her actions, the last part is likely true.

With that, let me hit the highlights of the story. King-in-waiting David and his men spend some time near Carmel, all the while providing protection for the local shepherds. After some time, they head to town in time for the sheepshearing festival and ask for some provisions from the flock’s owner, Nabal. He insults David and turns them away. As David and 400 men strap on their swords to avenge the insult, Nabal’s wife appears with the very provisions Nabal refused, successfully averting David’s anger and violence.

Here are some of the advanced leadership abilities I see in Abigail:

1. She understands the times. I’ve blogged before about how leaders either need this trait themselves or need to staff for someone who understands the times and knows what to do (I Chronicles 12:32) Abigail has this ability in spades. When Nabal turns David’s men away, one of his servants goes straight to Abigail, explains the situation and says, “You need to know this and figure out what to do.” Sure enough, she hatches a plan on the spot.

2. She knows the power of owning a problem. Abigail didn’t even see David’s men. She had no opportunity to intervene in Nabal’s rude behavior. But, like any good leader, she takes full responsibility. “I accept all blame in this matter.” “Please forgive me if I have offended you in any way.” In Calgary in May I stayed at a hotel where a guest forgot to spray the waffle maker before pouring in the batter. The waffle was stuck fast to the iron. The Asian kitchen manager immediately took over, spending a good 15 minutes getting it clean, to the guest’s chagrin. I overheard a guest walk by and make a comment, and the kitchen manager sheepishly took credit for burning the waffle. In my experience, that may well be a typical thing for an Asian to do. In my experience, that’s not a typical thing for a manager to do.

3. She knows the power of apology. It’s amazing how seldom many leaders use this tool. They regret, they explain, they excuse, they dodge. But a straight-up apology goes a long way toward building trust. For some reason, apologies are a head game. It’s difficult to say you’re sorry, because it puts you in a position of weakness. It feels like you’ll be taken advantage of. But appropriate vulnerability always builds credibility. Abigail’s actions give her huge credibility with David. Her willingness to lower herself saves her entire family.

4. She knows the power of timing. With David, “Abigail wasted no time.” With Nabal, she chooses a different path. Rather than tell him of her actions – which will appear as betrayal to him – while he’s drunk and partying, she waits until the morning. The news isn’t good for his heart, and within ten days, he’s dead.

David knows the power of timing, too. The moment Abigail becomes a free agent, he asks her to marry him. A woman like that won’t be available for long.

Who can find a virtuous and capable wife?

She is worth more than rubies. (Proverbs 31:10)

I hear Marcus Buckingham has a book with a name like that. I haven’t read it (yet), but it is on my list. The title came to mind as I was reading Deep Change, by Robert E. Quinn. Let me give some quick context and then give you a point from the book.

One thread for 2011 that I’m really going to enjoy following is the idea of RESET. The Mission Exchange is hosting a conference in Scottsdale at the end of September by that name, and I participated in a pre-conference RESET Dialogue session last Friday. Steve Moore’s goal is not to pull off a conference as much as facilitate a dialogue on the subject of Mission in the Context of Deep Change. An extremely relevant topic. Moore’s thoughts have been heavily influenced by Quinn’s book, along with Ramo’s Age of the Unthinkable, which I’ve blogged on in the past. With that context, here we go.

A group of executives in a large state government wanted to create a leadership development program built around the idea of transformational leadership. How could they develop public administrators who would take initiative as change agents in their organizations? They decided the best route was to look for what the Heath brothers would call “bright spots” and highlight these success stories in a series of videos. Their research began to unearth a number of individuals who led dramatic transformation within their organizations: a hospital with horrid conditions for patients, an office known for long lines and bad customer service, things like that.

Teams were sent to interview these leaders. Then the project came to an abrupt end. No videos could be made. Why? Because in each case, it appeared that in order to transform an ineffective organization into an effective one, laws needed to be broken. And how can a state teach its managers to break its own laws?

To be fair to Quinn, he’s not advocating breaking the law. His point is that leaders must take significant risks to challenge the rules, policies and procedures that become law within an organization. “To organize is to systematize, to make behavior predictable,” therefore organizations are built around systems. When an organization is growing, systems provide the stability for growth. When an organization stops growing, systems atrophy into rigid boxes.

Excellence, however, never lies within the boxes drawn in the past. To be excellent, the leaders have to step outside the safety net of the company’s regulations.

Deep change therefore brings to a head the conflict between management and leadership. If management is about making processes more efficient and standardized, and leadership in a context of change is about breaking rules, then there’s going to be a collision.

Leadership development gets awkward, then. How can an organization teach its managers to break its own laws?

A quick follow-up to my last post on positional and personal authority, lest you think I fell off the earth.

Personal authority includes spiritual authority. Let me give you an example from the biography I’ve just finished, Hudson Taylor and Maria, about the missionary pioneers to China. Author J.C. Pollock tries to parse the incredible influence of this frail, slight, poor and often-sick man so dedicated to his vision. Here’s how one of Taylor’s early recruits with the China Inland Mission puts it: “His strong yet quiet faith in the promises of Scripture, his implicit confidence in God, this it was which compelled submission on my part to whatever he proposed for me.”

Taylor had no social standing, positional power or imposing stature. Instead, it was his simple faith, total dependence on God and intimate prayer life, followed by unwavering dedication to his vision, that allowed him to achieve greatness.

Isaiah says the same thing about the Christ in Isaiah 53:2:

There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance,
nothing to attract us to him.

Jesus didn’t attract followers because of his looks. (Aside: It’s an interesting thought to me that God didn’t bestow his ultimate creation with the looks of Brad Pitt.) He didn’t attract them for his stature or his magnanimous personality. He attracted them for completely different reasons. Some of the greatest men who ever lived follow in his footsteps: you wouldn’t notice them except for their incredible following.

In October 2009, my shortest blog post (appropriately) asked how I could have 23 devoted Twitter followers if I’d never tweeted. The point being that you can’t follow a stationary object. Just for the record, I’ve decided to start tweeting, but I’m still working out my strategy. I don’t want to be a random tweeter. But that’s not the point I want to make here.

Over the last two years, I’ve tried to come up with working definitions of leadership and management. I’ve struggled with understanding where the murky swampland between the two firms up on either bank. And I’ve rejected numerous definitions as being too simplistic. Or too biased.

It hit me that the main requirement for leadership is that you have followers. That suggests two parts to a working definition:

  • First, it’s not about position, but about influence. Position or no position, whether you feel like a leader or not, it’s clear: if you have followers, you’re a leader. The opposite implication is just as true.
  • Second, you can’t have followers if you’re not moving. Therefore, leadership implies change.

Therefore, let me give the definitions a stab. Feel free to add your thoughts.

Leadership: the stewardship of one’s personal authority over others to set their pace and direction.

Management: the stewardship of one’s positional authority to maximize the use of resources toward the previously-set pace and direction.

A few clarifications. I don’t think it’s fair to say, as some do, that managers protect the status quo. Managers encourage movement toward the ends, but they don’t try to change the pace or define the direction as much as rearticulate the vision.

I also think it’s worth defining what I mean by personal authority and positional authority. These terms are attempts to specify the source of a leader’s influence, borrowed from Dr. Paul Hersey. Positional authority or power is the capacity to influence others by one’s dominant organizational position. In contrast, personal power is the capacity to influence others by one’s own being.

So, there you are. Give me your reaction to these definitions. With your help, maybe we can craft something worthwhile.