One of the greatest leaders who ever lived was King David. He was not just a good leader; he was a great leader. Oh, he was flawed. Imperfect. He had his failings. But he was still a great leader.The New Testament commends David, saying he ‘served the purposes of God in his generation and then died’ (Acts 13:36). He fulfilled God’s purposes for his life – and then he died.I wouldn’t mind that on my grave-stone!There’s much we can learn from David.
One of King David’s best known pieces of writing in the bible is Psalm 23. It’s often interpreted pastorally, which means that people put on pastoral glasses through which they look at the passage. That can be good and helpful because there’s much in Psalm 23 to comfort, which is why it’s often used at funerals. In fact I have spoken out of Psalm 23 on hundreds of occasions at funerals. But what if we were to view it through leadership glasses? Given that David was a great leader, this would seem quite an appropriate thing to do. Well, when viewed in this way we see four marks of great leadership, which we learn from the shepherd leader – King David.
1. Great leaders are led (v1)
Psalm 23 begins with those famous words: ‘The Lord is my shepherd’. God, says David, is like a shepherd. Shepherds do lots for the sheep. They tend, care, guide and feed them. But in essence, they lead them.
David, a great leader, says that he has someone who leads him. It is ‘the Lord’. He’s ‘my’ shepherd. His personal shepherd. David could have called God ‘our’ shepherd – the shepherd of Israel, which would have been true. But by calling him ‘my’ shepherd shows that he, the King, is being led.
Good leaders lead. But great leaders lead as they are led. Great leaders have a guide. A mentor. One greater than them. And like David, the best leader to lead you, is ‘the Lord’ himself. So if you want to be a great leader, be led – led by the best.
If you are a leader let me ask you: who is leading and guiding you? There should be people who speak into your life. I have people like that. But ultimately it should be Almighty God. If God is leading you, are you listening to him, and giving him permission and authority to lead you?
2. Great leaders lead in good times & bad (v2-5)
(a) Sometimes leadership is easy. Times are good. It feels like ‘lying down in green pastures’ or by ‘quiet waters’. During such times, God leads and guides into places that refresh. These feel like the ‘right paths’ (v.3). When leadership is like that – fantastic! Enjoy!
(b) But often leadership is hard. Times are not always easy. Sometimes it feels like ‘the darkest valley’ or, as the King James Version says, it feels like ‘the valley of the shadow of death’. In fact sometimes we are called to lead in contexts where death is literally all around us. The Vicar of Bagdad lives like that all the time, as do Christians in persecuted places. But ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ can also mean that we lead despite there being a sense of death and decay around us in the world. What should our attitude be, when it feels like this? When it’s hard work? How should we lead, then? The answer of Psalm 23 is that we lead with ‘no fear’.
Is it really possible to lead without fear? The answer is YES!When under pressure you don’t have be fearful. Instead you can live in the light of God’s presence – his presence of perfect love. Because the bible says that ‘perfect love casts out all fear’ (1 Jn 4:18). David knew this – that he need not fear – even when under pressure, because of God’s presence – for ‘you are with me’ (v.4)
When sheep are unsure and uncertain and begin to fear, they often do two things. They sometimes stand paralysed and don’t be anything, or sometimes they run off in the wrong direction. For the shepherd, either is unhelpful, so a shepherd has a crook. They have ‘a rod or staff’ (v.4) to push in the right direction. This might involve a tap on the backside or a nudge which could be slightly painful. Or it might even involve a hook around the neck. But if the shepherd is good, it’s actually for the good of the sheep. God does the same with us. When we’re paralysed, or going the wrong way, he nudges us, for our ‘comfort’ (v.4). It’s part of his leading. If you want to lead others, especially when you’re going through tough times, you need to let the shepherd use his staff to guide you, so you can guide others.
3. Great leaders are empowered (v5)
Psalm 23:5 tells us that opposition will come – what’s called ‘enemies’but, as you are led, so God wants you to prosper in the midst of such opposition. As you are led by the great shepherd, so he wants to feed you. Sumptuously – like in the midst of a feast! To strengthen you. To resource you.
Not only does God feed you, he also ‘anoints’ you. Anointing is having oil poured on your head in order to give power and authority for a task. So in particular prophets, priests and kings in the Old Testament were anointed for their roles. The most anointed person was, of course, Jesus Christ – the One the New Testament calls ‘the anointed One’. But God will anoint you, too for leadership, if you’ll let him.
Do you want to be anointed? I do. That’s a good thing to desire. But first count the cost.
Most of the people in the Old Testament who were anointed (ie. prophets, priests and kings) went through great suffering. In fact many were killed. And the most anointed one – Jesus Christ – went through terrible suffering on the cross before he defeated sin and death. So it’s great being anointed, but count the cost. It won’t necessarily be easy. But it will be good.
David knew something of this, so much so, that he was able to say ‘my cup runs over’. That can be your experience too – that you are full and satisfied. But remember that your cup spilling over is not just for you, but to spill out to bless others. God anoints you so that others can be anointed, equipped and blessed.
4. Great leaders lead for life (v6)
The very first Christian song I can remember was taught to me by my dad and began: ‘Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days, all the days of my life.’ It is Psalm 23 verse 6.This verse reminds us that great leadership is about flourishing. Flourishing under God and with God – every day – ‘all the days of my life’. And then we give ourselves away to others so that they flourish too.
So one of best things you can do as a leader is flourish yourself. If you are not growing, enjoying life and blooming then it’s hard for others to flourish too. That raises important questions about looking after yourself. Great leaders need to look after themselves to enable flourishing in others. So take care of your health and your lifestyle. Keep an eye on your stress levels. Get good sleep and make sure that you are having fun and enjoy a good laugh!
Finally, flourishing is not just for today but also for the future. Yes, it’s good to leave a legacy here on earth but ultimately great leadership is about leaving a legacy in heaven. In eternity. This life is but a preparation for eternity. So make the most of it, for life is short. So be focussed. Lead well. Lead for life. Lead in such a way that your bring life – eternal life to others. All your life.
As Christmas approaches, be led by the great shepherd and life-giver, Jesus Christ, who said ‘I have come that they might have life; life in abundance’ (Jn 10:10).