Learning From Great Leaders of the Bible


John Maxwell in his book Failing Forward quotes Nelson Boswell, “The difference between greatness and mediocrity is often how an individual views a mistake.”[1] The action an individual takes following mistakes that have been made in the course of their life can make or break them. This especially holds true for those in leadership positions. An overview of the characters in Bible reveals great examples on both sides of this argument. This paper will examine the life and leadership of King David and will look at the mistakes and successes that made him such a beloved leader.

David—Unseen Potential

In his youth, David did not look like a king or a warrior. He came from very humble beginnings. He was the forgotten child, the youngest of eight brothers; his family did not see the potential that he had. As a boy, he did not receive affirmation from those around him. There is no doubt that David’s greatest battle growing up was not against the bear or the lion that he slew while protecting his father’s sheep, but it was overcoming the obstacles created by other people who tried to put limitations on him and did not see his potential.

When David was young, his father Jesse did not see his kingly potential; he only saw a shepherd boy. Some would look at the responsibility of watching sheep to menial. Walt

er A. Elwell states, “Little is known about David’s early life. As a boy, he took care of his father’s sheep, risking his life to kill attacking bears and lions. Later, David publicly acknowledged God’s help and strength in protecting the flocks under his care (1 Sam. 17:34–37).”[2] David knew God would help him, because he utilized his time watching his father’s sheep, to develop his relationship with God.

Growing leaders will make sure their relationship with God is a priority. There is a tendency of allowing the doing of leadership to take priority over the being of leadership. When leaders develop their relationship with God, then the doing of leadership becomes possible. David took time to write songs, pray, and meditate and in the

process, God prepared him for his future. He simply gave himself to the task before him, utilizing his time to hone the skills necessary to be the best shepherd he could be. When the Prophet Samuel came to David’s home to anoint a new king for Israel, David’s father never dreamed the Prophet would anoint David, so he left him to tend the sheep. Samuel had to force Jesse to call David in from the field. When David finally arrived and stood before the Prophet, God spoke to Samuel and said David would be the next King.

David—Growing In Negative Situations

It would be some years later before David would assume the throne and during the interim years, David did not sit idle instead he used these years to perfect his leadership skills. Maxwell states, “The capacity to develop and improve their skills [is what] distinguishes leaders from their followers.[3]” One of the mistakes many potential leaders make is assuming a position of leadership before they are ready. David Day and Stanley Haplin argue, “Without the individual preparation for the demands and challenges of leadership, many will find themselves in over their heads.”[4] David would be in over his head if he assumed the throne too soon.

Training and development is a part of the growth process for any leader, and David is no exception. During his youth, David was willing to serve others even though he had been anointed king.[5] Elmer Towns argues, “David’s training as a growing leader began with an opportunity to serve King Saul in the palace.”[6] In this context, God had placed David in a situation where he could observe a failed leader. There was a gradual decline and debasement of Saul’s character; and as David grew from a child into a hero in war and a scholar in peace, so Saul, from being a hero, degenerated into a moody and resentful tyrant.[7] From the vantage point of the palace, David learned from Saul’s negative leadership model and even though there were potential dangers surrounding David’s situation in the Palace, he maintained a servant attitude.

Having the heart of a servant became an important attribute of David. When his father asked him to check up on his brothers while they served Israel in the battle against the Philistines (1 Sam. 17), David did not hesitate to go. Upon his arrival, he visited with his brother’s who refused to see their younger brother as one anointed to be a king and they wanted him to leave the battlefield. Charles Simon argues, “God had ordained that David should possess the throne of Saul; and by this means he began to educate, as it were, the youth for his destined office.”[8] David heard the enemy mocking and threatening God’s people. After observing how fearful everyone was, he boldly proclaimed that he would face the enemy Goliath and was confident that God would deliver Israel.

David stood before King Saul and was given the opportunity to use the King’s armor. In this instance, David uses great wisdom; he refuses to use the King’s armor because he had no training in the use of armor. Hanz Finzel contends, “After falling into leadership, we tend to do what is natural—we ‘wing it.’ And that’s what gets leaders into trouble, because good leadership practice is often the opposite of conventional wisdom.”[9] Had David, used the King Saul’s armor to do battle against Goliath, he would have followed the conventional wisdom of the day. Instead, he chose to use what others saw as useless; a sling shot and five stones and God delivered the enemy into his hands. David is growing in his leadership skills.

David was not perfect. He made mistakes, as any leader will do. John Maxwell in his book Leadership Gold quotes William Saroyan, “Good people are good because they have come to wisdom through failure. We get very little wisdom from success.”[10] David gained wisdom from his failures, for example: in the situation with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11). David was supposed to be on the Battlefield with his men, leading them, instead, he is at home watching his neighbor’s wife. This led to a series of negative events that negatively affected David, his family, his friends, and the entire nation of Israel. As Hans Finzel said, this is what happens when you “wing it.”

Growth as a leader does not happen only in the best of times. Most never think of failures as a way of growing, and yet, as J. Oswald Sanders contends, “Most Bible characters met with failure and survived. Even when the failure was immense, those who found leadership again refused to lie in the dust and bemoan their tragedy.”[11] David’s failures were not final. David willingly responded to the word of the Lord through the Prophet Nathan and with a pure heart repented of his actions. Even though he had to reap what he sowed, he did not allow his past to determine his future. As Maxwell states, “The difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure.”[12] David served Israel for 40 years. He expanded their territory, united the all the tribes, and God blessed him with a promise that his throne would never end (1 Kings 2:45).


David is a prime example of what a growing leader should look like. Even though he was not perfect, God raised him to be a leader of his people. He made mistakes, but his humility allowed him to subject himself to God’s judgment. In turn, God blessed him and the entire nation of Israel. In Maxwell’s book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, he describes the Law of the Lid, which states, “Leadership ability is always the lid on personal and organizational effectiveness.”[13] This means, the stronger the leadership, the more effective the organization will be. David’s growth, from a humble shepherd to King of Israel, affected the entire Nation of Israel. Under his leadership, the people united, their influence grew, and so did their effectiveness. Dr. Towns stated that a growing leader is one who is not satisfied with just attaining a high level of competence but continues to seek ways and areas where he can improve.[14] David learned to grow in the midst of adversity and trial and in the end, is still one the greatest Kings to ever serve a Nation.


Day, David V., Zaccaro, Stephen. Leadership Development for Transforming Organization. Mahwah, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers, 2004.

Elwell,Walter A. and Beitzel, Barry J. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1988.

Finzel, Hans. Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make. Colorado Springs, NexGen, 2000.

Maxwell, John C. Failing Forward Turning Mistakes Into Stepping Stones For Success. Nashville, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000.

________, Leadership Gold. Nashville, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2008.

________, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. Nashville, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000.

Sanders, J. Oswald. Spiritual Leadership, Principles of Excellence for Every Believer. Chicago Moody Press, 1994.

Simeon, Charles. Horae Homileticae Vol. 3: Judges to 2 Kings. London, 1832-63.

The Pulpit Commentary: 1 Samuel, ed. H. D. M. Spence-Jones Bellingham, Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2004.

Towns, Elmer. Biblical Models For Leadership. Mason, Cengage Learning, 2007.

[1] John Maxwell, Failing Forward Turning Mistakes Into Stepping Stones For Success (Nashville, TN.: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000), 11.

[2] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1988), 581.

[3] John C. Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (Nashville, TN.: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000), 24.

[4] David V. Day, Stephen Zaccaro, Leadership Development for Transforming Organizations (Mahwah, NJ.; Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers, 2004), 6

[5] Ibid., 581.

[6] Elmer Towns, Biblical Models For Leadership (Mason. OH.: Cengage Learning, 2007), 96

[7] The Pulpit Commentary: 1 Samuel, ed. H. D. M. Spence-Jones (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2004), 297.

[8] Charles Simeon, Horae Homileticae Vol. 3: Judges to 2 Kings (London, 1832-63), 204.

[9] Hans Finzel, Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make (Colorado Springs, CO.: NexGen, 2000), 13

[10] John C. Maxwell, Leadership Gold (Nashville, TN.: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000), 108

[11] J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership, Principles of Excellence for Every Believer (Chicago Il. Moody Press, 1994), 134

[12] John C. Maxwell, Leadership Gold, 157

[13] John C. Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, 8

[14] Elmer Towns, Biblical Models For Leadership, 97


One thought on “Learning From Great Leaders of the Bible

  1. Thanks Pastor for such “deep” insight on one of my favorite heroes! His life continues to show me 3 things a leader and all of us for that matter must possess….a “servants heart”, a large dose of humility and most of all a “teachable” spirit..True success comes from learning from your failures..

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