If you lead long enough and large enough, you will experience leadership breakdowns where plans unravel, people go sideways and goals are confounded. Breakdowns are an inevitable reality of leadership, even when leading in God’s name and with His favor. Though we cannot avoid all the breakdowns, we CAN learn from them and perhaps limit them.
Diagnosing a leadership breakdown and its cause takes both time and reflection. You need space to think critically, pray intentionally and contemplate thoroughly in order to extract the lessons a breakdown can teach you. For both practice and wisdom, I like to spend time diagnosing the leadership breakdowns in the Bible. After all, the best mistakes to learn from are other people’s.
I’ve been slowing down to diagnose one of the most costly leadership breakdowns in the Bible: Israel’s refusal to enter the promised land, which cost them their lives and God’s people a generation.
Deuteronomy 1:19–26 19Then, as the Lord our God commanded us, we set out from Horeb and went toward the hill country of the Amorites through all that vast and dreadful wilderness that you have seen, and so we reached Kadesh Barnea. 20Then I said to you, “You have reached the hill country of the Amorites, which the Lord our God is giving us. 21See, the Lord your God has given you the land. Go up and take possession of it as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, told you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” 22Then all of you came to me and said, “Let us send men ahead to spy out the land for us and bring back a report about the route we are to take and the towns we will come to.” 23The idea seemed good to me; so I selected twelve of you, one man from each tribe. 24They left and went up into the hill country, and came to the Valley of Eshkol and explored it. 25Taking with them some of the fruit of the land, they brought it down to us and reported, “It is a good land that the Lord our God is giving us.” 26But you were unwilling to go up; you rebelled against the command of the Lord your God.
Here is what happened:
- God tells Israel He will give them the Promised Land. This should’ve dispelled all fear and discouragement, but it didn’t.
- The people ask for spies to explore the Promised Land. Moses should have said no, but he didn’t.
- The people rebelled when they heard the report from the spies. It seems like a good idea to Moses, but it wasn’t.
- In the end the people are so undone they cannot enter the Promised Land. This didn’t have to happen, but it did.
Here is my diagnosis:
- The people who had seen God literally part waters and who had followed a pillar of cloud and fire couldn’t draw from these experiences enough faith to trust God for the present. God’s clear direction is easily eclipsed our fear when we don’t intentionally remember the past works of God on our behalf. Past favor should lead to present faith and it didn’t – that’s a breakdown.
- If everything rises and falls on leadership, then Moses certainly had a role in the breakdown. The sending of spies seemed like a good idea to him, but it wasn’t. They went to gather more information, even though God had already promised them the land The people’s desire for more information was rooted in fear. They needed more than God’s command; they needed favorable circumstances to overcome the fear. Instead of confronting them (perhaps because of his own fears) Moses facilitated their request, to their downfall. That’s a breakdown.
- By the time Moses finally tries to lead them past their fear, it is too late. The spies’ report poured gasoline on the flame of fear, turning it into all-out disobedient panic. Great leaders stop breakdowns before they become breakdowns. It feels like they just get lucky, or have God’s favor because nothing ever breakdowns. Maybe. Leaders that appear ‘lucky’ are probably just great at squelching a breakdown before it becomes unmanageable and un-leadable.
The point is not to diagnose the leadership breakdowns in the bible but to turn them into breakthroughs in own own leadership.