Israel’s leaders took charge, and the people gladly followed. Praise the LORD!Judges 5:2 NLT
The Bible is filled to the brim with stories of leaders. Some good, some evil. Some bold, some fearful. Some righteous, some unfaithful. God made a point to work through people who were imperfect so we would have people to look at and relate to as we face our various challenges today. And although you may not be responsible for an entire nation, at some point you will need to take charge of something, even it’s just setting a good example for those around you at school, work, for your family or those in your neighborhood.
One takeaway from all the examples is the fact that people generally want to be led. It’s stressful and discouraging when you’re trying to make it through life without any direction. This is especially true with spiritual leadership, which put simply can be described as serving and guiding someone to get closer to God. For the purposes of this study we will talk about leadership in this context, but know that any of these points can easily be applied to leadership in just about any condition (Jesus would no doubt make an incredible executive, foreman, coach…you name it, he’d crush it).
A leader is a servant
First and foremost, it’s important to understand that Jesus equated leadership with service:
But Jesus said to them, “The kings of the world rule over their people, and those who have authority over others want to be called ‘the great providers for the people.’  But you must not be like that. The one with the most authority among you should act as if he is the least important. The one who leads should be like one who serves.Luke 22:25-26 ERV
The bulk of this study focuses on Deborah’s incredible call to arms in Judges 5, but we’d be remiss not to take a quick detour to keep in front of us what Jesus himself taught. Jesus was an incredibly impactful leader, and he cared the least about people’s admiration or acknowledgement. Instead, he made it his life’s purpose to make himself less and make others greater. He saw people’s needs, and instantly went to work coming up with creative ways to meet them, asking in return only that they attribute his miracles to God.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- What is your attitude about serving people?
- Do you enjoy making people’s lives better at the expense of your own time and energy?
- What views of leadership do you have that you see are not aligned with Jesus’ servant-centric approach? How do you think your attitude affects the people you lead?
Understand that if we are to follow Jesus’ example in everything we do, then in leadership we should begin with the understanding that our needs and wants are to take a backseat to needs and wants of others. We aren’t implying that everyone should go broke and hungry giving everything they own to everyone they feel responsible for; rather, we should take time to reflect every day on our hearts, and work hard to ensure that we are eradicating selfishness and pride by giving and humbling ourselves before others. This is the only way to truly impact another person’s heart and life.
People hold back until a leader rises up
Villagers in Israel would not fight; they held back until I, Deborah, arose, until I arose, a mother in Israel.  God chose new leaders when war came to the city gates, but not a shield or spear was seen among forty thousand in Israel.Judges 5:7-8 NIV
Back to Deborah. In this song to commemorate another victory from God, Deborah describes the distressed state of Israel under the tyranny of Jabin (see Matthew Henry’s Bible Commentary). She recounts the people who led when the time came to rise up, and with conviction calls out the people who, for different reasons that we’ll look at below, shrunk back.
More importantly, in verse 7 she points out that people hold back until a leader decides to rise up and take action. We also learn that God will choose new leaders when this occurs; his plans are bigger than us, and our stubbornness will only hold him up for so long.
- How do you see yourself needing to lead? How have you resisted this call?
- What are the effects on people in your life when you choose not to lead?
The brave ones
Then the remnant went down to greet the brave ones. The people of GOD joined the mighty ones. The captains from Ephraim came to the valley, behind you, Benjamin, with your troops. Captains marched down from Makir, from Zebulun high-ranking leaders came down. Issachar’s princes rallied to Deborah, Issachar stood fast with Barak, backing him up on the field of battle.Judges 5:13-18 MSG
The first group of leaders Deborah describes are the fighters, the “brave ones.” What’s striking here is not just their courage, but the fact that they rallied to march together. There’s a strong feeling of teamwork and camaraderie here, and you get the sense that these warriors became stronger because they were together, a unit. In a time of turmoil and violence, the brave ones led with unity and collaboration.
Leadership does not have to be done alone. Friends who lead together can inspire each other, help each other when they’re stuck, and keep each other from getting discouraged and quitting.
- Who are the people that you lead with?
- How often do you have conversations with your friends about how to help and love others?
The Second-Guesser (Reuben)
But in Reuben’s divisions there was much second-guessing. Why all those campfire discussions? Diverted and distracted, Reuben’s divisions couldn’t make up their minds.Judges 5:13-18 MSG
Nothing cripples leadership quite like the inability to make a decision and take action. On more than one occasion I’ve found myself paralyzed by fear or worry, flustered and frozen while people around me are waiting for me to make a decision. Additionally, when presented with a stressful challenge, it’s not uncommon for me to spend an inordinate amount of time reading blog articles, posting in online communities, journaling … anything to avoid actually having to take action. If I had a campfire, I would be guilty of endlessly discussing these things around it.
The Second-Guesser is someone who:
- Talks more than acts (“Why all those campfire discussions?”)
- Is overly problem-focused (“diverted”)
- Gets caught up in life issues (“distracted”)
- Is indecisive (“couldn’t make up their minds”). This type of disposition leads to more stress because issues are never resolved.
The “Play It Safe” Leader (Gilead)
Gilead played it safe across the Jordan…Judges 5:13-18 MSG
It’s one thing to be prudent in leadership – there’s wisdom in steering clear of unnecessary maneuvers that leave you or your team susceptible to jeopardy. It’s another thing to refuse to take risks altogether, putting your own needs ahead of the people you’re trying to help.
The “Play It Safe” Leader is someone who looks harder for ways to be comfortable than he or she looks for creative solutions to the challenges facing the people they’re charged with overseeing. That selfishness results in missed opportunities, and people’s lives being stalled or further degraded. Gilead was opting to keep themselves safe instead of looking at the bigger picture and seeing what they could bring to the table with their support in battle.
- In your leadership, what are some risks you’ve avoided taking?
- What are ways you see yourself avoid conflict? Why do you do it?
- What opportunities do you see possible if you were to shift your focus to be more involved and engaged in the lives of the people you lead?
The Break-Taker (Dan)
…and Dan, why did he go off sailing?Judges 5:13-18 MSG
The more responsibility we inherit in life, the stronger the temptation will be to turn to fleeting or superficial forms of relief. We’re not advocating for no breaks. The lesson we’re extrapolating from this brief passage is that as leaders, when faced with a difficult task or decision, sometimes find ways to sit out completely (other translations in this of this passage include “And Dan, why did he linger by the ships?” [NIV] and “And why did Dan stay home?” [NLT]).
Whether it’s finding another activity to do, finding something enjoyable to distract ourselves, or sitting out completely, the Break-Taker is a leader who will resort to momentary relief when the going gets tough.
- What situations cause you to crave relief? How do you typically handle them?
- What are your go-to sources of relief and comfort? Which ones are healthy, and which ones only delay the inevitable?
- How do you see this pattern affecting the people you lead?
The Distance-Keeper (Asher)
Asher kept his distance on the seacoast, safe and secure in his harbors.Judges 5:13-18 MSG
We keep our distance in relationships when we want to play it safe. The closer we get to people, the more vulnerable we are to being hurt. It’s why marriage takes work, since no one is able to hurt us more than our spouse. When we choose to keep our distance, however, we all but guarantee that we will not experience any level of intimacy, and further exacerbate feelings of loneliness or insecurity.
As leaders, it’s our job to stay in the game with people. I lead a small team of 7 people, and every day I’m tempted to mail it in by sending Slack messages with instructions and avoid face to face conversations. It’s less messy, it’s time-efficient, and it saves me from having to take on any emotions. But it’s also a horrible way to inspire people, and produces very little productivity since over time people become detached from the bigger mission of the organization.
Challenge yourself to grow in your attachment to the people you lead, to whatever degree is appropriate for your situation. But to reiterate what was mentioned earlier, we all lead in some way in that we make a spiritual impact on the people around us, one way or another. Make a decision to involve yourself in people’s lives, and don’t expect much to happen if you remain in the harbor.
- What is the hardest part for you about attaching to people?
- What are some ways you see that you choose to keep distance between yourself and others? What are the habits you’ve developed that keep you detached?
The Risk-Taker (Zebulun/Naphtali)
But Zebulun risked life and limb, defied death, as did Naphtali on the battle heights.Judges 5:13-18 MSG
The leaders that we read about in the Bible and the history books that we most admire are the ones who put themselves in harms way for the sake of the people they cared about. In several cases (Jesus, Moses), they did so while being disparaged or mistreated by the very people they were sacrificing for. True leadership, the servant-style leadership that Jesus preached, comes from a heart that is unconditional: willing to give, even if it costs everything, without needing anything in return.
Jesus set the standard for us to follow in this regard. Zebulun and Naphtali are described as great leaders as well because of their bold examples of risking their lives to march into battle. And as we learn from Deborah’s song, the people were inspired, motivated and rallied as a result.
Risk-Takers inspire people. They show people that they’re worth putting everything on the line for. And when people feel believed in like that, they will be willing to follow you into battle.
- What kind of a leader are you?
- What risks are the most difficult for you to take, either physically or emotionally?
- What aspects of leadership do you avoid the most? What would you need to change internally in order to become someone who embraces those challenges?