Criticism is a hard thing to deal with. This past week as I was digging through some old files on my computer I found a file that I had labeled “problems.” I currently have a paper file labeled the same in my desk drawer where complaint letters are kept. Thankfully it doesn’t have too many letters in it…yet.
Going back to the other day, I knew that I shouldn’t open the file and look inside, but curiosity got the better of me and I did. Inside I found some letters from when I was a pastor in California. The memories of those occasions had mercifully faded, but the letters instantly brought back those difficult days.
It’s not hard for me to think about multiple examples of personal failure over my 51 years of life. I can recall so many bad decisions–dumb ones, sinful ones, immature ones, naive ones, rash ones, prideful ones. Like I said, I remember too many. The problem is, leaders have to make multiple decisions all day, every day. The more decisions we need to make, the greater potential there is to make another bonehead decision. So what do we do? Well, you could:
Give up being a leader. And if you really are poor at decision making because you constantly make the kinds of bad choices I named before, that might not be a bad decision. But don’t rush into it! Keep reading.
Give up making decisions, but remain a leader. This type of leader is known as a “lame duck.” You have actually done #1 above, but continue to call yourself a leader. This never works for long, and is frustrating for the people you are supposed to lead. It’s better for you to step down than to play this game.
Start making better decisions.Duh. But before you stop reading, consider this: All leaders make bad decisions. All of them. The best leaders make fewer poor decisions and there are reasons for that, which are beyond the scope of this article. But the fact is, by growing and improving on your decision making, you will become a better leader.
In Joshua 7, Joshua made some poor decisions as he took Israel from a victory over Jericho, to an embarrassing defeat when his army was defeated by a tiny army. His failure not only cost the lives of thirty-six of his men (Josh 7:5), but it put courage into the heart of his enemies while simultaneously putting fear into the heart of Israel.
Several years ago my wife and I got food poisoning from eating at a fast-food place. It was pretty traumatic for us, and we were sick for days. I knew it was the food–I could taste it and smell it. It was so engrained into my memory that now, over 20 years later I can still go back to that moment when we started to become violently ill. I had no desire to eat at that restaurant again for many, many years. Bad decisions are like that–they leave a really bad taste in your mouth that makes it hard to overcome.
After the Lord directed Joshua on how to make everything right, it was time for Joshua to face his fear. Joshua 8:1 helps us so much here for learning how to overcome the fear of a poor decision so that we can make better decisions. It says,
“And the Lord said to Joshua, “Do not fear and do not be dismayed. Take all the fighting men with you, and arise, go up to Ai. See, I have given into your hand the king of Ai, and his people, his city, and his land.”
(Joshua 8:1, ESV)
Fear of the future and the unknown as well as discouragement from past failings can be the biggest hurdle to clear after a major failure. But notice here that the Lord commanded Joshua not to fear or be dismayed. Yes, poor decisions were made. But the mission has not changed. Joshua was to lead the people into the Promised Land, and Ai needed to be conquered. The problem was that Joshua had rushed in, he didn’t consult the Lord and made the decisions to go to war and send in a smaller army without seeing if this was the Lord’s will. The Bible doesn’t tell us, but maybe Joshua was beating himself up over the bad decisions made. Any leader knows that’s not a stretch to imagine. It happens all the time.
But the Lord says to Joshua, Do not fear and do not be dismayed. Once we are assured that we are being guided by the Word and Spirit, we must move forward without fear of the future or discouragement from the past. Joshua wasn’t running ahead of God anymore. Now he was going to decide that he needed to obey, and this was the first command. Warren Wiersbe has wisely written, “The promises of God make the difference between faith and presumption” ( Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Strong, “Be” Commentary Series (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 97.)
Notice also, that the Lord gave Joshua direction: “Take all the fighting men with you, and arise, go up to Ai.” So often, poor decisions are made because we make the decision. Spiritual leadership is not the same as corporate leadership because the spiritual leader directs God’s people from God’s Word to do God’s business. When we forget this, we become spiritual entrepreneurs, not spiritual leaders. They may look the same, but they aren’t. Spiritual entrepreneurs work for themselves, to achieve their own goals, and often receive the glory for it from men who do not recognize the difference. Joshua had taken the reigns and failed, now he was going to learn to take his lead from the Lord.
Finally, the Lord gave Joshua his strength: “See, I have given into your hand the king of Ai, and his people, his city, and his land.” After the amazing victory over Jericho, you would think that it was obvious that God was going to give Israel the strength to fight. But the loss at Ai shows how quickly a victory can blind us to our dependence. All too quickly we can begin to strut like roosters, full of pride as if we did anything to achieve the victory. In order for Joshua to grow as a leader, he needed to remember that every victory was given by the Lord–big or small.
Joshua obeyed the Lord, carrying out the directives he was given with precision, and the Lord gave him the victory as he promised. Remember that. The answer isn’t give up when you fail, but learn from your failures and grow as a leader. Psalm 37:23-24 is a great encouragement in this way: “The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in his way; though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong, for the Lord upholds his hand.” (Psalm 37:23–24, ESV)