Timeless Wisdom: Proverbs for Leaders (Part Two)

Last month, I published Part One of “Timeless Wisdom,” where we focused on four areas of King Solomon’s advice as recorded in the Jewish Scriptures. In case you didn’t read the post, we discussed the fact that this ancient monarch’s wisdom is as relevant for today’s business culture as it was back in his day. This month, we’re going to unpack a bit more of that venerable wisdom and apply it to our own leadership roles…

Surround yourself with good people.

Solomon became king when he was just 20 years old. He reigned over Israel for 40 years in the most peaceful and prosperous period in that country’s history. This unprecedented period of flourishing trade, financial abundance, and military might is known as the “The Golden Age” of Israel.

But King Solomon didn’t usher in this exalted status on his own.

The wisest man who ever lived taught that effective leaders recruit counselors to advise them in matters of diplomacy, business, and organization. King Solomon wrote, “Plans go wrong with lack of advice, many advisors bring success.” He implies that smart, confident leaders are not afraid to hire smart, confident helpers. The essence of his advice on sharing the load is that good leaders are active listeners who humbly consider the advice of subordinates.

One scholar translates that same passage: Strategic planning is the key to warfare; to win, you need a lot of good counsel. If you’re a high achiever, you might be tempted to lead in a vacuum, but please, don’t try to manage your organization without what Solomon calls “a multitude of advisors.”

Think about it. If anyone ever had the IQ to lead on his own, it was Solomon. But even he said, “There is safety in many counselors.”

As leaders, we need to surround ourselves with trustworthy people, then delegate legitimate responsibility to them. But be selective. Potential advisors should…

  • Possess the skills and perspectives that we may lack on our own.
  • Feel safe to challenge and freely question our ideas and decisions.
  • Be team players who fully buy into the vision and values of our mission.

During the COVID crisis, many groups adopted the phrase, “We’re better together.” That’s good advice. Unfortunately, bad apples may infiltrate even the best teams and can work against group unity and undermine the cause we’re striving for.

Apparently, Solomon encountered this: “Remove the impurities from the silver, and out comes material for the silversmith; remove the wicked from the king’s presence, and his throne will be established through righteousness.”  No matter how gifted or talented someone is, a “toxic” individual who spews poisonous words or behaviors will wreck an organization from the inside out — if not dealt with promptly and properly.

King Solomon demonstrated that wise leaders confront divisive associates. If left unchecked, grumbling and rumors can eventually tear apart an organization. The best leaders guard their teams from those with bad intent. One translation reads: “When you remove corrupt men from the king’s court, his reign will be just and fair.”

This doesn’t mean wise leaders dismiss staffers at the first sign of trouble. Effective bosses look for the potential in everyone and take steps to help them succeed. However, if that process fails, good leaders don’t hesitate to stand up to those who refuse to conduct themselves in constructive ways.

Like it or not, as leaders of organizations (and as individuals), we are influenced by the company we keep. Be on guard against people who have a negative effect on your ethics and decision making, even if they’re close associates or family members.

A proverbs from Solomon says, “Escape quickly from the company of fools; they’re a waste of your time, a waste of your words.”  Who we surround ourselves with really does have an impact — for better or worse: “Become wise by walking with the wise; hang out with fools and watch your life fall to pieces.”

Associating with toxic people can deter, divert, and even derail our leadership. On the other hand, great people can sharpen our skills and enhance our life: “Iron is made sharp by iron, and one man is made sharp by a friend.”

Inspire and motivate others.

Solomon wrote, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

I would expand on that: “Where there is no compelling vision from leadership, businesses fail, organizations collapse, and families disintegrate.”

Having been an executive coach for many years, I know that effective leaders inspire and lead by casting a compelling vision.

That’s true in business, government, education, sports, religion, whatever.

Look at virtually any successful organization, and you’ll find leaders who communicate the vision and values of that group clearly and frequently. Solomon inspired his constituents in two ways: First, with public proclamations, speeches, and prayers. Secondly, by allowing any citizen (regardless of position or status) to petition him for a personal verdict in legal matters.

As leader, Solomon showed individualized consideration by listening to his subjects’ concerns and needs. The best-known account is when he judged the case of two women arguing over custody of an infant. Solomon chose to carefully hear their concerns, wisely determine the real mother, and justly rule to protect the innocent.

What led a reigning king to generously grant such accessibility?

In a word, humility. Despite the superior education he received as a king’s son, Solomon did not rely on his knowledge or lineage to guide him. Instead, he recognized his need for discernment. The Sefer Melakhim (Book of Kings) says he humbly acknowledged his youthful shortcomings and asked God for an “understanding heart” to govern with wisdom.

Let that sink in. When God offered to grant Solomon any request he wanted, the lad asked for a discerning heart — instead of riches, long life or victory over his enemies. 11

His humble request and the wisdom that resulted inspired his followers.

When we intentionally put the wellbeing of those we lead ahead of our own needs (or the bottom line), we’re being a “servant leader.” As he assumed the mantle of leadership, young Solomon repeatedly referred to himself as a servant rather than monarch. In stark contrast to basic human nature — which often prioritizes getting ahead at the expense of others — Solomon emphasized justice and fairness.
Solomon’s legendary request for “discernment” encourages leaders to move beyond traditional intelligence and also employ our perceptive ability to make intuitive decisions. In the ancient Near East, the expression “having a discerning heart” meant the ability to listen patiently to all sides of an issue in order to come to a true and wise decision. That is still great advice for leaders who have to make judgement calls.

Leadership at its best has always been the art of influencing positive outcomes in a variety of organizational situations. That could range from guiding a small team through a sales campaign to leading an entire nation through a crisis.

Solomon excelled at this “art of influencing.” Writing for the International Journal of Management Review, Mark Anderson and Peter Sun defined this essential skill as, “The ability to articulate an appealing and inspiring vision, challenge followers with high standards, communicate optimism about the future, and provide meaning for the task at hand.”

That should be the goal of every leader.

Be honest to the core.

“Honesty is the best policy.” We’ve all heard it, but who said it first?

It’s often attributed to Benjamin Franklin. Others attach it to Washington or Lincoln. Actually, it goes back to Sir Edwin Sandys of the Jamestown colony in 1609.

But even back then, the concept was a golden oldie. King Solomon said, A good and honest life is a blessed memorial; a wicked life leaves a rotten stench.”

By living a good and honest life, Solomon modeled exemplary character and contagious motivation — especially during the complex and demanding construction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The king had to keep his entire country enthused and engaged (and donating their time and finances) during the lengthy seven-year building project.

If that sounds easy, consider the scale of the work. Solomon appointed 3,500 officials under him as building supervisors. Materials for the walls and foundation required 80,000 stonecutters and 70,000 transporters. Huge cedar trees were cut in Lebanon, floated across the Mediterranean, and carried 35 miles inland to Jerusalem. Plus, tons (literally) of gold, silver, and bronze were obtained and utilized.

According to historians, the completed Temple was heralded worldwide as a magnificent masterpiece. Only an exceptionally inspiring leader could’ve rallied his countrymen to see it through to completion.

As mentioned, Solomon inspired others with his scrupulous honesty. During his reign, there was never a hint of graft or corruption. His advice to kings applies to all levels of leadership: “Kings detest wrongdoing, for a throne is established through righteousness. Kings take pleasure in honest lips; they value a man who speaks the truth.”

That kind of honesty is the bedrock foundation of every working relationship — between spouses, friends, co-workers, volunteers and so on. In a business environment, there’s always the subtle temptation to speed things up by smoothing things out. By that, I mean telling little white lies here and there to avoid hurt feelings, conceal an error, or gloss over any inconvenient truth that could cause delays on a project.

We’ve all heard bad outcomes linked to dishonest practices. For example, an auto company who misrepresents emissions data. Or a tire manufacturer who hides statistics about product safety. On a smaller scale, you may’ve seen a peer misleading a client or overpromising to a customer. That’s what Proverbs calls using “dishonest scales.”

Leaders should set the tone — internally and externally — for honest reporting, honest conversations, and honest accounting. Your peers and staff are always watching to see if you’re being candid with vendors, suppliers, bankers, even the media. “Don’t talk out of both sides of your mouth … avoid white lies … watch your step.” 15

Regardless of era, dishonesty in leadership breeds suspicion, which creates doubt and lack of commitment in an organization. On the other hand, integrity breeds trust, which inspires allegiance, participation and a safe workspace to flourish in. “People with integrity walk safely, but those who follow crooked paths will be exposed.”

What matters most

Solomon’s world was full of turmoil and unrest. Sound familiar? When facing conflict, looking back to his original priorities is helpful. This king-in-the-making asked for the insight, wisdom and perspective necessary to be a conscientious leader. Today, those same ingredients are essential. In their article on leadership styles, Anderson and Sun describe Solomon’s approach as: “Challenging assumptions, taking risks, soliciting ideas, and stimulating and encouraging creativity in one’s followers.”

That descriptor sums up most of the top leaders I know.

Action step? Let’s work to be modest, teachable, and open to critique. As the wise king said, “Whoever stubbornly refuses to accept criticism will suddenly be destroyed.” When all is said and done, what matters most is our good name — our standing in the community and within our organization. Proverbs reminds us to “Choose a good reputation over great riches; being held in high esteem is better than silver or gold.”

Sadly, despite his wisdom, Solomon didn’t always act accordingly. He levied crushing tax burdens. He made detrimental alliances. Eventually becoming self-absorbed and distracted, he was a poor father whose own son brought on a civil war. As leaders, we have to be on guard and not coast on momentum or past glory. No matter how successful we become, we need to remain humble enough to ask for guidance from others, and perceptive enough to analyze situations from differing points of view.

Wisdom doesn’t come overnight. Much of it’s learned by trial and error. As you consider applying these concepts to your own organization, please feel free to contact me with any questions. I’d be honored to have a casual conversation with you.