How to Lead Like a Bully (in Three Easy Steps)

The Old Testament story of Rehoboam is one of the most haunting in all of scripture. In it, we see a man who had the ability to unite Israel and rebuild his family’s legacy, but instead he split the kingdom.

Here’s the quick backstory of 1 Kings 12: King Solomon has just died. His 40 year reign had been marked by wealth and wisdom, but his love for foreign women ran afoul of God’s explicit commands and led to serious repercussions for Israel.

Solomon’s son Rehoboam became successor to the throne, and upon his coronation one of his father’s former employees was sent to ask the king to reduce the tax burden on Israel. In this moment, Rehoboam had an opportunity to listen well to two groups of people: those he led and those he could learn from. Unfortunately, he did neither. And because of that, his story illustrates three simple steps to leading like a bully:

1. Listen to the problem, not the people.

Jeroboam and all the assembly of Israel came and said to Rehoboam, “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke on us, and we will serve you.” He said to them, “Go away for three days, then come again to me.” So the people went away. (1 Kings 12:3-5)

Jeroboam had a reasonable request: ease up on the forced labor, and we’ll gladly serve the King. Rehoboam had a reasonable dilemma: to continue to build the kingdom, he needed both taxes and labor.

But Rehoboam’s real problem was that he saw the problem, not the people behind the problem. And that’s how we begin to lead like a bully. When we view those we lead as problems to be solved rather than people to be loved, we place the proverbial cart before the horse and we can’t see our own responsibilities clearly.

2. Reject counsel from seasoned leaders.

Then King Rehoboam took counsel with the old men, who had stood before Solomon his father while he was yet alive, saying, “How do you advise me to answer this people?” And they said to him, “If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever.” But he abandoned the counsel that the old men gave him… (vv. 6-8a)

Rehoboam called a meeting with his dad’s former cabinet. These men were not kings, but they had served one. They’d never single-handedly led a country, but they had been around long enough to know how a country is best led. And their counsel was simple: lighten up. Seek to serve rather than be served. Win the hearts of the people by understanding the heart of the people.

But Rehoboam abandoned the counsel. We don’t know why. Was it because he viewed them as irrelevant? Did they refuse to say what he wanted to hear? Did he fear that showing kindness would make him look weak? Whatever Rehoboam’s reason, he disregarded the very shoulders he should have been standing on.

3. Surround yourself with yes men.

and took counsel with the young men who had grown up with him and stood before him. And he said to them, “What do you advise that we answer this people who have said to me, ‘Lighten the yoke that your father put on us’?” And the young men who had grown up with him said to him, “Thus shall you speak to this people who said to you, ‘Your father made our yoke heavy, but you lighten it for us,’ thus shall you say to them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s thighs. And now, whereas my father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.’” (vv. 8b-11)

Not content with the “lighten up” counsel from the seasoned leadership, Jeroboam instead turned to his peers. These were young men who had grown up with him. His childhood chums. His high school hangout crew. His weekend warriors who’d seen their royal offspring pal make it to the big chair and saw this as an opportunity to tell him what he wanted to hear.

And Jeroboam listened to them. We don’t know why. Did he think it was the fastest way to build the kingdom? Was he afraid of losing face with his buddies? Did the scorpion terminology appeal to his inner tough guy? Whatever Rehoboam’s reason, he took the counsel of children rather than advice from the aged, and he paid dearly for it.

Rehoboam answered the people as a bully, not as a shepherd, and the results were immediate. Ten of Israel’s twelve tribes revolted and formed the northern kingdom. His legacy was marred and his leadership was forever tainted. His rival king, Jeroboam, established idolatrous golden calves and led the people to sin. And Israel eventually suffered centuries of captivity and exile.

Do you want to lead like a bully? It’s easy. Disregard your people, disregard seasoned leaders, and surround yourself with people who think like you. Those whom you lead will view you as the enemy quicker than you can say Rehoboam.


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