Working with other strong leaders:

Lessons from David and Joab

Glenn Townend, MA, is the president of the South Pacific Division of Seventh-day Adventists, Wahroonga, New South Wales, Australia.

Steve’s story

Steve is a great youth pastor who has dynamic preaching and storytelling skills. His messages connect with children and young adults. He is also very relational, someone who listens, affirms, and helps. A model of biblical servant leadership and popular with the entire congregation, Steve is also liked by the senior pastor, who values what he contributes to the church. However, Steve often oversteps boundaries. He communicates confidential board matters and promises finances and personnel for unapproved projects. The senior pastor has raised the matters with him, but though Steve commits to change, his behavior does not. What can the senior pastor do?

Melanie’s story

An experienced pastor, Melanie is now the secretary of a conference. She excels at meeting organization, minutes, policy, compliance, and communication with a strong pastoral focus. Most people perceive her to be effective and efficient in all her work. However, the conference secretarial team has two people not performing well. One is always late with poor quality reports; the other is continually rude to people within the office and in the churches she communicates with. Unfortunately, Melanie excuses both. The conference president has raised the personnel issues with her but, very protective of her staff, Melanie says that she runs her office and does not need input from another officer. What can the conference president do?

The issue

Most leaders want competent people with different skills, strengths, and personalities to create a balanced and effective team. But leaders also know that their team members have weaknesses (just as they themselves do). Such weaknesses can hamper the function of the team and create blind spots. They can subtly undermine leadership as well.

How, then, do pastors and church leaders effectively deal with the deficiencies of the otherwise strong leaders? King David’s complicated relationship with Joab, Israel’s army commander, offers valuable lessons in dealing with other strong leaders with both good and bad characteristics.

The Joab factor: The good side

Joab was David’s nephew (2 Sam. 2:18; 1 Chron. 2:15, 16), a great warrior, and a loyal servant. When Joab had beaten Ammon into submission, he asked David to come for the final battle so that the king could take credit for the victory (2 Sam. 12:26–29). When David wanted Uriah the Hittite eliminated, David trusted Joab to carry out the murderous plan (2 Sam. 11:14–25). And when Absalom, David’s eldest son, rebelled and claimed the throne of Israel, with support from all tribes, Joab remained faithful to David, commanding the loyal troops against the rest of Israel (2 Sam. 18:2). Later in David’s reign, he asked Joab to conduct a census of all Israel, a decision contrary to the Torah (Exod. 30:11–16). Joab knew that such a census was not God’s will and protested, but eventually, he obeyed David’s orders. Although Joab missed counting two tribes (2 Sam. 24:1–9; 1 Chron. 21:1–7), he exhibited loyalty.

Joab also had a keen insight into human nature. When David’s eldest son, Amnon, raped his half-sister Tamar, David did nothing. Absalom, Tamar’s brother, was indignant and took justice into his own hands by killing Amnon before fleeing to Geshur, outside of Israel. As David mourned the loss of two sons (2 Sam. 13), Joab noticed David’s mood and convinced a wise woman from Tekoa to tell David a story that would incite his sense of justice and then encourage him to bring Absalom back. Even though David realized that Joab was behind the plan, David invited Absalom back to Israel (2 Sam. 14:1–23). Later, when David’s forces returned after defeating Israel’s troops during Absalom’s rebellion, they marched back into the city with David weeping at the death of his son Absalom. The soldiers felt that their victory did not mean as much to David as the loss of his rebellious son. Joab told David that he must congratulate his troops or they would desert him (2 Sam. 19:1–8). Joab was right, and his discernment, as much as his military prowess, saved David’s kingship.

In short, Joab was a strong, loyal military commander, willing to take risks while wanting the best for his leader. He was someone whom many would like on their team.

The Joab factor: The bad side

At the same time, Joab was jealous, violent, and vengeful. Not present when Abner discussed making David king of all Israel, Joab sent messengers to ask Abner to return; such was his influence. When Abner did so without David’s knowledge, Joab stabbed him—payback for his brother Asahel’s death in battle (2 Sam. 3).

Incensed, David mourned for Abner and cursed Joab. Aware that the murder could further split the kingdom, David ordered Joab and the army to pay their respects to Abner, which they duly did. Also, after Joab killed Absalom, David promised that Amasa, another one of David’s nephews, would become army chief (2 Sam. 19:13). Amasa was late on his first assignment of curbing another rebellion, and Abishai had to assume leadership of the army. Then, when Amasa did join them, Joab stabbed him and continued as Israel’s military commander (2 Sam. 20:1–13, 22, 23). In each instance, Joab undermined David’s leadership. While the king disapproved of Joab’s behavior, the man still remained army chief.

Why could David not just dismiss Joab and move on with new leadership? Scripture does not say. Ellen White notes that though Joab knew the grace and law of God, he was a rude and unscrupulous soldier.1 “Why was it that David clung to Joab, knowing that he was not a man that loved or feared God? Because Joab bound himself up with David, as a man of unswerving fidelity, ready to do just what David said! But was he the man approved of God? No.”2

Joab remained on the team for David’s entire life. As the king grew old, speculation increased as to who would be the next ruler. Joab characteristically made his own independent choice and backed Adonijah as king (1 Kings 1:5–7). But Adonijah was not David’s choice as his successor, having promised that position to Bathsheba’s son, Solomon (v. 13). Quickly installing Solomon as king, David thwarted Adonijah’s coup. During David’s handover to Solomon, the first request he made was for Solomon to deal with Joab (1 Kings 2:5, 6), which he did (vv. 28–35).

David and Joab

How, then, did David manage Joab, the strong man?

David’s major management strategy was to keep Joab working in his area of strength—leading the army. Perhaps that is why the king opted out of participating in the war with Ammon which, unfortunately, led to his adulterous affair with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11:1).

Also, David built a strong and loyal team around him (2 Sam. 8:15–18; 20:23–26). Joab was not the only powerful personality. The king had other military leaders, not just those related to him (2 Sam. 23:8–39). In addition, he had good advisors, priests, and administrators. Having other strong and loyal leaders on his team helped balance the influence of individuals such as Joab.

Principles to take away

What can pastoral leaders do when working with strong personalities in their leadership teams? Like David, they can

  1. keep them working in their area of strength and affirm them for it,
  2. confront and show disapproval for bad behavior, and
  3. get other strong leaders to balance out the team and not allow any one person to dominate.

In his article “How Do You Manage Employees With Dominant Personalities?” Chanelle Carlin points out that strong leaders, in a crisis, can handle heavy workloads, stay focused on their tasks, and are willing to take on new challenges and risks.3 Joab certainly displayed such characteristics. To bring the best out of such individuals and minimize any negativity, a leader can assign challenging work, let them chart their own course (rather than micromanage them), respect their opinions, and speak directly to specific issues while encouraging teamwork. Personality testing as a team is valuable (a tool probably not available to David). David, it appears, used most of these ideas, although Scripture records no discussion between him and Joab, just directions from one to the other.

Steve and Melanie?

So, what advice could we give Steve’s senior pastor? The pastor has already affirmed Steve for the good things and confronted him about specific negative behaviors. If done repeatedly with no resulting change, the senior pastor needs to draw on his or her support network. He or she has two alternatives. First, the pastor could confide in the local church elders and, if they agree, they could talk with Steve together. Second, the pastor could meet with the ministerial secretary and/or conference president, and one of them could discuss the issues with Steve. Then it is important that they follow through with an agreed-on solution involving accountability. However, if Steve does not change, termination of employment could be appropriate.

How about Melanie’s fellow officer and conference president? In the Seventh-day Adventist church structural system, all officers (president, secretary, and treasurer) are equal and do not have executive authority. The executive authority rests in the executive committee, which all officers are responsible to—even the president as chair of that committee. The president could speak with the treasurer about the issue; if both are agreed, together they could caringly confront Melanie. If that does not work, the president would have no alternative but to ask the executive committee or the union leaders to work it through. The executive or the union leaders should advise the president on any involvement in the process and agreed-on solution.4

Pastoral leaders can have their hands full with a growing church, as David did with his growing kingdom and with colleagues who, like Joab, are highly skilled and loyal, yet unpredictable and obstinate. No easy answers exist when it comes to dealing with other strong leaders. However, we have discussed some suggestions and ideas that can be implemented to help maintain good teamwork. Everyone is valuable despite their weaknesses. We all have unique gifts and talents to help further God’s purposes. To be effective, leaders need to be strong and caring enough to confront their colleagues and work through specific issues involving destructive patterns of behavior. After all, the best leaders do not lead followers but lead other leaders.

  1. Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1890), 728, 743, 749.
  2. Ellen G. White to O. A. Olsen, Letter 65, 1895.
  3. Chanelle Carlin, “How Do You Manage Employees With Dominant Personalities?” Linked In, April 7, 2015, https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-do-you-manage-employees-dominant-personalities-carlin-m-a-.
  4. The solutions for both Steve and Melanie follow Jesus’ principles of resolution involving conflict in the church recorded in Matthew 18:15–20.

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