When a Leader Fails

Today’s reading: Joshua 7:1-26. Key verses: Joshua 7:8-9.

It has often been noted and lamented that frequently after great victory comes great failure. So here in Joshua 7, just after such a great victory of Israel over the powerful city of Jericho, they find themselves defeated by the smaller city of Ai. This defeat leads them to question God’s plan and their strategy for the invasion of the land. Joshua himself had a great victory at Jericho in directing the hearts of his people toward the Lord. In this chapter, the failure of Israel leads him to question the Lord.

We can often learn as much about leadership by looking at examples of what not to do as we can by looking at positive examples. Joshua provides us with both positive and negative examples in this chapter, for the first time in the book.

Leadership Principle 7.1: The danger of self-reliance

In chapter 7 we see Joshua, in the first five verses, sending spies to the city of Ai, as he had for Jericho. The spies return and report to Joshua that he should not send up nearly as many people, but just a small company to take the city. Perhaps this was overconfidence on the part of the people of Israel after their great victory over Jericho. Joshua does not know that one of his people has sinned against the Lord by violating the ban on Jericho and taking some of its possessions.

Joshua does not interact with the Lord in his initial assault on Ai. Instead, he follows the advice of his spies and their assessment. Perhaps this shows self-reliance on both the part of the people of Israel as a whole and Joshua as a leader. Great victories can lead to the temptation toward over-confidence and self-reliance. Our victories should not make us proud or lead us to conclude that we can operate in our own power apart from the Lord.

Leadership Principle 7.2: Leaders know how to work through failures

Joshua falls on his face before the ark of the Lord (v. 6) and puts dust on his head. At this juncture his words betray a lack of faith in God, accusing God of bringing Israel over the Jordan only to destroy them by the hand of the Amorites (v. 7). He doesn’t know about Achan’s sin. Negatively, Joshua is an example of one who doubts the Lord here. He expresses his doubt openly. Every leader will struggle with doubt at some point, but here Joshua’s doubt comes without any accompanying thought that there might be something else going on, like hidden sin.

Positively, Joshua doesn’t abandon his position or his people but seeks to work through the difficulty of failure to identify what has gone wrong and seek to correct it. Good leaders know how to move forward when the team has failed, as difficult as it might be. When working as a carpenter for a decade of my life, my father would sometimes say to me, “A good carpenter is not one who never makes mistakes. He is one who knows how to fix his mistakes.” The same goes for leaders. They will have failures, perhaps even substantial mistakes in leadership. But they should recognize the steps that need to be taken in order to correct those mistakes. Joshua takes the first of those steps in going to God with his failure.

Leadership Principle 7.3: Leaders are not afraid of hard conversations

Joshua is now faced with a difficult task: to find out which of his people has been unfaithful to the Lord and meet them with the punishment that is due to them. He does not shy away from this responsibility but meets it head-on. Knowing what the Lord’s consequences for this person will be before the nation is gathered together (v. 15), Joshua calls the people of Israel together and selects by lot the tribe, family, and household, eventually narrowing down the offender to Achan. He gives Achan the opportunity to speak for himself, and Achan explains what he did, confessing to his sin (without asking forgiveness).

Leaders must be courageous to have the hard conversations needed. Sometimes this will be for the benefit of the individuals with which they are speaking. At other times this may lead to a more negative outcome for the individual or individuals involved. Either way, leaders don’t back away from uncomfortable and even awkward situations, but courageously engage with their followers when necessary.

Summary in a Sentence

Leaders are not immune to mistakes and failures but do not allow those mistakes to have the final word on their leadership style or legacy.

JJ Routley

Jonathan J. Routley (JJ) serves as Professor of Bible and Theology at Emmaus Bible College in Dubuque, Iowa. JJ also serves on the Board of Directors for the Associates for Biblical Research (ABR). He holds a PhD in Theological Studies from Columbia International University, South Carolina. JJ and his family reside in Dubuque, Iowa.
Blog: jjroutley.wordpress.com
Twitter: @JJ_Routley