A King Who Didn’t Own His People’s Ideas

Everyone knows the first two kings in Israel’s history. The reason we remember them because they were at the center of a story involving Goliath. We practically can’t forget them, because that story is trotted out every March during a basketball tournament.

Saul and David we know, but can you think of Israel’s third king? I spent some time on this subject recently when a friend gave me A Tale of Three Kings for my birthday.

Absalom was the second of David’s four sons, and he had quite a lot going for him. He was known for his looks, and was very charismatic. He was also very ambitious. When his older brother Amnon got out of line, little brother killed him to place himself first in line for the throne. He then started dreaming of change.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Change is in high demand these days in the Agile world, and many of us have reveled in becoming those agents for the cause. We get pumped up as the leaders who will “fix things around here” by the executives that hired us. We come in with our shoulders shrugged and the “aww, shucks” attitude, but secretly I can identify with the third king of Israel with my true feelings.

“This place is messed up, and I’m going to be the one to fix it. One way or another.”

The attractive and charismatic boy started out having meetings in caves, much like his father did at his age. He spoke of the kind of place he wished his country to be. The people should be free. The king should do more for his people. We don’t need to be at war constantly. He was described as very earnest and well-meaning.

Of course, his retoric slowly changed. Pride has a tendency of preventing humility.

Talk shifted from “this is what should be happening” to “this is what will be happening”. Absalom presented his ideas as what he was going to accomplish. After he had half the kingdom on his side, he started heading towards Jeruselum (the country’s capital). King David, having learned a lesson from his predecessor, decided to step aside without a fight and let his son take a turn.

History was not kind to King Absalom. Almost as fast as he rose to power, the rebellion fizzled out in one battle.

That’s the thing with revolts, and a valuable lesson for those of us in the business of bring change to organizations across the world. They can be crushed even faster than they start because of their roots. Three Kings references this when Absalom was just getting started. When you start a revolt, it’s just a series of meetings. People will follow you in those meetings for a little while, but it’s not the kind of devotion that lasts.

I’ve been learning this lesson a lot lately in my life.

  • “If my teams would just do things my way without complaining…”
  • “If my kids would just obey Karyn and I the first time without talking back…”
  • “If my family would just think of me before making decisions…”

As I round third base toward 40, I have a feeling that this is the stage of life to learn this lesson. Idealism abounds as I dream of ways to make the circumstances of my life a better place. It took a lot of transparency from grand poo bah Mike Cohn to show me, however, that idealism changes as we grow and learn. I assume that I know the best thing for everyone around me, when I could be wrong.

Absalom was so focused on his ideas becoming a reality that he didn’t see himself becoming a dictator. As if that wasn’t enough, he wasn’t willing to listen to his father after he took the throne. To keep himself into power, he became a tyrant.

It’s hard when you realize you are headed down that path as a leader. You have to admit your fault to those around you and take steps to build consensus. People won’t really know how to react to your coaching for a bit, but their gaze starts to soften when you approach them.

Eventually, when another revolution starts to rise, people won’t be interested because they know you’re more interested in hearts and minds than being right. In the end, we’re all just curators of ideas. There’s nothing to be right or wrong about if they aren’t yours to own. We merely keep spreading some from those around us.

Just something to think about tomorrow morning at stand up. Shout out to Bob Galen for keeping the same conversation going on his blog.


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