Examining Rehoboam’s Folly Through the Lens of Leadership Theory

This blog post is another installment in the I-O psychology section where I integrate I-O/OB concepts with biblical topics. (If you are unfamiliar with I-O psychology, please read this orientation to the field and how I will apply it to my blog.) For this blog post, I will be discussing Rehoboam’s folly through the lens of leadership theory. I will first explain who Rehoboam is and the nature of his folly and then look at his situation through the lens of leadership theory. In discussing his situation through the lens of leadership theory, I will make the assertion that implementing servant leader behaviors would have helped avoid the ultimate consequence of a divided kingdom. (Please check back for a future blog post where I explain servant leadership theory and how Jesus of Nazareth is the quintessential example of a servant leader.)

Who is Rehoboam and What Was His Error?

Rehoboam was an Israelite king in the Old Testament. He was the first to reign after his father King Solomon and was the grandson of King David. At the beginning of Rehoboam’s reign, Israel approach him with a request:

“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.” (1 Kings 12:4)

Apparently, the burden of Solomon’s performance expectations of the workers of Israel was too much to bear, and they were requesting a lighter load in exchange for their willing service. Rehoboam then requested that they return in a few days to receive their answer. During that time, he sought the counsel of two parties of people: 1) the older men that counseled his father and 2) younger men that grew up with him. Below is the advice he received from both the older men and the younger men:

And they [the older men] 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.” (1 Kings 12:7)

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.’” (1 Kings 12:10,11)

The crux of Rehoboam’s folly is that he rejected the counsel of the older men that had experience in that they worked alongside his father and took the counsel of the young men who had no idea how to approach the situation at hand. Rehoboam’s response led to the rebellion of Israel and the division of the Northern and Southern kingdoms.

Looking at Rehoboam’s Folly using Leadership Theory

Now let’s look at this situation and Rehoboam’s ill-advised choice through the lens of leadership theory. Leadership is a broad concept that includes someone’s ability to motivate individuals, teams, and organizations to different courses of action. In our discussion here, the course of action being influenced is the maintenance of the kingdom. King Solomon had a set style of leadership in place, and the lower-level workers saw his death and Rehoboam’s reign as an opportunity to provide feedback on the current system and request a new approach to how they were being led. Specifically, they made mention that their “yoke was heavy” and requested that it be “lightened.” It was also mentioned that they were “disciplined with whips” presumably when they were not meeting performance expectations. These descriptors paint a picture (albeit a vague one) of they type of leadership that was in place prior to the reign of Rehoboam. Using leadership theory, it seems as though Solomon’s leadership in this area was task-oriented (i.e., focused on what needs to be done to meet goals) and had a very low relationship/people orientation (i.e., concern for the well-being and satisfaction of workers). These two behaviors were identified in the Ohio State studies and are also known as initiating structure and consideration. Research evidence points to task-focused leader behaviors being more important for subordinate performance and people-focused behaviors being more important for follower job attitudes such as satisfaction and commitment. Additionally, from the Full Range of Leadership Model, Solomon employed a contingent reward approach which involves goal setting and providing consequences for behaviors (in this case negative consequences – disciplining with whips). Contingent reward shares positive relationships with motivation, performance, and leader effectiveness among other outcomes. In Solomon’s approach to leadership, it seems as though work was getting done, however, the workers wanted their well-being to be taken into more consideration.

King Rehoboam was then faced with an opportunity to implement a new form of leadership to the kingdom under his reign. On the one hand, the young group of men that gave advice to Rehoboam wanted him to apply the leadership approach his father used, but take it to the extreme. The workers requested for their load to be lightened from what Solomon placed on them, but the young men’s advice to Rehoboam was to “add to their yoke.” Moreover, whereas Solomon disciplined the people with whips, the advice given to Rehoboam by the young men was to discipline them with “scorpions,” clearly indicating an increased form of punishment for not meeting performance expectations. This suggested approach to leadership includes aspects from Solomon’s approach to leadership (i.e., high task-orientation, low people-orientation). However, it is distinguished by taking Solomon’s contingent reward approach to a different level, seemingly changing the focus to the less effective leadership style of active management-by-exception (i.e., negative focus on errors with punishment and discipline – seen as abusive). The worker’s situation was already grueling. Shifting to increased punishment in a way that is abusive creates and all around toxic situation where employee morale, satisfaction, and motivation would likely reach extreme lows. In this case, it led to a rebellion and the workers not carrying out their job responsibilities at all!

On the other hand, the older men counseled Rehoboam to take an approach that would have led to both work being completed and enhanced employee well-being. They instructed him to “be a servant to the people” and to “speak good words to them” and they will “serve you forever.” The older men were counseling Rehoboam to apply a whole new approach to leadership. Their new suggested approach included aspects of transformational leadership (which is by far the most studied leadership theory and is widely believed to be the most effective) and also servant leadership. Transformational leadership is comprised of four behaviors: idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration. From the limited description of what the older men were suggesting that Rehoboam should do, it seems as though they wanted him to at least apply two of these behaviors, idealized influence and inspirational motivation. Idealized influence goes beyond self-interests and is concerned with the well-being of employees and others in the organization. Inspirational motivation encourages and inspires followers to achieve more than they thought they could (these are just parts of the conceptual understanding of these behaviors). A case can be made for individualized consideration but I think that would be even more of a stretch than I am currently extending the limited descriptions from the older men. In Rehoboam serving the needs of the people and speaking good words over the people that aligns (at least partially) with transformational leadership.

However, servant leadership seems to be more fitting to what the older men were counseling Rehoboam to implement. Servant leadership is a leadership style that places going beyond one’s self interest and a genuine concern for serving followers as its central position. This is unique to servant leadership and distinguishes it from other leadership theories. Whereas other leadership styles have the ultimate focus of fulfilling organizational goals, servant leadership’s focus is fulfilling the needs of the followers, which would then lead to them completing organizational goals. There are numerous servant leader behaviors discussed in the literature such as putting followers first, empowerment, behaving ethically, providing direction, interpersonal acceptance, etc. Servant leadership is expected to produce increased employee satisfaction, commitment, and performance – this is where the most empirical support is available for this leadership theory. As the older men told Rehoboam, if he was to be a servant to the people and speak positively to them they would have served him forever. Clearly, their advice was in the direction of Rehoboam becoming a servant leader!

Conclusion

The people requested a lighter load and some consideration and said they would serve King Rehoboam. The older men counseled him and told him to serve them, speak positively, and they would serve him forever. The younger men said to increase their load and discipline them more severely. Although there are leader characteristics that precede the application of servant leader behaviors (e.g., desire to serve, intelligence related to emotions, moral conation, etc.) and it was already spoken by God that the kingdom would be divided (therefore it was going to come to pass), the application of servant leadership would have lead to an all around better situation than either the one before (i.e., Solomon’s reign) it or the one that resulted in accepting the bad advice of the younger men (i.e., the division of the kingdom). These are just my thoughts as I read this chapter (1 Kings 12) and integrated what I have learned during my graduate studies in I-O psychology. I hope you enjoyed it!

 


References

Barling, J., Christie, A., & Hoption, C. (2011). Leadership. APA handbook of industrial and organizational psychology, Vol 1: Building and developing the organization (pp. 183-240). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.

Liden, R. C., Panaccio, A., Meuser, J. D., Hu, J., & Wayne, S. (2014). Servant Leadership: Antecedents, Processes, and Outcomes. The Oxford Handbook of Leadership and Organizations, 357.

Van Dierendonck, D. (2011). Servant leadership: A review and synthesis.Journal of Management, 37, 1228-1261.

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