Working for a Difficult Boss
Bob Dylan's 1979 song Gotta Serve Somebody was on target, whether we are in the military or in civilian life. We all have to serve or work for someone at some time in our lives. What if we are serving and working for a poor leader or a difficult boss? What is our attitude? How do we behave and function? Are there scriptural examples and principles we can learn and apply?
One of the most unique and tense leader-follower relationships in the Bible is the one between Saul and David. Their rocky relationship was like that of a commanding officer (or any organizational leader) and the prospective commanding officer (the incoming future leader). They were together for many months and even years—and did not get along well at all.
Read about their relationship in 1 Samuel 8:1 through 2 Samuel 2:7. Understanding the numerous patterns and principles in this complex leader-follower interaction that will enable us to better serve and support our leader or supervisor--especially when our boss is difficult.
Several stages of most of these kinds of relationships are revealed in the David-Saul interaction. The biblical record of their relationship suggests some questions and challenges for us.
The Israelites had a king. The Lord God, Yahweh, was their sovereign, protector, and defender. He was the one who freed them from slavery and formed them as a people for Himself. But when their human leader, the prophet Samuel, grew old and his sons were not good prospective leaders for the people, Israelite elders said, "Appoint a king to lead [judge] us, so we can be like other nations" (1 Sam. 8:5).
So God led Samuel to identify Saul from a prominent family "of standing" and as "an impressive young man without equal" (1 Sam. 9:1-2). Samuel interviewed Saul (1 Sam. 9:15-10:27), anointed him for the Lord (1 Sam. 10:1, 6-7), and then installed him as King of Israel (1 Sam. 10:9-25). After some successes (1 Sam. 11:1-15), Saul did not follow Samuel's guidance and offer sacrifices to God (1 Sam. 13:1-12). Then he makes a bad decision under pressure which was reversed by his men (1 Sam. 14:24-45), and even disobeyed the Lord by offering sacrifice (1 Sam. 15:1-15).
Understanding this background and how Saul acquired and behaved in his leadership position would be very important for the young leader, David, whom God would choose to become Saul's successor. It is also important for us. Here are some questions for you to consider:
- What is the history of your organization? When, how, and why was it established? What are its missions now?
- How did your supervisor come into a leadership position? What strengths and successes, and what skills and style(s) of leadership had he or she demonstrated?
- Has your supervisor shown any struggles or weakness in leadership? If so, what were the circumstances? How might you support and complement your supervisor in these areas?
David was chosen by Samuel and by God (1 Sam. 16) to become the leader for Israel, even though he was young and a shepherd boy (1 Sam. 16:7-13)-for, "...the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Sam. 16:7).
David had skills that could complement and meet Saul's needs: "Saul liked him very much...[was] pleased with him...David would take his harp and play. Then relief would come to Saul..." (1 Sam. 16:14-23).
But after David had the great victory over Goliath (1 Sam. 17) and was performing his job so successfully (1 Sam. 18:5), his fame among people grew larger than Saul's.
In 1 Samuel 18 we see that Saul "was very angry," "kept a jealous eye on" and became "afraid of David." Even David's growing relationship with Saul's son, Jonathan, upset the king.
Though he promised not to kill David (1 Sam. 19:1-6), his attitude and behavior would sometimes reveal open animosity toward David (1 Sam. 19:8-10). Here are some questions relating to stress for you to reflect upon:
- Did you have good rapport with your supervisor when you began your job? In what ways did you and the relationship start out well?
- Has anything happened, such as early successes for which others gave you credit and praise, which might have led your supervisor to have doubts about you willingness to serve him or her loyally? If so, what and why? How can you allay such concerns before they seriously damage the relationship?
- Has any other stress emerged in this relationship? If so, what caused it, and how have you dealt with it?
David developed a wonderful relationship with Jonathan (1 Sam. 18:1-4), Saul's son. Even though this relationship may have upset Saul, Jonathan still was an advocate for David--trying to help the king understand and trust this new young leader (1 Sam. 19:4-6).
David's wife, Michal, also supported and protected him from the king, even though she was Saul's daughter (1 Sam. 19:11-17). Amid this tension with Saul, David went to find a wiser, older follower of God, Samuel (1 Sam. 19:18).
Here are some questions related to those who can give you godly support and advice about your professional relationships:
- If your supervisor engages in inconsistent behavior or interactions with you, or if you seem unable to satisfy him or her with your work, do you have a Christian friend or colleague within the organization with whom it would be appropriate for you to discuss this honestly and confidently?
- Can you and will you, when talking with any colleagues or your spouse or a Christian friend or the Lord, seek sincere understanding of your supervisor and of your relationship rather than just gossiping and criticizing?
With Jonathan's support, David fled from Saul's presence (1 Sam. 20) and continued to avoid him (1 Sam. 21-23). Yet Saul still hopes to control and even kill David (1 Sam. 23:7-29). Yet Saul still hoped to control and even kill David.
Unexpectedly, David had an opportunity to harm Saul (1 Sam. 24), but he did not. Instead, he explained that he "will not lift my hand against my master because he is the Lord's anointed" (1 Sam. 24:10) and that he is "not guilty of wrongdoing or rebellion" (1 Sam. 24:10-11). Saul expressed sorrow for his behavior (1 Sam. 24:16-22), but soon he was tracking David again (1 Sam. 26:1-3).
During his tense relationship with Saul, David also became upset and wanted revenge--against the selfish Nabal (1 Sam. 25:1-13). But the Lord used Abigail to confront and calm David, saying, "...because you fight the Lord's battles, let no wrongdoing be found in you.
Although someone is pursuing you, your life will be bound securely by the Lord and He will hurl away your enemies as a stone from a sling" (1 Sam. 25:28-29). So David understood that God would avenge wrongs against his servant. Later, David has another chance to harm his leader, but again he does not--much to the surprise of Saul (1 Sam. 26:5-25).
While David kept his distance (1 Sam. 27), Saul struggled as a leader and does bizarre things (1 Sam. 28). Yet David tried to remain faithful to Israel and also to Saul. Even as he operated among those who opposed the king (1 Sam. 29), he continued to show good leadership of his followers (1 Sam. 30).
- Have you ever had any opportunity to "harm" your supervisor—to be critical of her or to undercut his or her authority? When, where, and how? What did you do? Why?
- Since we can only rarely "flee" our supervisors, how can we respond to inconsistent or belligerent behavior?
- Can you cultivate the attitude toward your supervisor that David had toward Saul—that your he or she is "the anointed of the Lord" and appointed by God to be your supervisor at this time in your life and career? How? Why or why not?
- Will you honestly pray for and seek the success of your supervisor? And if he or she does stumble or fall, will you express similar attitudes and actions to those that David expressed toward King Saul?
- How do you respond when you are among those who are openly and even maliciously criticize your supervisor? Can you be honest about his or her weaknesses and yet remain a loyal follower? If so, how? Why should you?
The adversaries against Israel and Saul gained strength, defeating Saul's men and causing the death of the king (1 Sam. 31:1-6). One survivor of this defeat came to David, saying he had killed Saul and expecting to be rewarded by David (2 Sam. 1:1-10).
But David did not rejoice or gloat, nor reward this opportunistic liar. On the contrary, David, who would now become the leader-king, "...mourned, wept and fasted..." over the fall of Saul (2 Sam. 1:12) and even takes up a lament song for Saul in death (2 Sam. 1:17-27).
Now the young boy who played the harp to help the king, the young man who successfully served the king successfully, and the new leader who had been inconsistently treated by the king... this David now became a leader-king who sought to unite in "...kindness, faithfulness, and favor..." all the people—especially those who followed Saul loyally (2 Sam. 2:1-7).
Here are some final questions:
- Are you as aware of your own strengths and weaknesses as a leader as you are of your supervisor? What are they?
- How do you react when your subordinates have success and receive praise, especially if they receive more acclaim than you as their leader?
- How do you treat others who may be critical (even if silently) about your decisions and leadership? With your subordinates and workers, are you vengeful and vindictive or are you forgiving and positive?
- Do you empower and encourage others? Do they see you as a supportive leader?
- Is your leadership like that of Saul? Or like that of David?
Like David, we also must honor, "the Lord's anointed" as Christ's followers. We are to respect the person and certainly the position under whom and for whom we work (Romans 13:1-6). We must take confidence in the fact that the sovereign Lord God has assigned and placed us there, according to His will and for His work!
In every job and all work relationships—even and especially under poor leaders and difficult supervisors—our attitudes and behaviors must be in accordance with God's Word, as expressed in Ephesians 6:5-8, "You workers, cooperate with those over you with humility and respect and with the same kind of loyalty you give to Christ—not for praise or promotion, but as Christ's workers, doing the will of God from the heart and carrying out your work with a good attitude as though the Lord, and not man, were your employer.
Realize that whether you are a worker or an employer, whatever good thing you do will be noticed by the Lord.
CAPT Bill Weimer is Regional Chaplain, Navy Region Mid-Atlantic. A Navy Line Officer in the 1960s, he has served as a Navy Chaplain twenty-four years with Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard commands. Chaplain Weimer and his wife, Eathel, have been involved with OCF since 1967, and he authored the latest edition of the OCF booklet Supporting Your Chaplain.