How Leaders Gain Discernment


How do leaders grow in discernment?

I've always been in awe of the famed Sons of Issachar. They stood out among their peers as "men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do."

Knowing the premium God places on wisdom I want to be counted among that clan. My question is this: "How does one get 'Issachar savvy'?" What is the secret for discerning the times?

Opening the Bible, I discover that the headwaters of the River Wisdom begin with God.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,but fools despise wisdom and instruction.
— Proverbs 1:1-7 NIV

Fearing God, that is, standing in reverential awe of who He is and submitting to what he wants provides the essential leadership posture -- humility. Humble people recognize their need for instruction (Proverbs 2:1-5), they pursue it (Proverbs 4:7), they take advice (Proverbs 13:10; 19:20), they grapple to discern the correct path (Proverbs 14:8), and they invest in their education (Proverbs 23:23). In the end, they become wise and discerning.

I caught a glimpse of the humble spirit -- and the rewards it brings -- in Theodore Roosevelt, a man many considered anything but humble.

In The Bully Pulpit, Doris Kearns Goodwin highlights Roosevelt's Issachar-like ability to gauge the times:

More than any president since Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt was able to shrewdly calculate popular sentiment. He read daily excerpts from scores of newspapers, probed the eclectic assemblage of visitors and guests frequenting the White House, and tested his ideas on reporters. Over time, he developed an uncanny ability to gauge the changeable pulse of the American public.

Reading this excerpt helped me to see a few essential life patterns that helped him -- and would help me -- to develop a discerning mind:

  1. Read widely -- TR was an avid reader, consuming a great deal of information from many sources -- including his critics. If I want to become more discerning I must do the same. I am a disciplined reader, but I can be a narrow reader, confining my efforts to a few areas of focus. I focus in leadership, history, biblical studies and practical theology. Additionally, reading novels provides enjoyment and an understanding of the human condition. But I must broaden my efforts. The Apostle Paul was able to quote the poets when speaking in Athens. He could do that because he read widely.
  2. Listen closely -- TR interacted with a steady stream of people. Most leaders do. He didn't just talk to them, pontificating on his agenda, he listened to them. Like TR, good listeners probe the minds of others soliciting feedback, asking follow-up questions, and sparing over ideas. Such interaction values people and sharpens the leader. TR reminds me to probe the minds of others -- especially when they differ with me.
  3. Test diligently -- As TR began to formulate an idea or a plan he would test it. He wanted to know if it made sense, how people received it, and what he might have to do to alter or sharpen his thoughts. This takes time -- and results in a better plan.
  4. Work patiently -- TR's skill improved with time. I need to remember this. Gaining discernment is the result of patient disciplined effort to "get it right."

It is a sign of humility to read, to listen, to test one's ideas, and to work patiently. Humility is an essential posture for any leader, and especially for those who want to gain discernment in understanding the times and and knowing how to act in light of them.


"men who understood ..." from 1 Chronicles 12:32 NIV

"More than any president since Lincoln ..." from Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, And The Golden Age Of Journalism. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013. Page 322.