CEO Uzziah got it almost all right. He built a great company (country). He was well respected in his country and by the nations around him because he lived by the first three leadership best practices. He also apparently followed this fourth best practice for some time. However, he forgot this fourth principle after he was seasoned, and it cost him his position as a leader and more. What happened? And as we are successful how can we avoid this same fate?
Uzziah’s Catastrophic Error
Uzziah began as a humble leader. He understood his weaknesses and limitations. Therefore he relied on God and mentors to lead well. However, this all changed later in his career: “But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall.” (II Chronicles 26:16)
Uzziah’s success went to his head, and he became prideful. As The Word in Life Study Bible observes,
Arrogance is an occupational hazard for those in authority. Siting in positions of power, prestige, and privilege can easily seduce people into thinking that they got there solely by their own abilities and assets. Furthermore, they can begin to assume that rules that apply to others don’t apply to them. (p. 659).
As the author of Proverbs puts it, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18) Pride is the greatest enemy of success. We see this attitude manifest itself in three specific ways as this final chapter of Uzziah’s career unfolds.
1. He Decided the “Policy Manual” Didn’t Apply to Him
We see Uzziah’s arrogance when he oversteps his boundaries while insulting God and others in the process. “He was unfaithful to the Lord his God, and entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense.” (v. 16)
Uzziah’s call we as to be King (CEO). With this came many responsibilities, but not all responsibilities. Priestly duties, such as burning incense on the altar, were tasks God assigned to the nation’s priests. Their office is explicitly spelled out in Numbers 16:39-40 and Exodus 30:1-10, important parts of their company’s “Policy Manual.” As King/CEO, his job was to know this Policy Manual well and abide by it, as an example to all.
However, Uzziah had become so arrogant that he believed he had the authority to do anything he wished, whenever and however he wished. Rules did not apply to him. He was above the law. He had come to have an attitude of entitlement.
2. He Came to Believe He Was Indispensable
Though not directly stated, it is fair to assume Uzziah also came to believe that he was indispensable to the operations of the business. He could not trust the Priests to do their job. Whatever needed to be done, including offering incense to the Lord, Uzziah did it himself to be sure it was performed properly. Therefore he inserted himself into their work and “took over” at will because he was their boss and had the power to do so. Inability to trust subordinates to do their jobs demonstrates Uzziah’s attitude of superiority, closely tied to his pride.
3. He Mistreated His Subordinates
His arrogance is further displayed in his response to the priests when they point out his violation of the “Policy Manual”:
Azariah the priest with eighty other courageous priests of the Lord followed him in. They confronted King Uzziah and said, “It is not right for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord. That is for the priests, the descendants of Aaron, who have been consecrated to burn incense. Leave the sanctuary, for you have been unfaithful; and you will not be honored by the Lord God.” Uzziah, who had a censer in his hand ready to burn incense, became angry…he was raging at the priests… (v. 17-19)
Uzziah’s arrogance led him to believe no one had the right to challenge, question, or confront him about anything. He expected all those around him to be “yes-men,” who said what he wanted to hear and agreed with all he did. His lack of respect for others, including the priests—some of his senior leaders—is appalling.
The Causes of Uzziah’s Pride
What could cause such pride in Uzziah? I believe two related factors contributed to his unmitigated arrogance—he forgot best practices one and two.
First and foremost, he forgot the lesson discussed in the first post of this series: a leader must always seek God and apply His principles to have sustained success. Uzziah’s brazen disregard for the clear and critical executive limitations outlined in Numbers 16:39-40 and Exodus 30:1-10 are distinct indications of this negligence.
Like all other choices and actions, there is a long “backstory” leading up to this moment. A leader does not go from humility to extreme pride overnight. Nor does a leader go from seeking God and applying His principles to brazenly ignoring His instructions in a moment of weakness. No, these attitudes of arrogance, self-righteousness, superiority, lack of respect for others, and entitlement, are many years in the making. They are the result of many incremental steps from humility to arrogance. They are the result of many smaller decisions that shaped who he became as a leader. Having cultivated a haughty character, these attitudes are the inevitable external manifestations of his internal reality.
Second, and related to the first cause, is his scorn for the second best practice which gave him success early on: surrounding himself with mentors (discussed here). His father and Zechariah were his elders. When they passed away, there was no mention of Uzziah finding others to replace them.
If Uzziah had sought out new mentors, it is hard to believe he could have gone so far “off the rails.” His new mentors would have helped him understand the consequences of those first small, seemingly insignificant choices. They would have pointed out these blind spots before they plunged him into complete darkness. And Uzziah would have still been in a state of mind to listen to their counsel and not go down the path of destruction. The best explanation for this not occurring was that new mentors did not exist—he forgot best practice two and did not replace his early mentors when they passed from the scene.
The Result of Uzziah’s Failure: Immediate Removal from Office
The ramifications of Uzziah’s actions were clear and swift—he was immediately removed from his position of authority. He lost God’s blessing and he was disqualified from continuing in his leadership responsibilities:
While he was raging at the priests in their presence before the incense altar in the Lord’s temple, leprosy broke out on his forehead. When Azariah the chief priest and all the other priests looked at him, they saw that he had leprosy on his forehead, so they hurried him out. Indeed, he himself was eager to leave, because the Lord had afflicted him. King Uzziah had leprosy until the day he died. He lived in a separate house—leprous, and banned from the temple of the Lord. Jotham his son had charge of the palace and governed the people of the land. (vs. 19-21)
Leprosy was a type of skin condition that disqualified him from participation in the life of the community. It immediately barred him from the sort of interactions necessary to continue as CEO. Leprosy stripped him of all moral, relational, and positional authority. He was never able to overcome this, living the rest of his days alone and ashamed.
The cause-and-effect relationship reversed. Though Uzziah had a brilliant mind, was a strategic thinker, knew how to leverage resources, and had achieved great success, his destiny changed when he no longer honored God.
We Haven’t Learned From History
Unfortunately, Uzziah’s story has been repeated over and over to this day. Leaders continue to believe rules apply to everyone but them. In Africa, this is known as the “Big Man” syndrome. Once one rises to the level of village Chief (or once one is elected to a position of power), the rules no longer apply. One is free, and even expected, to rule as one “above the law.” Though this is changing in some parts of Africa, it continues to be a major challenge for those nations seeking to develop robust democracies.
Being above the rules is also extremely prevalent in U.S. businesses. So much so, in fact, that many books on leadership repeat this theme (such as How the Mighty Fall by Jim Collins—he identifies the first stage of a fall as “Hubris Born of Success”).
It is also very common for leaders to believe they are indispensable and therefore mistreat their subordinates. Recently I encountered this directly. I was asked to help a ministry diagnose why they were experiencing stagnation. It turned out a central cause was that the president insisted on being involved in every aspect of the ministry’s work. He required all the important decisions be made or approved by him. As a result, many decisions and actions were delayed by weeks and even months. The executive’s micromanagement also resulted in staff having very low morale, as they were not trusted to exercise their gifts in their areas of responsibility. Also, the more gifted and qualified staff left for other jobs where their gifts and contribution were appreciated. Lastly, an outcome was that the remaining staff did not raise concerns about or critiques of his decisions or directives, for fear of his wrath at their questioning his authority. I witnessed this response firsthand several times.
Nevertheless, the president was not convinced he was the problem. He firmly believed that the ministry was so unique that no one but he could possibly understand what needed to be done in any given situation. Unfortunately, his story ended like that of Uzziah: he lost his moral and relational authority and was forced by his authority (his board) to step down.
The fourth leadership best practice is that we are never too big to fail. No matter how long we have been in leadership, no matter how gifted, and no matter how successful, epic failure is always possible if we let our gifts and success go to the head. A leader may fail beause God directly intervenes to remove him or her for the good of the followers (as He did with Uzziah), or failure may be due to one’s own imploding as a result of pride that blinds him or her to best practices. The latter has been the case of many leaders I have known. Either way, a leader who thinks he or she is indispensable will surely fail.
The good news is that the story of Uzziah provides some diagnostic questions we can regularly ask ourselves, so we don’t get to the point of such irreversible failure:
Do I really believe I will fail if I stop seeking God and listening to mentors?
Do I overstep my boundaries by rationalizing why policies don’t apply to me?
Do I believe I am the only one who understands our reality, and so I don’t empower other staff to lead?
Do I take away the authority I have given staff if I don’t agree with a decision they are making?
Do I get angry with subordinates who question my decisions?
Do I practice spiritual disciplines such as secrecy (finding ways not to promote myself and my position) to guard against developing pride and arrogance?
Only by being intentional in these ways can we guard against the fate of Uzziah. May we all have the wisdom, determination, and support of others to embody this best practice of leadership and lead with excellence.
Until next week, grace and peace.
For further reading I suggest:
How the Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In, by Jim Collins
The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives, by Dallas Willard