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40. Healthy Alliances

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A boy valiantly, but unsuccessfully, attempted to move a heavy log to clear a pathway to his favorite hideout. His dad stood quietly nearby, watching his son straining against the load. Finally he said, “Son, why aren’t you using all of your strength?”

Confused and a little angry, the boy responded, “Dad, I’m using every last little bit of strength I have!”

“No, son; you’re not,” his dad quietly responded. “You haven’t asked me to help.”

Effective leaders know to reach beyond themselves for strength. They recognize, develop and utilize the strength of people around them. They develop healthy alliances both with those on their own team and those on other teams.

The Strength of Healthy Alliances

While fleeing from Saul, David certainly demonstrated the ability to build healthy alliances:

David left Gath and escaped to the cave of Adullam. When his brothers and his father’s household heard about it, they went down to him there. All those who were distressed or in debt or discontented gathered around him, and he became their leader. About four hundred men were with him.

From there David went to Mizpah in Moab and said to the king of Moab, “Would you let my father and mother come and stay with you until I learn what God will do for me?” So he left them with the king of Moab, and they stayed with him as long as David was in the stronghold.

But the prophet Gad said to David, “Do not stay in the stronghold. Go into the land of Judah.” So David left and went to the forest of Hereth.

1 Samuel 22:1-5

Two miles from the city of Gath is a labyrinth of hills and valleys, honeycombed with caves. One cave stood near the ancient city of Adullam, and David found refuge in it. While he was in hiding with his family, David attracted to himself others who were also experiencing hardship. In fact, somewhere between 400 and 600 men eventually allied themselves with David. But it wasn’t simply David’s charisma that drew people to him. By studying David’s life, we find out that he not only had a tremendous loyalty to people, but he was also fiercely dedicated to serving others. People were loyal and committed to David because of the loyalty and service he had consistently showed them.

In addition to those alliances, David connected with the king of Moab, who provided shelter for his parents. Notice that in the midst of his own trials, David still considers the needs of his parents. This surely must have made an impression on the king of Moab. Here is a man who does not merely think of himself. Rather, David remains calm enough to consider the needs of others.

Finally, David listened as the prophet Gad offered the fugitive direction from God. Here we see another pattern in David’s life: he remained loyal to people even when they had hard truth to tell him (see David’s interaction with Nathan in 2 Samuel 12). This was not only a rare quality for biblical times; it remains a rare quality today.

David possessed the foresight to know that he couldn’t go it alone. He worked to build others’ trust in his leadership ability, and he evidently proved himself. David’s forces were loyal to him, and together they realized success against the enemies of Israel (see 23:1-6).

Effective leaders possess the unique ability to build alliances with people who can help to advance their causes. Think again about the short story we began with. Are there people who are standing quietly by, watching you strain away at your tasks? Part of your task as a leader is to form healthy alliances and to inspire others to step forward and help you. By doing so, you’ll accomplish two goals: lightening your own load and helping to develop leadership qualities in others.

If we fail to consider our strengths and weaknesses as we make alliances with others, we may consign ourselves and our organizations to mediocrity. Leaders should commit themselves to doing what they do best and forging synergistic alliances with others who have different skills and abilities. Then a leader can be said to be doing his best – when he is willing to surrender tasks to those who are more adept.

The God of Healthy Alliances

As the perfect and eternal community of being, God is the ultimate embodiment of a healthy alliance. In a truly mystifying way, he himself is a healthy alliance. The perfect love that flows between the Father and the Son is manifested as a third eternal Person, the Holy Spirit.

No one can fully understand this mystery, but it provides the ultimate foundation for relationships, communication and love. Within the divine Trinity, there has always been perfect communion, perfect community. Our perfectly inter-related and inter-relating God provides a picture of the unity and diversity that we can enjoy in our own earthly lives as well, as we live in healthy alliances with others. In other words, God not only affirms diversity in community, he actually models it.

John De Gruchy’s statement about the Trinity goes to the heart of the matter: “The triune God is not a homogeneous collectivity in which the uniqueness of each person is subsumed within the whole, but a community within which the distinctness of each person is affirmed and therefore within which the other remains a significant other.”1

The triune nature of healthy relationships can be seen in any good friendship, marriage or partnership. There are three parts to all healthy relationships: there is you, there is me and there is us. As a relationship deepens, the love between the two individuals becomes a kind of third person. That love is the us of a relationship; our love creates a “significant other.” In a fitful and imperfect way, this dynamic reflects the glories and mystery of the divine Trinity. Incomplete as our picture will remain, the amazing truth is that God wants us to enter into the depths of this unity.

Before coming to know Jesus, we were in a position of hostility and alienation from God. We were dead in our trespasses and sins, being “without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). God, however, in his incredible grace, has forgiven us our sins through the work of Christ. That fact in itself should be sufficient for us to ponder for an eternity. But God went beyond mere forgiveness of sin; he gave us his very life and personally indwells us. The mystery that is encapsulated in Jesus’ words, “you are in me, and I am in you” (John 14:20), is really beyond our comprehension and exceeds all that we could ever have hoped or guessed.

But the Lord tells us that even this is not the whole story. In his high priestly prayer on the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus prayed not only for his disciples, but “also for those who will believe in me through their message” (John 17:20). What a marvelous thought to have been prayed for by Jesus himself in his moment of crisis. And from generation to generation, there has been an unbroken chain of believers. One changed life invested in someone else from their time to ours. We who are in the covenant community of God’s people are now the recipients of all the blessings inherent in those relationships. Someone invested in your life; now you are called to go and do likewise, to become a part of the continuity of alliances that has existed and will until Christ returns.

Christ’s petition to the Father was nothing less than a request that believers might experience “complete unity” (v. 23) with one another and with God himself. Jesus asked that we might enter fully into the fellowship that exists between himself and his Father, and that we might delight in his presence and behold his eternal glory. In this way the divine love of the Holy Trinity will be in us, and we in them (v. 26).

To be invited into the love of the Godhead is to be drawn into the ultimate communion and alliance. As members of that alliance, we discover our true source of significance and hope.

The Need for Healthy Alliances

On the way to Jericho from Jerusalem, in the barren hills of the desert is a colony of hermits. They all have their own private caves, but they live in close proximity to one another. They may go weeks or months without seeing each other, but they seem to find comfort and strength from the knowledge that there are others doing similar activities nearby.

Perhaps this best illustrates that people were created for community. Even hermits frequently live in colonies! But alliances with others can be either healthy or toxic, and it is essential that we take this into account when we engage in personal and business partnerships. Again, we see the biblical character of David as a great example of this.

When David arrived in Ziklag, he sent some of the plunder to the elders of Judah, who were his friends, saying, “Here is a present for you from the plunder of the Lord’s enemies.”

He sent it…to those in all the…places where David and his men had roamed.

1 Samuel 30:26-27, 31b

By distributing part of the plunder to the elders in various parts of Israel, David wisely promoted goodwill with potential allies. In some way, he was telling them that they were part of what he was doing. He understood the importance of planning for the future and of building relationships based upon trust and mutual benefit that would serve him well in the years ahead. Leaders who look for and participate in strong alliances build a store of relational resources that can be of immeasurable value in times of change or crisis.

All of us have a need for fellowship, encouragement and accountability. Given a choice, few people would opt for the years of isolation experienced by Robinson Crusoe instead of the family ties enjoyed by the Swiss Family Robinson.

Clearly, the most important alliance we can experience is with the triune God, but this alliance should be reflected in the way we relate to others. Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton turn a common notion on its head when they write, “God never intended anyone to be so focused on him that there is no need to stay connected with people.”2 The body of Christ provides a network of personal and group alliances that are critical to our spiritual well-being.

Not all alliances are beneficial, however; and Scripture is just as clear about the other side of the coin. “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character’” (1 Corinthians 15:33). And again, “He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm” (Proverbs 13:20; cf. 28:7; 29:3). Unhealthy alliances can erode our character and our convictions. The 12th century English abbot Aelred of Rievaulx wrote that we owe love to all people, but only to a proven friend are we to entrust “the secrets of the heart.”3

In order to make certain that the alliances into which we enter are healthy and appropriate, we must first be convinced of whom we are and whose we are. When the truth of God’s Word begins to define our self-image, we find ourselves secure enough to love and serve others without seeking our interests first. Just as loving God completely is the key to loving ourselves correctly, this in turn is the key to loving others compassionately. As we grow in our understanding of God’s unconditional love and acceptance of us in Christ, we are increasingly liberated from using people to meet our needs. Once we know how seriously God takes us, we no longer need to take ourselves so seriously.

Second, we must not enter into deep alliances lightly. Often, because of some emotional neediness or poor judgment or pain, someone will share too deeply too quickly with a person they don’t know. Generally, this is a recipe for disaster. But, as John Ortberg has outlined, there are certain warning signs to watch for that may help you know when to slow down with a person. These warning signs may include inappropriate use of humor, judgmental statements, premature advice or violating a confidence. As Ortberg says, “Test someone’s ability to keep small confidences before you trust them with big ones.”4

The Cost of Healthy Alliances

We all need allies on whom we can rely and whom we can trust in tough times. “Call it a clan,” says Jane Howard, “call it a network, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.”5 David, as we have seen, illustrates how healthy alliances work. Second Samuel 16:15-17:23 provides an extended story of David’s strength – and weakness – in the craft of forming healthy alliances.

In this passage, we see both good and bad news about healthy alliances. The bad news is that David was running for his life because he had earlier refused to form a healthy alliance with his own son, Absalom (13:1-15:12). This scene ranks among the lower moments of David’s “best and worst of” biography. It warns us about the dangers of handling alliances, especially those in our own families, poorly.

But the good news is that David had previously formed a number of healthy alliances. Whether you refer to this as building alliances or use the more current term, “networking,” David demonstrated in this passage that leaders need to pay attention to this function.

David used his resources to help others succeed. He genuinely befriended people and repaid loyalty. Because of these things he had loyal friends who were willing to invest their resources in his continued success.

This story of intrigue has “spy novel” written all over it, but this is no novel. Hushai, a friend of David, literally put his life on the line for the king. The best part of the story appears in another passage:

When David arrived at the summit, where people used to worship God, Hushai the Arkite was there to meet him, his robe torn and dust on his head. David said to him, “If you go with me, you will be a burden to me. But if you return to the city and say to Absalom, ‘I will be your servant, O king; I was your father’s servant in the past, but now I will be your servant,’ then you can help me by frustrating Ahithophel’s advice. Won’t the priests Zadok and Abiathar be there with you? Tell them anything you hear in the king’s palace. Their two sons…are there with them. Send them to me with anything you hear.”

2 Samuel 15:32-36

After he and David had devised the dangerous strategy of placing Hushai as a mole in Absalom’s court, the record tells us: “So David’s friend Hushai arrived at Jerusalem” (v. 37). This guy had guts, courage and cunning, and he was willing to step in when no one else could have successfully served in this manner. Why? Because he and David had cultivated a deep and trusting relationship over the years.

Great leaders must have allies, and allies are cultivated. This cultivation carries a cost in time, thoughtfulness and devotion. As psychologist Alan McGinnis notes, the number one rule for entering into deep relationships is deceptively simple: we must assign top priority to these relationships. We tend to spend massive amounts of time and energy in pursuit of secondary things while relegating the most important things (healthy relationships) to the bottom of our priority list.6 Allies are expensive, but genuine allies are valuable because they can’t be bought.

The Payoff of Healthy Alliances

Perhaps no other American leader is as admired as Abraham Lincoln. And one of this great leader’s greatest assets was his ability to build healthy alliances – even with difficult people. In his excellent book, Lincoln on Leadership, Donald T. Phillips points out how Lincoln built such strong alliances: “Abraham Lincoln gained the trust and respect of his subordinates, building strong alliances on both a personal and professional level.”7 Lincoln knew what every skilled leader knows: Healthy alliances are crucial to making a leader’s vision become a reality.

Solomon’s words in Proverbs 13:20 encapsulate both the benefits and the dangers of forming alliances: “He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm.” While those words reflect wisdom, putting them into practice requires skill. Lincoln was so skilled at and committed to forging strong alliances that, upon occasion, he overcame others’ negative feelings toward him. William H. Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, initially considered the president unqualified and incompetent to run the administration and lead the country. Seward’s feelings were so negative that he submitted his resignation before the inauguration.

Because Lincoln considered Seward a strategic leader, he met with him immediately after taking oath and persuaded him to stay by appealing to his patriotism and sense of self-worth. In the months that followed, their relationship hit a few bumps: Seward discovered that he couldn’t control the president.

Yet in spite of their differences, Lincoln won Seward’s support and loyalty by reaching out on a personal level. The president would stop by the secretary’s home for lengthy visits. The two would take carriage rides together in and around Washington. Because they shared a deep commitment to the country and a common set of values and ethics, they eventually forged a strong friendship.

While no leader will win every potential ally into his or her camp, following Lincoln’s example might prove helpful. Phillips summarized Lincoln’s strategy when he wrote,

Simply spending time together and getting to know one’s subordinates can overcome mountains of personal differences and hard feelings. If followers learn that their leader is firm, resolute, and committed in the daily performance of his duty, respect can be gained and trust will soon follow. Lincoln’s approach won’t work for everyone. Some employees will not come around. However, the vast majority – the most competent and honest ones – will.8

As important as it is to learn whom to avoid, it is more important to learn who to trust. If you are fortunate enough to have built strong and trusted associations with others, treasure them. Nurture these healthy alliances. Spread the word of their credibility. Talk them up when the opportunity arises and defend them when they’re unfairly attacked. There may come a day when you might need defending. Who will stand up for you?

In spite of our individual independence and the natural anonymity our cyberspace culture affords, the world remains a pretty tight community. We must watch out for each other. We must inform one another. We must learn again what it means to be our brother’s keeper. It is through partnerships, mentoring, and healthy alliances that we become stronger.

Find a partner. Find a trusted associate. Find a friend. You may be a leader but no leader is an island.


1 John W. De Gruchy, Christianity and Democracy: A Theology for a Just World Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 240-41.

2 Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton, More Jesus, Less Religion (Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook Press, 2000), pp. 136-37.

3 Aelred of Rievaulx: Spiritual Friendship, Book 1 (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1994).

4 John Ortberg, Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), pp. 84-85.

5 Jane Howard: Quoted in the Franklin-Covey Day Planner for February 1, 2002.

6 Alan Loy McGinnis, The Friendship Factor (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1979.

7 Donald T. Phillips, Lincoln on Leadership (New York: Warner Books, 1992), p. 27.

8 Ibid., 31.

Related Topics: Leadership