King David was a redneck.

Swept under the rug

Rednecks have a communication problem. It may be one you share as a leader. Following is how to address that communication problem.

But first, a tragic cautionary tale from a famous redneck: King David.

King David (probably not an actual photograph)
By Julia Margaret Cameron – Scanned from Colin Ford’s Julia Margaret Cameron: 19th Century Photographer of Genius, ISBN 1855145065. Originally from National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, Bradford., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9406433

King David’s son, Amnon, raped his half-sister, Tamar.

Amnon pretended to be sick and asked their father to send Tamar to tend to him. History doesn’t record if David found this odd. But he didn’t ask questions–he just sent her to her fate.

After the violation, Amnon wanted nothing to do with Tamar.

When Tamar’s full brother, Absalom, found out, he kept quiet, nursing hatred for Amnon.

King David was angry, too. But he did nothing. 

How long can you sweep something as awful as rape under the rug?

What would be the consequences of bottling it up, not tackling the issue head-on?

The answers: “years” and “a national tragedy.”

… Years?

After two years, Absalom took justice into his own hands. Much like Amnon had asked his father to send Tamar to him, Absalom asked his father to send Amnon to him.

And again, David pulled back from engaging in conversation on what might be happening. He made excuses as to why he shouldn’t send Amnon and others. But he ever addressed the actual concern. And eventually, he just let it happen.

And so Absalom murdered Amnon.

Absalom murders Amnon
Maarten van Heemskerck: Absalom’s servants kill Amnon
By Rijksmuseum – http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.114650, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84095443

Absalom fled to his mother’s people in another kingdom. The story records that, grieving for Amnon, David’s heart went out to Absalom. But he did nothing to restore the relationship. Absalom remained in exile. 

After three more years, members of the court convinced David to bring his son home. But David did not speak to him or allow him in his presence. 

After two more years of living like this, Absalom had had enough. He sent word to his father that it would have been better for him to stay in exile: Either put him to death or let him come back to court. 

David relented. Here is the part of the story that I find heartbreaking. David

summoned Absalom. So he came to the king and bowed himself on his face to the ground before the king, and the king kissed Absalom.

2 Samuel 14:33 ESV

That’s it. Nothing else. Five years since the murder and seven years since the rape, David continued to sweep it all under the rug.

As painful as it would have been, David and Absalom should have cleared the air. And the king had the responsibility of initiating that uncomfortably vulnerable conversation. Instead, everything–the rape, the murder, David’s colored past, David’s role in all of it–remained bottled up. 

And that, I suspect, was the trigger. 

You can read the consequences in 2 Samuel 15. Absalom launched a PR campaign which turned into a conspiracy to revolt. The civil war that followed was horrific: more slaughter, more rape and the murder of another of David’s children.

King David was a redneck 

David’s withdrawal, his refusal to have hard conversations and express his concerns, is surprising. For one thing, the crimes obviously demanded responses.

For another, David was known for his expressiveness. His psalms are legendary for the pouring out of David’s heart (Bono has called them “the blues of the Bible”). And many of David’s interactions record him taking a similar expressive approach in how he talked to others, including his enemies.  

So why not talk to his own children? 

I suspect he withdrew because these conversations would have required a little too much vulnerability. 

He had put Tamar in a situation that led to the rape. David could have called Amnon out (or even just asked, “Why?”). But he didn’t. 

In addition, David had his own past to reckon with. Years before, he had slept with the wife of one of his loyal soldiers, then had the soldier killed to cover his tracks. Given the culture of the day, this seems akin to rape. And it certainly was murder.

So for all of this, it may have been difficult for David to look his children in the eye without getting uncomfortably vulnerable about his own failings. 

We can relate, can’t we?

Years ago a friend of mine from Michigan was joking with me about living in Kentucky, where we are proud to say we are rednecks.

“There are rednecks everywhere,” she said. “In Michigan we called them shoprats.” 

She has a point: I’ve noticed variations of rednecks all over. There are good qualities to us rednecks: work ethic, for one, and “a glorious lack of sophistication,” as Jeff Foxworthy says.

In the negative sense, being a redneck has nothing to do with a person’s manual labor, populist politics or lack of formal education. 

If I were to put my finger on the real hallmark: A redneck is a person participating in a culture where vulnerability is frowned upon. 

I would go so far as to say that, over the years, around half of my clients would not have had to hire me if leaders in the organization were vulnerable enough to voice their concerns or questions. If they would stop sweeping things under the rug.

Teamwork grows where vulnerability goes.

The reason is that the trust needed for teamwork grows where vulnerability goes. 

Patrick Lencioni gives three practical ways teams must be vulnerable with each other. 

  • Fears. Do you ask questions or explain your concerns, including when you don’t understand? Many avoid this for fear of looking weak.
  • Frustrations. Do you express disappointment in another’s performance that did not meet your expectations? Not just anger but the impact it had on you, including feelings of loss.
  • Failures. Do you admit when your own performance does not meet expectations? Rumor has it humans don’t like to do this one either. …

When teams bottle up their feelings about these things–when they choose to avoid discussion they know they need to have–there are consequences. 

The consequences for your business are probably not civil war and related atrocities. But I have seen discussions swept under the rug that led to years of false starts for critical projects, to layers of distrust between a leader and her team.

If you are a fellow redneck wrestling with vulnerability, you have a couple secret weapons on your side.

First, rednecks are known for work ethic. Roll up your sleeves and do this hard thing.

Second, rednecks at their best are authentic. Use that “glorious lack of sophistication” to your advantage here.

My clients had had success using a variation of the following script added to the front of their big conversation:

I want to let you know that I’m nervous about having this talk. But I’m having it anyway because I’m trying to get better about how I communicate with our team. I want to make sure you know when I have a fear, frustration or failure, because I want you to share the same with me. Our team will be stronger if we do. So bear with me as I stumble through this.

If said in your own words, showing you are being vulnerable about trying to be vulnerable can have a magical effect on your team. They will appreciate your honesty and willingness, giving you the benefit of the doubt.

And when you share first, they are more likely to share too.

So many teams say “communication” is their biggest opportunity. Vulnerability is the key.