The Book of Proverbs typically presents itself as a father giving advice to his son about how to live the truly good life.[*] But in Proverbs 31:1-9, it is a mother who speaks to her son. She is no ordinary woman, however; and he is no ordinary man. She is the queen mother, and he is the king. Let’s take a close look at what she says, for she teaches him (and us) several important lessons about leadership and self-leadership.
The sayings of King Lemuel — an oracle his mother taught him:
“O my son, O son of my womb,
O son of my vows,
do not spend your strength on women,
your vigor on those who ruin kings.
It is not for kings, O Lemuel —
not for kings to drink wine,
not for rulers to crave beer,
lest they drink and forget what the law decrees,
and deprive all the oppressed of their rights.
Give beer to those who are perishing,
wine to those who are in anguish;
let them drink and forget their poverty
and remember their misery no more.
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
Notice the way the queen mother addresses her son. He is “my son,” “son of my womb,” and “son of my vows.” With these words, the queen mother reminds King Lemuel of her authority to advise him. She is his mother; she herself gave him birth; he is the legitimate offspring of a royal marriage. The mother-child bond not only gives her authority to advise him, but it also reminds him that leaders are not self-made. They are brought into the world through the choices of others. Leaders must remember their interdependence with, not independence from, others.
Second, the queen mother advises her son to avoid the temptations of adultery, alcohol, and abuse of power. “Do not spend your strength on women,” she says. “It is not for kings to drink wine,” she advises. “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,” she counsels. Leaders have tremendous authority and power within their respective communities. The temptation is to use that power to advance their personal interests, rather than the interests of those under their care. Resisting that temptation requires enormous self-control. When self-control is not exercised, when prudence gives way to passion and parties and power hunger, leaders slowly lose their ability to influence others in a positive direction.
Third, leaders should use their influence to advance the interests of the last, the lost, and the least of society. As leaders rise through the ranks, the tendency is to become accustomed to power and privilege and to forget the people whose interests they’re supposed to serve. Self-controlled leaders are focused on their purpose. They serve the voiceless, the destitute, the poor, and the needy.