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Bold, Strategic, Feminine—These Qualities Are Not Contradictory

The course of human history reveals that men have consistently underrated what women can do and achieve. When Elizabeth I was crowned Queen of England in 1558, she had already survived numerous political intrigues and revolts. Her reign provided relative stability and peace to England during her 44 years on the throne, and the arts flourished during this time. Yet she had to constantly overcome the low expectations of her womanliness. Her reign raised England’s status abroad, especially after the tremendous defeat of the Spanish Armada. Yet Pope Sixtus V said of her, “She is only a woman, only a mistress of half an island, and yet she makes herself feared by Spain, by France, by the Empire, by all.”

“Can a woman manage?” has been a perennial question through the ages. Yet tacit denials of women’s capabilities are not found in a biblical perspective. There is no biblical prohibition against women directing the labor of men. As theologian Wayne Grudem writes,

What we find in the Bible is that God has given commands that establish male leadership in the home and in the church, but that other teachings in his Word give considerable freedom in other areas of life. We should not try to require either more or less than Scripture itself requires.

That said, we are made female in the image of God, and there’s something wonderfully distinctive about being a woman. We don’t have to mimic masculinity to manage well. In fact, mimicry will typically backfire, as it is forced and unnecessary. It also overlooks the wonderful qualities women possess and diminishes what the Lord has created in us. The warm, gracious, and encouraging confidence of a woman can go a long way toward building a good team.

Portrait of Feminine Management

My favorite biblical portrait of feminine management and initiative is found in the story of Abigail. In 1 Samuel 25, we learn she is married to a wealthy but foolish man named Nabal. We encounter this wealthy man while he’s shearing his sheep—the equivalent of harvest time. In other words, it’s payday. David sends a request to share in the feast day since his men helped Nabal’s shepherds guard his extensive flock in the wilderness. Nabal foolishly dismisses the request, provoking David to a murderous rage.

One of Nabal’s servants rushes to Abigail, an industrious woman who has already overseen the preparations for the feast of “200 loaves of bread, two skins of wine, five butchered sheep, a bushel of roasted gain, 100 clusters of raisins, and 200 cakes of pressed figs” (1 Sam. 25:18). He’s counting on her to forestall impending disaster for the family business. So she loads these provisions on donkeys and sends them ahead to David and his men.

Abigail is “intelligent and beautiful,” but her husband is “harsh and evil in his dealings” (1 Sam. 25:3). As we’ll see, the narrator praises Abigail for her wisdom and initiative, but says nothing beyond the fact that she is beautiful. She doesn’t trade on her physical charms, even though they’re evident to all, especially David. When she encounters him, she doesn’t use false feminine flattery or emotional manipulation to sway his purpose. She does not flirt; she does not cry. What she does is confront David to warn him of the consequences of his actions and to urge him to live up to God’s standards:

“Please forgive your servant’s presumption. The LORD your God will certainly make a lasting dynasty for my lord, because you fight the LORD’s battles, and no wrongdoing will be found in you as long as you live. Even though someone is pursuing you to take your life, the life of my lord will be bound securely in the bundle of the living by the LORD your God, but the lives of your enemies he will hurl away as from the pocket of a sling. When the LORD has fulfilled for my lord every good thing he promised concerning him and has appointed him ruler over Israel, my lord will not have on his conscience the staggering burden of needless bloodshed or of having avenged himself. And when the LORD your God has brought my lord success, remember your servant.” David said to Abigail, “Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me. May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed this day and from avenging myself with my own hands.” (1 Sam. 25:28–33)

This was a woman who used all of her resources, wisdom, initiative, and bold words to call a man to emulate a higher standard—and who trusted the Lord for the outcome. Abigail managed this situation shrewdly, and did so to protect the lives of her servants who would have been attacked by David’s army. She was bold, effective, and strategic in protecting the assets and employees of her family’s business. And thoroughly feminine. These qualities are not contradictory in Scripture. In fact, Abigail’s leadership style actually translates fairly well to modern work cultures. 

Rising to the Occasion

Obviously, Abigail had planned ahead and was properly resourced for the big event of shearing season. That’s a basic management skillset that anticipates what’s on the annual cycle. No one should be surprised by something that happens every year.

Where Abigail shines is in the crisis. Bad news is where good leadership is forged. She is decisive and diplomatic when her servant delivers bad news, and she goes in person to address the crisis herself. She does not risk misunderstanding through an impersonal communication tool like, in our modern age, text or email. If she felt scared, she tempered herself and does not outwardly indulge her fears or emotions.

And when she addresses David, she speaks to the higher mission. Now, this is where I may be stretching the biblical application a bit to compare this Old Testament narrative to a workplace conflict, but bear with me. Every woman who has to bring correction on the job knows the particular pejorative that may quickly become attached to her reputation. But Abigail’s approach helps diminish that potential reaction. For she does not make it about offense to her or her family. Nor does she make it about David’s weaknesses or failures, putting him on the defensive. Rather, she speaks to him about the higher mission he has been called to and casts a vision of being a better man. 

Women do not need to imitate drill sergeants to be effective leaders. In fact, that approach usually backfires. When women lead with clear, direct, non-emotional, and non-manipulative statements about mission-critical goals, it provides the space for those on the team to respond in kind. You don’t have to sacrifice warmth or encouragement to lead a team well. But neither should you shrink from “bringing the thunder” when correction is critically needed.

Abigail definitely did not.

And as a result, she saved her household and influenced a national leader to relent of an unrighteous plan. Most importantly, she expressed her faith in God and his purpose for David’s life—a leadership style worth emulating by every believing woman.

In this way—whether in the marketplace or at home—women have multiple opportunities every day to lead others into a faith-filled consideration of God’s character and promises.

Editors’ note: This article is adapted from Carolyn McCulley and Nora Shank’s The Measure of Success: Uncovering the Biblical Perspective on Women, Work, and the Home (B&H, 2014).