Rehoboam, Groupthink, & Leadership


In 1972, social psychologist Irving Janis coined the term groupthink, “a psychological phenomenon in which people strive for consensus within a group. In many cases, people will set aside their own personal beliefs or adopt the opinion of the rest of the group.” On the other hand, group members with alternative views often remain silent so as not to rock the boat.


You’re likely unwittingly familiar with a few textbook examples of groupthink. In April 1961, newly-minted President Kennedy authorized the Bay of Pigs invasion in an attempt to unseat Fidel Castro from power in Cuba. The mission met with colossal failure, and though Kennedy admirably accepted blame with a “the buck stops here” attitude, the CIA was widely criticized as having been predisposed to a certain way of doing things without giving ear to dissent.

Their plan had too many “best-case scenario” assumptions; they were counting on too many things going their way without planning appropriate contingencies. Everyone expected the Cuban people would instantly join the coup d’état; they didn’t. Everyone assumed the rebels would successfully melt away into the mountains if they encountered resistance; no one mentioned the seventy miles of swamps the guerrillas would have to get past to make it to the mountains. Kennedy’s aides knew the president wanted to get rid of Castro, so they were more interested in pleasing their boss with a consensus than in giving him the best possible counsel.

The 1957 film 12 Angry Men demonstrates groupthink at its best (or worst, depending on your perspective). In the movie, a room full of jurors argue the guilt/innocence of a young boy accused of murdering his father. One is struck early in the film with just how easy it is to agree blindly with the group. In fact, the film serves up an excellent model of how groupthink can be challenged successfully.

Rehoboam & Groupthink

There is an important leadership lesson to be learned in Rehoboam’s actions in 1 Kings 12. Though he solicited the opinion of his older advisors, it’s clear he did not identify with them as much as he did the younger; notice his use of third-person versus first-person pronouns (1 Kings 12:9). Had Rehoboam remained more objective and encouraged vigorous, respectful debate on the issue, perhaps he would have made a wiser decision.

In families, churches, and businesses, there can be intense pressure to conform to “keep the peace” and not “rock the boat” or be a “troublemaker.” But at times, this only means we are expected to submit to stronger alpha personalities and allow them to have their way. Many a congregation has suffered because church leaders were either too assertive or not assertive enough. The same could be said for any type of group. Perhaps all of us would benefit if we remembered Paul’s umbrella command when it came to interpersonal relationships, whether in marriage, parenting, or business—“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21 NIV).

Effective leaders do not perceive dissent as a threat. Rather, they (at the least) consider it an opportunity to affirm the dissenter’s value to the group and (at the most) welcome it as a chance to discern flaws in their plan. Submission does not mean always giving in to the other side, but being respectful of others’ opinions and valuing them as equal servants of Christ.

Successful businesses in today’s world encourage dialogue and differences of opinion; the church, however, is often slow to catch on to this, wrongly believing that dissent is the enemy of the community’s shalom. But healthy disagreement today can spare us many headaches tomorrow.