The Sefer Haikarim illustrates this point with Shaul’s response to Shmuel’s indictment of his failure to kill the king of Amalek (Shmuel I:15). Shaul initially refused to concede that he failed to fulfill Hashem’s command. Shmuel quickly pointed out that Shaul’s failure to accept responsibility was an even worse crime. Finally realizing that he was wrong, Shaul confessed his guilt and admitted his mistake—almost. In his defense Shaul attempted to provide context for his mistake by claiming that he feared his people. Rav Yosef Albo underscores that, sadly, even once he recognized that a mistake was made, Shaul was unable to accept personal responsibility. At most he admitted to being an agent of error, but not the cause of the error. Upon seeing and hearing Shaul’s perception of the events, Shmuel realized that Shaul did not possess the character to be king. While it is certainly important for a king to be aware of his people’s feelings and concerns, he must not be led by them. In contemporary parlance he must form public opinion—not respond to it. In contrast to Shaul, David HaMelech, always admitted his mistakes and even more so, in the tradition of his forefather Yehuda, always accepted responsibility.
All of us must take this message to heart. As Elul begins we must perform an honest self-evaluation, no matter how uncomfortable this might be, be brutally honest in identifying our mistakes (as well as accurately identifying our strong points) and then accept responsibility. If we succeed in this endeavor we will be on the right path toward sincere repentance. Beyond the realm of repentance, this approach is essential for leaders. Leaders must be sensitive to changing conditions, conscious of their own errors and accept blame when appropriate and responsibility all the time. General Lee failed in this regard at Gettysburg. He never fully acknowledged that his strategy was wrong (just that it didn’t succeed at the specific time) and he seems to never have really believed that it was his fault. Indeed, leaders have what to learn from Lee’s behavior at Gettysburg.