King Saul tends to get such a bad rap with commentaries about lack of initiative and hesitance (not to mention disobedience) that it is cool to read that he wasn’t always like that. This little bit is almost an afterthought at the end of the incident where Saul is prevented from executing Jonathan for eating some honey.
46 Then Saul went up from following the Philistines: and the Philistines went to their own place.
47 ¶So Saul took the kingdom over Israel, and fought against all his enemies on every side, against Moab, and against the children of Ammon, and against Edom, and against the kings of Zobah, and against the Philistines: and whithersoever he turned himself, he vexed them.
48 And he gathered an host, and smote the Amalekites, and delivered Israel out of the hands of them that spoiled them….
52 And there was sore war against the Philistines all the days of Saul: and when Saul saw any strong man, or any valiant man, he took him unto him. (1 Sam. 14:46-48, 52)
In fact, these verses describe a period when Saul seems to have taken the initiative and conducted what looks like a hit-and-run campaign against Israel’s hostile neighbors. His army was small and hard to keep together when facing large forces, so it looks like he decided it would be better if they just made surprise attacks and left before the enemy could gather a sufficient force to oppose them. Guerrilla warfare, perhaps?
Also, it looks like Saul figured out how to deal with the tendency of the Israelites to slip away and leave the army in tough times—by near constant recruiting efforts and looking for strong or valiant men who wouldn’t desert when things looked bad.
So Saul eventually learned how to adapt his tactics to the constraints put on him by the rawness of his army, and he was able to figure out what measures to adopt that would eventually turn his raw army into a force to be reckoned with. In that respect he was a good leader.
This was not without cost though. By adopting a hit-and-run campaign against so many of Israel’s neighbors, Saul made lots of enemies, and if they had decided to retaliate in a coordinated effort, Israel would have had too much border to defend all at once and be stretched extremely thin. As it was, their war just with the Philistines kept them very busy, since it is described as “sore war all the days of Saul.” I can’t help but contrast this with Samuel’s life as a judge when Israel had peace with all their neighbors.
Also, recruiting every strong, brave man he could find eventually brings Saul to promote David. It is only when David is acclaimed more than Saul that Saul becomes afraid of losing his kingdom and begins to feel threatened by David rather than seeing him as the asset he really was.