First chair leaders can only be successful if they have competent, trustworthy leaders behind and around them. I’ve been studying some of the excellent examples in Scripture. Over the next year, I’ll be posting about some of them. In many of these role models, there’s the added layer of a righteous leader influencing a pagan culture for good. That’s a message that’s relevant to our twenty-first century culture where Christians are learning to live in exile.

I’ve always been drawn to the Old Testament character Joseph. There’s something that captures my imagination about the way he uses his one chance to get out of prison, to not only interpret Pharaoh’s dream, but to audaciously suggest a solution. Pharaoh is so impressed that he promotes him to prime minister over all Egypt. I’m impressed at his groundedness to recognize God’s hand in his successes and his being sent before the family to preserve them. Joseph never led from the first chair but never seemed to aspire for more. He was therefore even more trustworthy, never threatening the leader he supported.

I’m going to break the story of Joseph into four acts: the raw material, the development years, the fulfillment of promise and then returning to roots. But first, let me share some thoughts as an overview, many of them influenced by a blog series by Rev. Bernard Bouissieres. Joseph was always #2:

  • At age 17, he serves as a shepherd under his father. The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown (JFB) Bible Commentary suggests that leadership is implied in the text. If so, Joseph has a leadership role over his brothers, reporting to his father. We’ll explore that a bit further in my next post.
  • He becomes an administrator stewarding the estate of an Egyptian official.
  • He manages the royal prison as a prisoner himself.
  • He ascends to the role of prime minister and loyally serves Pharaoh.

But let’s dig deeper. Two incidents show Joseph’s “I am second” attitude. First, the act of interpreting dreams. As Rev. Bernard says, “The ministry of interpretation places one in a second role position; it is exercised for the benefit of another. You are always in second position.” Drawing from his own experience as a language interpreter, he says, “People were not interested in me. They were interested in the main speaker. I was just a voice.”

He draws some conclusions about Joseph that have broader application:

The dream is not yours, it belongs to someone else. God has called others to something special and you help them sort it out. Counselors are second position type ministries. They function for others, not themselves. It is a very tiring, demanding type of ministry. But God and people need good interpreters, counsellors. Preachers, teachers should always function in a second role spirit; as ministers, they are preaching God’s Word not their ideas. (http://revbernardministries.com/joseph_bible_study_4)

That description certainly fits Joseph, who goes out of his way to give God the glory. (Gen 41:15-16)

When Joseph’s father re-enters the picture, Joseph submits to him again. He takes the mantle of leadership of the family, but always under his father. This is never more apparent than in the final days of his father’s life when Joseph gives his two sons to Jacob and then receives the second best blessing (behind Judah).

Rev. Bernard adds some great thoughts about first and second chair leadership, using Peter and Andrew as examples. How do I know if I am an “Andrew” in his right place in a second position role? How do I know if I should take a step back and be an “Andrew” rather than a “Peter”? I encourage you to use the excellent self test for second chair leadership he offers at the end of his post.

As we’ll see, being #2 is a critical role. It’s not second best, as the realm of leadership shouldn’t be about competition. Instead, it’s about skill fit and experience, about attitude and character, about using influence for good. The lessons are entirely relevant, whether you’re a first chair leader, a longtime second chair leader or someone who feels God stirring you to lead.


Joseph series:

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In my chronological reading through the Bible, I’ve arrived at the book of Nehemiah—a remarkable study of leadership. Many others have preached, blogged and written on the leadership principles gleaned from this case study. Nevertheless, I’m going to attempt to draw out some fresh points. As you will recall, Nehemiah was a cupbearer to King Artaxerxes, the Persian King. In spite of his status as a Jewish exile, he earned a position as part of the bodyguard protecting the ruler of one of the world’s two greatest powers at the time.

From the very first moment we meet Nehemiah, we sense a calling. As he serves the king in Persia, the news reaches him that Jerusalem is still lying in ruins after almost a century. It wrecks him. He weeps, he mourns and he prays day and night—for four months. Nehemiah doesn’t just pray with objectivity; he prays himself into the solution: “let Your servant prosper this day, I pray, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man,” the king (Nehemiah 1:11).

In other words, Nehemiah does something Moses and Gideon would never have dared. While they said, “send somebody else,” Nehemiah says, “send me.” God honours his request, and it starts him on a promotion path. First King Artaxerxes appoints him as foreman of the rebuilding effort. Then, after some early success in Jerusalem, the king promotes him to governor. When my pastor Glen Nudd preached on Nehemiah recently, he summarized it neatly:

At the end of it all, Nehemiah is given a job, a position, an assignment, a mission. He invites it, he receives it, he accepts it, he embraces it.

Can you do that? Is it okay for believers to show such ambition? Aren’t we supposed to resist the temptations of advancement and the lure of power? Isn’t it Christian to be content and to suppress ambition? Doesn’t Nehemiah’s action show complete lack of humility? As Pastor Glen put it:

Sometimes, as believers, we think that to be spiritual and godly we should always refuse advancement, promotion, or any kind of upward mobility and just go play in the shadows quietly, unnoticed and not expecting to influence anything very much. Maybe we think it’s the humble thing to do.

Were Moses and Gideon more godly than this young upstart, Nehemiah? After all, wasn’t Moses described in Numbers 12:3 as the most humble person on earth? Yet a careful reading reveals that Moses and Gideon were paralyzed by fear. I think many believers today have the same problem. While Pastor Glen allowed that there are valid reasons to turn down promotion, he pointed out that sometimes humility is a mask for the real issues for reluctance: fear of responsibility, fear of commitment, or fear of having our faith and abilities tested.

Pastor Glen asked us to consider promotion in a different light:

What if God wants to promote you so that He can use you in an even greater way to be salt and light in a dark world? What if your “no” is actually refusing the potential for great influence and ministry and impact for the Kingdom of God?

Proverbs 29:2 says, ‘When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when a wicked man rules, the people groan.’

It’s a good thing, a God-honoring thing, when God’s people are promoted and the salt gets better distributed and the light shines farther. When the gospel and the glory of God are advanced, that’s a good thing.

There’s no Biblical prohibition on ambition for a cause, and that’s why Nehemiah willingly accepts position. The question is how you lead in whatever position God gives you. Jim Collins will tell you that a great leader engaged in a cause should lead with humility. I met a few Proverbs 29 Members of Parliament a couple of weeks ago in Ottawa. I was impressed at their quiet competence, but also their fire when it came to causes like human trafficking. Like Nehemiah, they embraced high positions and the voice it gave them. Through years of faithful witness, each has earned respect for the way they handled the challenges of federal politics.

So, is the act of stepping up in leadership antithetical to humility? Not at all. The answer, as we’ll see in Nehemiah 5, is servant leadership.

God has been working on me in the area of contentment recently. As I’ve considered the issue, I’ve begun to appreciate just how counter-cultural it is, flying in the face of every marketing campaign and our own ambitious natures.

When we were in Atlanta this summer, a few family members gave our kids some money. Instead of spending it immediately, their eyes got big as they pooled their new-found wealth and realized they had enough to buy one of the bigger Lego sets. My immediate reaction was, “How much Lego is enough?” They have so much Lego already. Why do they feel they need any more? Can’t they be content with what they have?

Like so many Christians before me, I can weaponize Scripture. I can sharpen 1 Timothy 6:6-10 and thrust it like a dagger:

But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.

It took a few weeks before I felt my own conviction. I do the same thing, but not with Lego. At some point, my greed transferred to other, more adult fare: ambition, for instance. Ambition lacks contentment with current circumstances. Ambition always wants more.

Picture for a minute a tethered dog, or one contained within a fence. Where will the grass be well-worn? There will always be a well-worn track around the limits. I’m the same way; I always want more, I’m always looking beyond the space God has defined for me.

Psalm 131:1-2 pricks right to the heart:

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
    my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
    too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
    like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child is my soul within me.

How do we quiet our souls? How do we find contentment? Hebrews 13:5 recommends shifting our desires.

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

In other words, God tells us, “All you need is me.” David agrees, as he closes out Psalm 131:

O Israel, hope in the Lord
    from this time forth and forevermore.

I hear David crying to my soul: “O Roy, hope in the Lord.” Yearn for Him, be content in Him. He never gets rusty, He never breaks down, He never goes out of fashion, He will never let you down, He will never leave you.

[This post republished from my President’s blog on Wycliffe.ca]

So what steps must be taken to get free of this control and what records do you have of those set free please?

As sydnlm reminds me, all the philosophy in the world doesn’t help when ambition has taken control. Let’s get practical about combating selfish ambition. I don’t have all the answers, but I want to open a discussion, and I hope you’ll add your thoughts.

Erica posted the following comment in response to a previous post on the subject:

“[God has] also taught me that combating envy, bitterness and selfish ambition with delighting in others’ well-being (or good fortune), unconditional forgiveness (through prayer and release to God) and altruism, is quite an antidote!”

Let’s look at those suggestions, and a couple of my own, using the story of Haman. The book of Esther sets the stage over a handful of chapters, describing the increasing tension between Xerxes’ right-hand man and the Jew who antagonizes him by refusing to bow. Haman just will not let this slight go, to the point that he builds a 75′ high gallows just for Mordecai. For good measure, he sets in motion a plan for the genocide of millions of Mordecai’s people.

One morning, the gallows ready, Haman heads to the king’s court to seek permission to avenge his enemy. It’s been a good week. He’s second-in-charge, he was the sole guest at a dinner with the king and queen, and he’s been invited back for dinner again tonight. The king invites him in right away, seeking his advice on the best way to honour someone. Haman’s a smart man and quickly catches the third-person reference; of course, Xerxes is referring to Haman himself. So in his response, he pulls back the curtain on his personal ambitions: wear the king’s robes and crown, ride the king’s horse in a one-man parade, and have one of the most noble officials cry his praises. Xerxes loves the idea and tells Haman to do all of that… for Mordecai.

That scene drips with irony for us, but it was brutal for Haman. He runs home to his wife, mourning and covering his head. She gently points out that Haman has pitted himself against one of God’s people and “will surely fall before him.” Sure enough, everything collapses for him in a day. Haman’s ambition leads to great success for a time, but it shows us some warning signs and ideas that align perfectly with Erica’s comment.

1. Forgive unconditionally. Holding onto perceived slights will literally destroy you. Envy and bitterness ends up holding you captive. It feeds the addiction that may linger at the root of ambition. It blinds Haman and leads him to irrational hatred and genocide. If you peel back the layers, what motivation do you find for your ambition?

This one is very personal for me; it’s taken me years to let go of a comment from a supervisor that fueled my drive for success. I used it as motivation, taking steps for years in a misguided attempt to prove myself to someone who had long forgotten the slight. I recently had an interaction that cast light on that situation and discovered that I have fully forgiven.

2. Altruism. I had to look this one up. Dictionary.com says altruism is “unselfish concern for the welfare of others.” Reference.com adds that altruism goes beyond charity in that it “suggests that the gift may actually cause some harm to the giver.” So to put sacrificial giving in the context of ambition, it means to intentionally sacrifice your own ability to advance in order to push someone else forward. Haman’s altruism was forced on him, but what if he had chosen it? Could he have been saved?

Could an ambitious person deliberately choose altruism? What would happen if he did? I think Henri Neuwen did that. The Henri Nouwen Society tells us of his early years:

He developed quickly into an energetic and enterprising young man who always wanted to assume leadership. Later, his father would say of him that he was very intense and would often ‘flare up’ if his leadership was not recognised.

At age 42, he became a tenured professor at Yale but couldn’t shake his restlessness. He sought another line of ministry in Bolivia but wrote there, “Slowly and painfully, I discovered that my spiritual ambitions were different from God’s will for me.” Comparing thoughts from a number of resources, it seems he became increasingly uncomfortable with the way his desires were being fed. Not only was he struggling with ambition, but some posit that he had a lifelong struggle with homosexual desire. So he walked away. He moved to Toronto and joined the L’Arche community, where he poured his life into the disabled.

3. Pursue opportunities for anonymous generosity. Wikipedia says of altruism that,

Pure altruism consists of sacrificing something for someone other than the self… with no expectation of any compensation or benefits, either direct, or indirect (e.g., receiving recognition for the act of giving).

I agree with Wikipedia that pure altruism is probably not attainable. The closest you can get is to assure complete anonymity in your sacrifice, to intentionally remove the ability to receive recognition. The regular practice of anonymously serving, giving and praising others erodes your desire to build a kingdom for yourself. It won’t take that sin away; there’s a heart issue that needs to be dealt with. But at the least, that drive for success can be redirected towards others. The joy in advancing others can be just as addictive, and far more healthy.

4. Delight in others’ well-being. I have always had a strong sense of ambition. What do you do when your name means “king,” you’re identified as a leader in grade 2, and you’ve always been the youngest at any job you’ve ever put your hand to? For me, my sense of ambition was tempered by a huge gift: At age 37, I was asked to give direction to Wycliffe USA’s leadership development efforts. In other words, I was given a job that required me to expend effort to help others be successful. That meant I rejoiced when I participated in a process that led to the selection of a 40-year-old Latino to the Board, and I rejoiced when a 30-year-old friend of mine became the youngest vice president in Wycliffe USA’s history. On a number of occasions, I had to deal with feelings of jealousy and competition. It was wonderful therapy for me.

5. Studiously avoid taking credit. This is the principle of the window and the mirror: when things go right, think of a window and all the people who contributed to make the initiative successful; when things go wrong, think of a mirror, pointing back at you alone. It’s a discipline I work hard at. Years ago, I set a goal to never make excuses, but to own my mistakes. Then my father-in-law taught me to avoid using singular pronouns in talking about plans and successes. Use “we” as much as possible, and “I” as little as possible. My view has recently been transformed by doing a study through the Old Testament on the phrase, “the Lord was with him.” As I look back on my life, it’s clear that the Lord has been with me and made me successful in some areas where I had no right to be. I often say that it’s God’s sense of humour that He put a graphic designer in charge of a Bible translation organization. There’s very little success that I can claim any credit for. Of course, saying it is one thing. Believing it is another.

Over the last two months, I’ve enjoyed a sermon series on Esther by Mark Driscoll. I borrowed heavily on his thoughts in unpacking Haman’s story. So let me wrap up with some points he made about ambition.

Ultimately, ambition is about seeking glory. The question is, whose glory are you seeking? Most of my points in this post refer to redirecting glory to others. But the only one truly deserving of glory is the King of kings, the Lord of Lords and the President of Presidents. As we seek God’s glory, as we seek to expand His kingdom, as we delight in Him, He redeems our broken, twisted desires and satisfies our hungry souls.

So my conclusion is not to suppress your ambition. Why not seek to do everything you can to bring someone else glory?

Historically, the topic that has generated the most interest on this site is ambition. There simply are more people struggling with ambition than people writing about it. So I want to discuss ideas for combating ambition. I’ll get practical in my next post, but let’s start with a broader philosophical foundation. What I’m building toward is the provocative idea:

What if the antidote to ambition is ambition?

Have you ever noticed that the areas where you are specifically prone to weakness, temptation or sin correspond well to your strengths? Or, to put it another way, your strengths are the same areas where you’re often tempted to sin? Aristotle noticed the connection and attempted to explain it by describing a virtue as a mean between two vices. In other words, an excess or a deficiency in the core traits behind any virtue leads to vice.

I prefer another way of looking at it: our strengths correspond to our idols. We are created with certain strengths, desires, quirks of personality and weaknesses. Add to that our experiences and our spiritual gifts to make up who we are as adults who seek to follow Christ. But we know we live in a broken world where perfection is unachievable, and we have an enemy who constantly seeks our destruction. Satan’s greatest goal is to see us either bury our strengths or to make our desires and strengths ultimate. We call the latter idolatry, when anything takes the place of God in our lives. As C.S. Lewis illustrates in his classic, The Screwtape Letters, Satan attempts to twist every positive attribute into something sinful. His tactics are more about confusing and corrupting good desires and strengths than about overt temptation. (See more on The ugly side of strengths)

All of that is background for why we can’t battle back with sin management or suppression. So what is the appropriate response? I don’t think it’s helpful to consider opposites, because if areas of sin correspond to areas of strength, then to attempt to fight with an opposite would require us to work in our area of weakness. For example, if your area of struggle is fear, it simply doesn’t make sense to screw up your courage; if you weren’t missing courage, you wouldn’t be struggling in the first place. In addition, opposites are often surprisingly difficult to identify. A friend recently pointed out that the opposite of love is not hate; it’s apathy. His reasoning? Because hate and love both require passion. But apathy is the absence of passion. At least the person who hates cares about you in some way.

Instead, I think a better metaphor comes from the medical profession: an accurate diagnosis leads to a correct prescription of the appropriate medicine. Let’s look at a couple of examples of how we can apply this methodology to areas of sin and weakness.

In Leading with a Limp, Dan Allender discusses the difficulties of narcissism. Leaders with a bent toward a strong ego and self-centeredness will have lifelong struggles with the positive reinforcement of success or adulation. The solution isn’t to attempt to control those behaviours, suppress those feelings or hide the sin. Instead, Allender says a better way to combat narcissism is with gratefulness. Narcissistic leaders need to focus on others and what God has given them, constantly finding ways to celebrate and appreciate how others have participated in their success.

What about the elusive quality of humility? After all, if you pursue humility, you can’t obtain it. If you think you have achieved it, you haven’t. Allender says that the only way to attain humility is through humiliation. I didn’t like that statement when I read it, and I still want to challenge it, but I can’t shake the ring of truth in his statement. Ask anyone on the street who the most humble person in recent memory was, and they’ll say Mother Theresa. But how did she attain such incredible humility? She pursued opportunities to be regularly humiliated. How’s that for a strategy?

So here’s the bad news: seeking to quell ambition is probably just as futile as pursuing humility. So maybe quelling it is not the answer.

Here’s an unpopular idea for a New Years Resolution: resolve to do nothing in 2011.

That’s not the same as resolving not to make a resolution. My general pattern is to avoid them, as so many resolutions fall by the wayside before January expires, let alone survive the whole year. Rather, I’m proposing you resolve to be intentional about doing nothing. Let me explain.

There are two great Scriptures I’ve been chewing on in 2010. Both talk about the virtues of doing nothing. First, the words of Christ:

“I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.”

Last October, Paul McKaughan of The Mission Exchange dusted off John 15:5 in his devotional thoughts at a conference in St. Louis. He reminded us that the verse doesn’t say that we will only produce some fruit. It doesn’t say we won’t be able to do much. It says we can do nothing. I want to have a productive, effective 2011. So I resolve to remain, to abide, in Christ.

After Moses brings the two tablets down from Mount Sinai to find all Israel worshiping a golden calf, he’s not the only one who is angry. In Exodus 33, God tells them he won’t travel with them on their journey, lest he destroy them. Moses pushes back: “If you don’t personally go with us, don’t make us leave this place.” I’d rather dwell with Christ where he is than try to go anywhere or do anything in 2011. Even better if I can join him where’s he’s at work.

Secondly, in Philippians 2:3,4 Paul admonishes:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

The point isn’t that I hold back from ambitious acts. The kingdom of God and his glory are of too much value to hold back. What it’s saying is that if my motives are bad, God would rather I do nothing. The HOW is important. So I need to clothe myself in humility, seeking others’ interests in a way that shows I value them over myself and over my plans. That is the way we advance God’s kingdom — by doing his work his way.

I have high hopes for 2011. We’ll see if I can carry out this resolution past January.

Books I’ve read this quarter:

  • Rescuing Ambition, by Dave Harvey
  • Start with Why, by Simon Sinek
  • Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint, by Christopher Witt
  • The Return of the King, by J.R. Tolkien (to my boys)

I’m currently reading:

  • Topgrading, by Brad Smart
  • Servant Empowered Leadership, by Don Page
  • Radical, by David Platt

On my nightstand to read next:

  • Many Colors, by Soong-Chan Rah
  • What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, by Marshall Goldsmith
  • The Mentor Leader, by Tony Dungy
  • First Break All the Rules, by Marcus Buckingham
  • A Sense of Urgency, by John Kotter

A friend recently told me he had a voucher for a free book at Amazon. “Which book would you recommend?” Great question. I’ve been posting my reading list for a year now, so let me go back and give my top 5 books for this year.

  • Leading Across Cultures: Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church, by James E. Plueddemann
  • Leading with a Limp, by Dan Allender
  • Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath
  • Start with Why, by Simon Sinek
  • The Leadership Jump, by Jimmy Long

So if you can only pick one and you work in a cross-cultural ministry setting, Plueddemann’s the one to read. For leadership in general, it’s Allender. And for leading change, it’s the Heath brothers. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.