My last two posts were largely about leading with integrity as a believer, with the subtext being that Joseph is a religious minority, an exile living within a foreign culture, where integrity might be defined or practiced differently. It’s easy to second guess some of his decisions, seeing the consequences: the currency collapsed, the people of Egypt enslaved, and the foundations for inequality laid.

Before we move on, then, it’s worthwhile reflecting again on second chair leadership. How many of these decisions were Joseph’s and how many were Pharaoh’s, governing through Joseph? After all, in modern day government, the power of a prime minister to set government policy can vary widely. Think of the difference between a prime minister in Russia and Turkey versus Britain and Canada. Which model is closest to Joseph’s context? Genesis 41:40-44 and 55 suggest a hands-off delegation approach that left decisions very much in Joseph’s hands—with Pharaoh ruling as Potiphar and the prison warden had done, paying “no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge” (Gen 39:23). If Pharaoh is as unengaged as it would appear, then Joseph has a lot to answer for.

But I recently read a different perspective from Walter Brueggemann in his essay, The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity.

Pharaoh gets organized to administer, control and monopolize the food supply. Pharaoh introduces the principle of scarcity into the world economy. For the first time in the Bible, someone says, “There’s not enough. Let’s get everything”…. Because Pharaoh, like Hitler after him, is afraid that there aren’t enough good things to go around, he must try to have them all. Because he is fearful, he is ruthless. Pharaoh hires Joseph to manage the monopoly. When the crops fail and the peasants run out of food, they come to Joseph. And on behalf of Pharaoh, Joseph says, “What’s your collateral?” They give up their land for food, and then, the next year, they give up their cattle. By the third year of the famine they have no collateral but themselves.

As a second chair leader, Joseph may have had constant pressure from above—either in the form of an autocratic dictator or an occasional micromanager, swooping in from time to time to impose his will. Either style of leadership would relegate Joseph’s role to a position not far removed from slavery, albeit with a higher standard of living.

These are the challenges of second chair leadership. First, how do you lead upwards to help craft policy and strategy? Likewise, as a believer in a hostile or pagan setting, how do you help influence for good? And second, how do you lead when the vision or the decision is not yours? Let’s look at the first idea, using Joseph’s experience as a lens.

An influence for good
The crux of second chair leadership is to be loyal followers and co-leaders in the mission. Ultimately, all leaders have a responsibility to the organization, city, nation or supervisor they report under. Many centuries later, when God sends his people into exile in Babylon, he tells Jeremiah that he intends them to be loyal, even to make it their mission to help that nation succeed, “because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer 29:7). This verse applies to those of us who operate as believers in places where our values are foreign, and we can have an influence. Our perspective changes when we understand that we have been sent. As we seek the good of the organization, business or state we work for, God may well bless those we work with because we are there, as he did with Potiphar for Joseph’s sake (Gen 39:5). Now, as Pharaoh prospers, Joseph clearly prospers, and God’s people then prosper.

But what about decisions that Joseph disagrees with? Does Joseph have sufficient standing to try to stem the tide and stand in Pharaoh’s way? Would that work? Joseph likely would find himself on the outside looking in. This is a very real challenge for many believers who work for autocratic leaders. As long as they agree with their boss, they can continue to have influence. But do they really have a voice when the moment they make a stand, they could very quickly become cut off and vilified? Where should they draw the line? Make a stand too early, and they lose all their influence. Make it too late, and after a series of compromises, they might not recognize themselves anymore.

Living as an exile is an art and sometimes a dance, and this point is not simply relevant to believers who work in a hostile marketplace. Pastors in Canada and leaders of Christian organizations must also learn when to speak out and when to live to see another fight. As Jesus warned the first domestic missionaries, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16).

The neck that turns the head
In the film, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” the bride’s mother shares the secret of second chair leadership. In a culture where the man is clearly in charge, the bride-to-be despairs of changing her father’s mind. Her mother confides in her,

The man may be the head of the household. But the woman is the neck, and she can turn the head whichever way she pleases.

How does Joseph use his influence? The dynamics of Pharaoh’s relationship with Joseph are not overt. We are given two glimpses. First, we know that Joseph was selected because he had wisdom Pharaoh needed, and that discernment would be ongoing because he had the spirit of God in him (Gen 41:38-39).

Second, on one occasion we see how Joseph steers Pharaoh. Joseph has made his boss very wealthy without asking for much in return. So when his brothers come with their flocks, Pharaoh is pleased to offer the best of the land. That’s when Joseph suggests the land of Goshen, the prime grazing land where Pharaoh keeps his own livestock. And he advises his brothers to emphasize their experience with cattle as well as sheep, knowing that shepherds are abomination to the Egyptians (Gen 46:34-35).

Turning the head is an art with the potential to backfire, because it constantly flirts with manipulation. It reminds me of the humorous British TV show called, “Yes Minister,” which explores the ways members of the British civil service carefully drive the direction of the cabinet minister in the direction they want him to go, all the while saying, “Yes, Minister.”

A wise husband or a wise first chair leader will surround himself with smart and competent co-leaders and rely on them to not simply agree with him, but expect them to influence decisions. But too many leaders fail to do that. In my next post, I’ll examine the idea of leading under authority.

Joseph series:

I love Steven Sample’s The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. He points out that while the conventional view of leaders is that they’re decisive and bold, most situations don’t necessarily call for snap decisions. Instead, he offers two rules for decision making:

1. Never make a decision yourself that can reasonably be delegated to a lieutenant.

So the first question he proposes that a leader ask is whether he’s the one to make the decision. A colleague of mine often reminds me that budget decisions are better made by the local manager. That’s true for more than just budgets, and it’s a good reminder to figure out who is best-qualified to make a decision. But I believe Sample is going a step further with his contrarian advice. He’s saying that a leader should deliberately delegate a decision he has the right to make as an act of empowerment to his team. Of course, he qualifies it by saying “reasonably,” but he’s talking about a bent, a tendency to defer on decisions whenever possible.

When all decisions have to pass through the top, we generally refer to that style of leadership as “autocratic.” But not all autocrats are despots. In Servant Empowered Leadership, Don Page says there’s a subsidiary of the autocratic model that he calls the “benevolent dictator.” These paternalistic leaders thrive in Christian organizations.

In its simplest form, it means that the leader alone knows what is best for the organization, either because of their direct connection to God or because of their superior God-given abilities.

Ouch. I know a few of these… in other organizations, of course. I pray that if I ever take that viewpoint, I’ll have given someone enough room at some more sane point in my tenure to be able to call me out on it. Far better to empower your managers at every level to make decisions. And to consciously push a decision down to build the capacity of your team.