Joseph: Leading in crisis

In my last post we saw how Joseph began to fulfill his own promise as a leader. He also began to fulfill the promise that was made to him in chapter 37. Just as he had seen his sheaf of grain raised upright so many years before, Joseph has been promoted. He equits himself well in his first seven years, but they were the easy years, the times when leadership is a joy.

Then comes the famine. While individuals and nations quickly experience shortage, Egypt and Joseph himself have bread as a result of good planning.

There are a number of ways to view Joseph’s plan over the next seven years, and some economists are quite critical. It is informative to view his actions from a modern lens, but it is also perilous because we can only judge by the details the narrator provides us. So much of the data that impacted Joseph’s calculations has been lost to history. A full debrief simply isn’t possible. We’ll focus instead on the leadership aspects, acknowledging that leadership often involves making the best guess possible in the moment with the information, experience and guidance we have and then moving forward, whether it was the right decision or not. Historians and leadership students will have centuries to second-guess our decisions.

Let’s look at how Joseph leads in times of adversity.

1. He is a loyal servant to Pharaoh
Yes, Joseph uses the crisis to increase Pharaoh’s wealth beyond imagination and consolidate Pharaoh’s power. By Genesis 47:20-21, Pharaoh will own ALL of the land and the people of Egypt. Joseph allows the people to sell their land and enter into servitude (Theology of Work). He also takes the wealth of all surrounding countries (Gen 41:57) and likely leverages their dependency to Pharaoh’s advantage. This loyalty does not go unnoticed; he’s in Pharaoh’s debt when he finally calls in a favour.

2. He empowers the needy by requiring payment
Joseph uses an economic philosophy of empowerment, as seen in the way he treats the Egyptians. Dr. Leong Tien Fock puts it this way:

Instead of distributing the grain as “free handouts,” he made the people buy it. And when their money ran out, they had to give their livestock, and finally even themselves and their land, in exchange for grain…. What Joseph did was apply an economic principle implied in Old Testament laws, that is, free or unconditional handouts can do more harm than good (cf. Payne 1998). For instance, farmers were forbidden to harvest the corners of their field so that the needy could come and glean and thus support themselves (Leviticus 19:9-10). It was not a free handout as they had to work with their hands. What this means is that there must be room in an economy to empower the needy who are able-bodied to support themselves (cf. Carlson-Thies 1999: 474-76). Cases like one-off handouts to people who have just suffered a calamity are not the same as giving on-going handouts to people who can work.

3. He rearranges the fabric of society
Joseph intentionally holds the money back, keeping it from being re-circulated into the local economy. Some have criticized this move, saying it is nothing short of intentional, government-sponsored deflation in the midst of a natural calamity. Eventually the money collapses (Gen 47:14-15). Surely Joseph’s lessons in economics as he ran an estate didn’t prepare him for economics at this scale, and he doesn’t have the benefit of sophisticated study in the field that we do, or the long list of economic case studies available to economics students today. Does Joseph know what he is doing? Does he realize the full impact? As Carl Teichrib points out, Joseph ends up consolidating property under the state, and the citizens literally become slaves in their own country (Gen 47:20-21). Genesis 47:26 says Joseph creates lasting statutes in Egypt out of this time of scarcity.

4. He does not take advantage of the people’s powerlessness
“Was Joseph being tyrannical in thus “enslaving” the Egyptians?” asks Dr. Tien Fock. Certainly Pharaoh gives Joseph enormous latitude in dealing with the crisis.

To understand a narrative we are dependent on the narrator. In the first part of the narrative, he portrays Joseph as a God-fearing man. And he tells us that the Egyptians themselves asked to be “slaves of Pharaoh” (Genesis 47:19). Also, in Genesis 47:25 he tells us that they “do not regard Joseph as a tyrant but as a savior” (Waltke 2001: 591). In view of possible famines, this economic reform was actually beneficial to them, “for now their food supply was Pharaoh’s responsibility” (Wenham 1994: 449). (Tien Fock)

The evidence is that he does not change the tax rate. After buying all the people of Egypt, he keeps the tax rate at 20% (Gen 47:24). Dr. Leong Tien Fock says, “the beneficial economic reform required a “corporate tax” of just 20%, which was low compared to the average of more than 33% in that part of the ancient world (Waltke 2001: 591).” Then Joseph provides the people with seed to sow on the land they now work as tenants or sharecroppers. The result is that he keeps many people alive (Gen 50:20).

As he does this, he provides for two distinct religious groups. First, the land of the priests remains their own, and Joseph administrates distribution of a fixed allowance. Second, he provides for his family (Gen 47:12, 50:21), setting apart the land of Goshen in the land of Rameses, the prime grazing land which Pharaoh describes as “the best of the land of Egypt” and “the fat of the land” (Gen 45:18). This is a great example of religious freedom; a God-follower in a political office fights to protect both the pagan religious figures and the Hebrew God-followers.

5. On the other hand, he creates clear advantages for Israel
While Egypt struggles, the people of Israel thrive. While all Egypt steadily moves into poverty and slavery, the Israelites have rising employment as they keep the royal livestock—which eventually includes all the herds of Egypt (Gen 47:6,18). Israel “acquired property there and were fruitful and increased greatly in number” (Gen 47:27). Here God begins to make them “into a great nation” (Gen 46:3).

However, there’s foreshadowing in this summary from the psalmist: “The Lord made his people very fruitful; he made them too numerous for their foes” (Ps 105:24-25). In fostering such disparity, Joseph creates the foundation for the future oppression depicted in Exodus 1, when a new Pharaoh arises who fears the power of this nation living within his nation. God turned their hearts “to hate his people, to conspire against his servants.” (Ps 105:25).

To build a nation, or to build a leader, God uses both times of abundance and favour, and times of trial and oppression. The mix of hot and cold, good and bad, forge a character and an identity that God can use to accomplish his purposes. Joseph has emerged from his period of trial and thrives in his new period of influence. He wants to forget all his father’s house (Gen 41:51). But now they will all come spilling back into his life. They will provide the perfect contrast to see the work God has done in Joseph.


Joseph series:

Top 20 leadership movies (that I’ve seen)

I’ve been chewing on the lengthy list of leadership movies that were recommended in the comments and responses to my last blog post. As a result, I’m pulling together a series of blog posts on top leadership movies. There’s no shortage of lists, so I’m not sure mine has much to add to the noise, but it was a fun exercise.

Here are the factors I used when I ranked the following movies that I’ve seen and recommend:

  • My standard is leadership where others could have stepped up but didn’t. That’s the main factor to bump movies to the top of my list.
  • Unexpected, non-positional leadership.
  • A complex portrayal of leadership that shows it’s not as easy as it looks.
  • Resourcefulness and perseverance in the face of difficulty.
  • Portrayal of leadership at multiple levels.
  • A well-told story. I used Rotten Tomatoes ratings as my standard.

So, here they are, the top leadership movies I’ve seen:

1. Invictus – The convergence in the leadership styles, roles and methods of two leaders. The impact of that rugby team on a nation came from the collaboration between Mandela and Pienaar, the rugby captain. In addition, there are contrasts with other leaders: de Klerk, the jailers and Mandela’s security forces. Interestingly, the coaching staff don’t really feature in this sports movie. See my more complete commentary here.

2. Amazing Grace – Two leaders with very different styles, roles and methods. Everyone focuses on William Wilberforce, but after watching this one I had to pick up a biography on William Pitt. Other leadership influences show up in the abolitionists, John Newton, Wilberforce’s wife and opposition leadership.

3. Lincoln – An interesting portrayal of situational leadership as Lincoln tries to gain support for the 13th Amendment. One of the most interesting angles is the various members of congress struggling to summon courage. And a fascinating portrayal of Lincoln’s need to lead his family. Read more of my thoughts here.

4. Shawshank Redemption – While one of my favourite movies, I didn’t think of it as a leadership movie until someone made a comment on my blog post. Dufresne is an extremely unassuming man who ends up leading fellow inmates and influencing a lot of people with titles and authority.

5. Braveheart – I almost didn’t want this one to rank so highly, but it really does wrestle with leadership issues, especially between William Wallace, who practically begs others to step up and lead. There are lots of contrasting leadership styles, including the king, the king’s son, the nobles and the magistrate who tortures him.

6. Hoosiers – An unconventional leader, an impossible challenge and lots of setbacks make this a great story. In the genre of coaching—where leadership is expressed primarily through drawing out potential and influencing a team to do something it didn’t believe it could do—this movie is at the top.

7. Captain Philips – A ship captain with huge expertise in one area finds himself thrust into areas of weakness and tapping into unknown leadership ability. He goes toe-to-toe with a young, hungry, adaptive Somali leader who makes the most of limited resources and takes on a Goliath.

8. The Queen – A more recent retelling of the Madness of King George, this movie details a prime minister who must guide the monarch through a major crisis. Unlike the other movie, this story portrays leadership by the monarch and the PM and her next-in-line. She listens to advice and manages to avert disaster with decisive leadership.

9. Apollo 13 – Leadership is demonstrated at multiple levels in this story, from the flight commander to the grounded astronaut in the simulator who swallows his disappointment. But it’s the flight director who keeps everyone inspired, on mission and committed to not giving up. He adjusts his leadership style to meet the crisis.

10. The Hunger Games – I’m thinking of the body of work: the three books and the two movies released so far. A young lady who is simply struggling to survive finds herself with a boatload of followers and has to learn how to lead a movement she never asked to lead.

11. The Madness of King George – What happens when a positional leader is sidelined while a potential usurper waits in the shadows? That’s the challenge of prime minister William Pitt, who has to find a way to manage the crisis, hold off the coups and lead upward.

12. Courage Under Fire – One moment of courageous leadership by an unlikely leader is blurred by others who try to twist it for their own purposes or even bury it. The way the story is told is innovative, though it all boils down to one moment of leadership when I wish we’d been able to get more of a glimpse of what Meg Ryan’s character was thinking and feeling.

13. To Kill a Mockingbird – A lawyer takes a stand to fight for his convictions and a minority, despite huge obstacles and cultural pressure. He manages to lead those he advocates for and he models new behaviour to a mob of whites, but his greatest leadership is to his family.

14. Moneyball – A new leader, facing an impossible challenge, finds a trick to even the playing field and in doing so, reinvents the entire game. He has to persevere through enormous pressure from the system. One of his most courageous decisions was to show loyalty rather than take the high-paying, high-power role offered him at the end.

15. Erin Brockovich – A “nobody” with courage, perseverance and principles puts in the hard work, taking on a Goliath and winning. No doubt she’s a hero, but leadership is influencing others. Perhaps her greatest feat in leadership is leading upward. While her boss has the title, she sets the direction for the law firm.

16. Amistad – There’s huge potential for leadership lessons in an opportunistic slave who starts a revolt and then has to learn how to overcome huge obstacles to get his followers back to Africa. Unfortunately, the story is ultimately told about a lawyer and a former president who have to figure out how to communicate with and for them. So I found the leadership lessons diffused.

17. Elizabeth: Golden Age – This was a story of one of history’s most powerful women facing incredibly-difficult challenges. I could have moved it higher, but I temper this one with the fact I haven’t seen the first movie with Cate Blanchett, and I hear it’s better.

18. Thirteen Days – The story of the Cuban Missile Crisis is an excellent portrayal of the complexities of leadership when everything is on the line. From fiery generals used to getting their own way to cabinet secretaries who have to carry the leader’s vision to a president who needs to know which voices to listen to, this movie drops you into the agony of decision-making when there is no good decision.

19. The Iron Lady – An interesting delivery of the story of a woman who stepped up to give leadership when no one in her male-dominated world was willing to. She courageously made and stuck with decisions, knowing full well the consequences and lack of support she’d get. It’s a bittersweet movie because it shows the insignificant retirement of an enormously successful public servant.

20. Remember the Titans – Another great coaching movie, with lots of overtones and cultural ramifications. It shows how great leadership and sports success can bring people together like nothing else. Continue reading

He set his face

A few weeks ago, a little phrase from Luke 9:51 (ESV) jumped out at me, and I’ve been reflecting on it this Easter week:

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.

Jesus set his face, resolutely determined to go to Jerusalem. Of course, this was no vacation trip he was planning. He spoke often to his disciples in those days about how the Son of Man was going to be lifted up, the shepherd was going to be struck down and the Son of Man betrayed into the hands of sinners. He fully knew the pain and sacrifice that was going to be required of him; he’d known it since he came to earth. But as the moment grew closer, both his anxiety and his courage grew. Later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the moment close at hand, Matthew described Jesus as anguished and distressed, his soul crushed with grief to the point of death.

In that moment, I see the distinct humanness of Jesus. As Hebrews says, he was tempted in all ways as we are. Can’t you relate to a moment like that? Perhaps not to the same degree, but a time when you absolutely dreaded what you were going to have to do? As the moment grows close, your steps get heavy, your breathing laboured as if you’re carrying a huge weight. At some point, you face a moment of decision. Will you shrink from your responsibility or set your face and move forward?

I remember the first time I needed to speak in public. I was a grade 4 student in Atlanta, and we were in the middle of a mock election. As campaign chair for a candidate, I had to give a speech to a group of students. I dreaded that thought. If I absolutely had to, I resolved to only do it in front of people I knew. Instead, I was selected to speak to a group of students in another class. I remember waiting in a little room between the classrooms, balling because I didn’t want to do it and looking desperately for someone else to appeal to. Embarrassed by my tears. Wanting to quit. Finally I screwed up my courage and summoned enough resolve to do it. It seems funny now, given the role I’m in today, but I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had run away from that decision point.

I’ve never faced a situation bad enough to create a physiological reaction like sweating blood, but in some small way, I can relate to Jesus’ Gethsemane moment. It’s worth looking at how he approached it.

First, he begged God for a way out, three times. I don’t think it’s wrong to ask if there can be some other way. The point is that Jesus didn’t go in the direction of defiance and refusal. When I face a difficult decision or task, I find incredible strength in sharing it with God, even if my prayers are repetitive or lack words.

Second, he sought companionship. Though he knew they would soon abandon him, he brought his closest friends along to pray with him. Like the disciples, our friends may not be able to relate to our crisis, but even having them near is some level of comfort. I often think of Job’s friends in moments like that. To their huge credit, they got together and sat with him during his misery. Seven days they sat in silence. The only mistake they made was in opening their mouths.

Then Jesus surrendered to a greater authority. He knew he’d been heard, and he gave himself up to the greater plan. Having made his decision, he didn’t shrink or pull back from it; he turned to face it. I love the way he collected himself, pulled his disciples to their feet and faced his betrayer. “The time has come,” he said. No longer did he have any doubt about what he needed to do. He found tremendous courage once he got up from his knees.

Isaiah described this “Good Friday” hundreds of years before that moment (Isaiah 50:5-7 NLT):

The Sovereign Lord has spoken to me,
and I have listened.
I have not rebelled or turned away.
I offered my back to those who beat me
and my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard.
I did not hide my face
from mockery and spitting.

Because the Sovereign Lord helps me,
I will not be disgraced.
Therefore, I have set my face like a stone,
determined to do his will.
And I know that I will not be put to shame.

That’s my Saviour, Redeemer, Rescuer and Passover Lamb! And that’s my model for leadership.

Quality and quantity

You’ve probably heard the line. Parents excuse a lack of quantity time with their kids by falling back on the axiom that it can be replaced by quality time. It’s just not true, right? I believe it can be true from a team perspective.

I’ve been thinking for some time about how best to build community and trust, particularly in distributed teams. When Wycliffe USA went through a process of closing down satellite offices to integrate staff into national strategies, this was a big topic of discussion. How do you create a “virtual water cooler”? I resisted most of the easy answers like technology or social media as incomplete. They help fill in the gap, but they don’t replace an communal work setting. Almost three years later, a theory is finally coagulating for me.

Trust is developed in a team or community best either through quantity OR quality. The obvious path is through a quantity of time and common experience. Most of our friendships are built this way. Well, that same trust can be established through a single, brief, intense experience. It doesn’t happen through retreats that try to distill a quantity approach into a concentrate. Fun and interaction doesn’t build that level of trust. Meetings certainly don’t.

On the other hand, an intense experience does. Think of people who go through a crisis together. It establishes a point of reference, a set of inside stories, and a sense of accomplishment. For instance, the connection my wife and I have with neighbors who went through three hurricanes in 2004. The bond shared by Wycliffe staff who went through Jungle Camp or Pacific Orientation Course experiences when they were heading overseas in years gone by. For me, it was the 4-week interview process Wycliffe USA was using in 1997. Last week, I shared a 13-year-old inside joke via Skype with one of those fellow interviewees now living in Vanuatu.

Let me take a detour for a minute. In my experience, churches that have stagnated or are shrinking are churches who have grown inwardly-focused. It may be counterintuitive, but the way to grow is to look outside yourself. For starters, people are drawn to a mission. They’re drawn to vision. They’re drawn to a cause. The way to turn around a negative trend is not to focus entirely inward — though there may well be internal issues that need addressing — but to return to the mission you exist for. Okay, hold onto that thought.

Here’s my theory: the best way to build trust and community is through quality, and the best way to establish quality is to look outside yourself. Instead of bringing a team together to do a ropes course or play paintball, why not get your team to serve together for a day building a house with Habitat for Humanity? Instead of trying to gauge the quality of new staff by watching them in a classroom setting for four weeks, why not work alongside them? You want to build common experience? You want to build trust? You want to assess someone’s cross-cultural ability or servant heart? Spend a few days volunteering with Samaritan’s Purse in Galveston, Texas after a hurricane, sleeping on a gym floor and interacting with a dazed, hurting community.

As you look outside yourself, you might even make a difference in someone else’s life. Now, that’s quality. You’ll share that experience for decades.

The petrie dish for innovation

Times of crisis reveal what is and isn’t working. These are the times when obsolete and dysfunctional systems and practices collapse or fall by the wayside. They are the times when the seeds of innovation and invention, of creativity and entrepreneurship, burst into full flower, enabling recovery by remaking both the economy and society.

In The Great Reset, Richard Florida goes on to point out that the greatest periods of innovation in U.S. history were the 1870s and the 1930s. Those two depressions were marked by huge spikes in research for patents and technological progress. Florida says that depressions create a reset for society, acting like a forest fire to clear out the old growth and make room for the new.

Want to read more? Steve Moore, president of The Mission Exchange has written a fascinating case statement based on his reading, research and intuition about the future. It’s the basis for this post and for the upcoming North American Mission Leaders Conference in Arizona.

In a recent post, I referred to Hizb’allah, the terrorist group that Joshua Cooper Ramo characterizes as the most innovative organization in the world. Constant pressure and hardship has resulted in incredible inventions such as the Improvised Explosive Device that, for as little five dollars, can paralyze the lavishly-funded military of the United States. That example leads me to wonder where else we should see innovation thriving. On a political level, I would think the Israeli military would be one place. The persecuted church should be another. Constant threat leads to either innovation or death.

From a historical perspective, I have great optimism for the next few years. World missions needs a reset, and I think it’s happening. The next couple of years should stand out as a period of incredible breakthroughs in strategies, technology, partnerships and ideation. Breakthroughs will happen, many of them outside the world of mission agencies. The question is which organizations will be best positioned to take advantage or to ride the wave? No doubt many who take advantage are not in existence today. But will older organizations make the leap? I suggest the difference in organizations that make the adjustments and organizations that dig in their heels to try to hold onto the past is leadership.

Let me close by quoting Steve Moore’s conclusion:

We need a fresh wave of Spirit empowered entrepreneurial risk takers and mission pioneers who lean in to what God is doing in the midst of turbulent times, seizing what may prove to be unprecendented windows of opportunity that come with a Great Reset moment.

I’m getting excited. How about you?

Who are the leaders of the future?

While wrapping up Brad Smart’s book Topgrading, I launched into the first chapters of The Age of the Unthinkable, by Joshua Cooper Ramo. Both have me thinking about what characteristics to look for in the leaders of tomorrow. Predicting leadership characteristics in a broad view is easier than predicting for any one position, because the requirements for a particular position at a particular point in time are extremely difficult to predict. Organizational priorities and opportunities might require a successor to look very different from his predecessor.

Ramo doesn’t answer the question directly, but he does offer a suggested resume for someone pursuing a career in foreign policy. There are leadership implications in this list:

  • Should be able to speak and think in revolutionary terms
  • Should have an expertise in some area of the world — be it China or the Internet or bioengineering — where fast change and unpredictability are the dominant facts of life
  • Should have experienced the unforgiving demands for precision and care that characterize real negotiation
  • Likewise, should have experienced the magical effect of risk-taking at the right moments
  • Should have mastered the essential skill of the next fifty years: crisis management
  • Should be inclined toward action, even action at times without too much reflection, since at certain moments instinct and speed are more important than the lovely perfection of academic models
  • Most of all, however, we need policy makers and thinkers who have that revolutionary feel for the inescapable demands of innovation. We need early adopters…

Smart meanwhile talks a lot of about the competencies most desirable in “A players.” Number one on his list:

Resourcefulness refers to your ability to passionately figure things out, like how to surmount barriers… It is a composite of many [competencies]: Intelligence, Analysis Skills, Creativity, Pragmatism, Risk Taking, Initiative, Organization/Planning, Independence, Adaptability, Change Leadership, Energy, Passion, and Tenacity.

No wonder Smart refers to it as “the megacompetency.” Do you see the overlap with Ramo’s list? In an era of epic change, the leaders of the future will be resourceful, instinctive and action-oriented revolutionaries, risk-takers and innovators. This goes back to a previous point I’ve made that academic institutions and MBA programs have been training people for a reality that doesn’t exist anymore. There are few existing models for the world these leaders will face. So, perhaps we should add one more to the list: Critical Thinking skills. They need to be able to think on their feet.

Understanding the times

This is one of my favorite leadership qualities. In times of vast discontinuous change, leaders who understand the times are as rare as they are valuable.

In the Old Testament, there are two references to people who understood the times (Esther 1:13, I Chron 12:32). All kings seem to have surrounded themselves with men who understood the times and knew the direction the king should go. Kings had an uneasy relationship with these “wise men,” sometimes choosing to follow their advice and sometimes going their own way. For instance, Solomon’s son Rehoboam.

I want to pick an earlier and more familiar example, however. Everyone remembers the story of Joseph, a young man who was sold into slavery by his brothers. After some fruitful years as a slave in Egypt, managing the household of his master efficiently, he’s railroaded and thrown in prison. Even there, God’s hand is on him, and he thrives, taking on responsibility. One day his opportunity for redemption finally comes in the form of a dream by the king. God gives him the ability to understand the meaning of the dream and to come up with a plan that will rescue Egypt, preserve Israel and make his boss really wealthy.

Joseph certainly understands the times. He knows there will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of severe drought. He deploys his plan with efficiency and discipline. When the task of stockpiling gets too difficult, he doesn’t give up on collecting food; he gives up on counting. So, when the seven years of plenty end, Egypt and Joseph are in good shape. That’s where the story gets interesting.

Two years into the drought, everyone else’s worst-case scenarios have expired.

  • Genesis 45:6 says the famine has reached a critical stage for Joseph’s Canaan-based family by year two of the drought.
  • 47:17-20 records how Joseph bought all of the property of Egypt and Canaan with the grain he’d collected.
  • By 47:21, he owns all the people. He can then dictate terms under a rollover contract that lasts long after the famine ends.

But here’s the thing that caught my attention. In the years of plenty, no one but Joseph saw the drought ahead. Anyone who did plan ahead saved up a couple of years worth to get them through what would surely be a short-term decline. Joseph’s value came in his God-given ability to understand the times and know what to do.

Is there anyone who understands the times today? We have no context for the changes we’re going through. A global financial crisis has never happened before, so all the previous models just don’t apply. It’s obvious that old guidelines don’t cut it in 10%+ unemployment, unheard-of foreclosure rates and frozen credit. Eddie Gibbs, in Leadership Next: Changing Leaders in a Changing Culture, says:

It is evident in rapidly changing times that knowledge does not necessarily flow from experience. Yesterday’s solutions and procedures may not provide an adequate or appropriate response to present challenges. Hence, the biggest hurdles facing long-time leaders may not be in learning new insights and skills, but in unlearning what they consider to be tried and true and what thus provides them with a false sense of security.

My response is that God is still God in good times and bad. He was still God while Joseph fumed in prison. Our brothers and sisters in the non-Western church can testify that they still have hope, joy and faith when the economy simply doesn’t rebound. I think we have a lot to learn from them, whether it’s patience in endurance or a theology of suffering. Christianity thrives in difficult times… because we realize we need God!

I suggest we learn from Joseph to be faithful and do the little things even from exile, even from prison.

I suggest we leaders seek the God who does understand the times and occasionally chooses to disclose them to those who listen.

I suggest we try our best to be ready when opportunity happens, even in the darkest situations.

And I suggest we seek to help each other out, offering our best to fellow prisoners with little hope of reward.

You never know how God might choose to use these times, because he holds today, and he holds the future.

The package

We have the idea that the top leaders in an organization have to have “the package.” They have to have well-rounded leadership ability, a lengthy track record of success at every level and a long list of desirable characteristics paired with a very short list of weaknesses. When we look for that kind of well-roundedness, I think we’re playing it safe. Leaders like those are not only hard to come by, but they don’t come with as much upside. It’s about risk management rather than seeking to make huge gains for the kingdom.

The result is that most innovations in a large organization don’t come from the top; they come from risky individuals not trusted with leadership whose ideas are embraced and supported from the top. The way to make that strategy work is to invert the pyramid and have the leaders support those ideas. I’m not saying that is a bad idea at all. But too many leaders shut down the good ideas and the radicals before they get a chance. Consider the movie Braveheart, where the leaders withheld support for William Wallace time after time until he led his own revolution.

Most organizations are founded by radicals and then stewarded by “packages.”

As Eddie Gibbs says in Leadership Next: Changing Leaders in a Changing Culture:

It is sobering to reflect that the most conservative institutions in the church today began as radical movements at their inception. Yesterday’s radical leaders become today’s conservatives who are seldom prepared to pay the high price of innovation a second time around.

What if, instead, we looked for people who couldn’t do everything, but would assemble a team around them to cover their obvious blind spots? What if we found roles for single-strength afficionados? What if we interviewed using questions focused on evidence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life and awe at what Christ has done to transform them? What if we looked for failure and loss in a candidate’s life and asked what God had done to redeem those situations? What if we looked for weaknesses through the lens of how Christ has and could show his strength?

I have to admit I’m not comfortable with this way of working. Comfort is risk-averse. I like “packages” as much as the next person. In fact, I desire to be a “package.” And I am afraid of the Holy Spirit. He’s unpredictable and too often challenges my comfort. I think to take bold action with an organization requires a crisis, a point when motivation becomes stronger than resistance or reticence. More and more, I think these are times when bold action is required.

Romans 12 – patience and prayer

12 Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying.

In crisis and trouble, the second trait a leader has to have is patience. When I think about Moses — who found his 1-2 year change process extended by 38 years — leading a bunch of grumbling sentimentalists for decades, I marvel at his patience and perseverance. The Bible only reports a couple of incidents where he let his frustation show.

Leaders have to take the long view. Crises come and crises go. One way to get past them is to take a patient view, riding out the latest challenge. I’m currently reading a biography, William Pitt the Younger. Pitt was the youngest  and second-longest-serving prime minister of England. He had things he wanted to accomplish, including abolishment of slavery alongside William Wilberforce, that got put on hold year after year as new crises came up. His perseverance through year after depressing year during the war against the French sapped his health and aged him. He never lived to see the anti-slavery cause completed, just as Moses never saw his promised land, except in their visionary dreams. Both cases show there’s something solid and unwavering in a leader that might get rocked but doesn’t give up in difficult challenges.

What was Moses’ secret? Trait #3: he prayed. When I read about Moses’ discussions with God, “prayer” seems too formal a label. He spent hours in the tent talking face to face with God — to the point that his face collected and retained some of the radiance! He climbed a mountain and spent 40 days with God. When setbacks came, he dumped on God rather than the “stiffnecks” he had responsibility for.

I wish I had that kind of deep and conversational prayer life. It’s a great way to keep your head above water. But when I begin to idolize Moses, I recall that he still didn’t put all of his burdens on God. He cracked twice in very visible ways, and the second one was serious enough an error to prevent him from leading his people into Canaan.

I love the way our text says, “keep on praying.” It’s not a one-time thing, but a daily practice. It’s the only way to maintain perspective and to acknowledge that, as talented as we think we are and as many things as we think we can control, God alone is the one who is Sovereign. That realization is at the heart of a godly leader’s perseverance, confidence and identity.

Romans 12 – vision and hope

Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying.

How does a leader maintain perspective in chaos and crisis? With everyone’s eyes on her, the leader has to keep her calm and her optimism. We expect it of our leaders. They are our barometer and our plumline. Leaders cannot panic, and they cannot show their despair. So what does she do if she fears the same things that panic her followers? She has a choice to either fake quiet confidence or find some bedrock of her own.

I want to suggest three ways to do that, inspired by Paul’s words above. I’ll cover the first one here and follow with the others. The most important thing is that a leader has to know where to find hope for herself. David penned Psalm 121 for pilgrims climbing the long, steep, dry mountainous road toward Jerusalem. He recognizes that his hope doesn’t come from the strength of mountains or the literal and figurative strength of the city Jerusalem.

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the LORD,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber…

“Our confident hope” means that the leader takes confidence in nothing but the faithfulness of God and the work of Christ. God is the one who doesn’t change, the great Creator who never sleeps. Christ is the one who took the foolish things of this world and appointed them over the wise. There’s no reason any of us should be leaders except for the fact that Jesus redeemed us from our brokenness and gave us hope.

Starting from that point means a leader can strengthen her inner core, find confidence and even rejoice in spite of chaos and crisis around her. Circumstances don’t sway someone who has a strong foundation. And setbacks don’t derail someone with a strong vision that goes beyond their organization or even their tenure in office. And a leader who doesn’t lose hope inspires those whose eyes are watching her.

Moses was one of those kinds of leaders. His foundation was firmly set on a personal relationship with God and his eyes fixed on the vision of “a land flowing with milk and honey.” Over and over, Moses’ response to adversity was to go to God for help. He spent hours with God and was transformed by the experience. He dumped his complaints before God and urged Him to defend His name. In return, God was his avenger, speaking on his behalf and even striking down some who publicly spoke against him. Moses’ help came from the Maker of heaven and earth.

I’ve just finished reading Leading With a Limp, by Dan Allender. He says hope comes most out of situations of despair and disillusionment, when a leader’s optimism and idealism “suffer a mortal injury.” When the leader realizes that she can’t do everything or that she can’t solve this one problem, she hits the wall and her own limitations become clear. That’s where the God whose “strength is made perfect in weakness” can do His best work. God alone is our hope, and we realize it most when all of our other idols are exposed. That’s the best position to lead from.

As my friend Paul Edwards said once, “We gaze at Christ and glance at the waves around us.”