Looking over your shoulder

As we continue exploring Exodus 17:8-16, I want to turn our attention to the foot of the hill and the young leader who steps into the spotlight for the first time. Joshua is designated by Moses to lead the forces of Israel in their first battle. They go on to route a larger army that is better prepared and has every advantage.

Of course, we know why he really won. My question is whether Joshua figured out the secret of his success. Could he see the three men silhouetted on the hill? Did he wonder what they were up to? Did he eventually logic out that it wasn’t whether he did anything great on his own, but whether Moses’ arms were raised? Did he have one eye on his present situation and one checking behind him to see Moses’ posture? And, in doing so, begin to work with God?

Clearly, the story doesn’t tell us. We can only guess, because so many details are left out of the story of Joshua. For a man who featured so heavily in the story of Moses, who then becomes leader of Israel for 27 years and even has a book named after him, we know surprisingly little. We don’t know if he ever married. We don’t know his back story. And we don’t know his thoughts or fears.

Knowing Joshua’s confidence level would give insight into whether he figured out his role in the successful battle that day. An overconfident leader would conclude that it was all about his great strategy—only to discover at the debrief that he had very little to do with it (v14). A leader unsure of himself would spend too much time looking over his shoulder at Moses, to see if he was doing it right and to watch Moses’ hand positions. Which one describes this young leader of 30 or 40 in his public debut?

Joshua’s back story

A leader’s confidence is so often tied to his or her back story. Great books like Dan Allender’s, Leading with a Limp, urge us to lead out of who we are, and to embrace the brokenness in us that comes from prior experiences. But what was Joshua’s back story? We simply don’t know where he was prior to Exodus 17:9.

We know he lived in Egypt. Given the role Moses offers him, there’s a good chance he had some form of military background in Egypt.

We know he participated in the first 17 1/2 chapters of Exodus. But that simply leads to more questions about how he developed his leadership aptitude.

  • Where was he among the skeptical Hebrew leaders in Egypt when Moses first showed up with a message from God (Ex 4:29-31)?
  • Where was he when the foremen complained to Moses that he had made them a stink in the sight of Pharaoh, who ended the distribution of straw in retaliation (Ex 5:21)?
  • Where was he in the exodus from Egypt, that night when Moses had to signal to an entire nation that it was time to leave?
  • Where was he in the crossing of the Red Sea, as the people nervously paced the beach, watching the dust rise from chariot wheels?
  • Where was he when the people were grumbling?
  • Where was he in the first half of this chapter, when the people were ready to stone Moses?

Leaders don’t burst on the scene fully developed, so there are two possibilities.

Perhaps Joshua was an emerging leader, beginning to catch Moses’ eye by taking on unmentioned roles—helping mobilize the people on Passover night, vigilant on the beach beside the Red Sea as the pillar of fire kept the Egyptian army at bay, a loyalist giving encouragement to Moses.

Or, Joshua was already in some kind of leadership position and had to choose to come under Moses’ authority. Note in the paragraph above that those in established positions were not always on Moses’ side. In fact, the first seven verses of Exodus 17 tell us that not everyone was part of “Team Moses.” There was an insurrection brewing. Which side was Joshua on?

In other words, if Moses wasn’t the one to first draw out Joshua as a leader, when did the young man convert from critic to loyalist?

Whatever the back story, in this moment Moses trusts Joshua implicitly. Joshua is thrown into the deep end and finds himself leading a battle. Soon Joshua will become indispensable to Moses.

With those musings as a foundation, let’s get to a few points of application.

1. Leaders are followers first. Godly leadership takes a conversion from the role of skeptic, critic and grumbler who wishes he was in charge, to a new role as a loyalist who surrenders to God’s leadership.

2. Our best strategy is to participate with God in his purposes. Did Joshua’s strategies even matter to the battle? What would have happened if Joshua had laid down his weapons? Would he still have prevailed? There’s a lesson here about why God so often only lets us see the big picture after the fact. Somehow, in some way, our efforts and strategies do matter, but so often the real results come from a spiritual strategy or prayer. We take great risks when we foray out on our own without that foundation.

3. We need to give young leaders space. There’s a risk with young or inexperienced leaders. They may be put in the driver’s seat, but they spend all their time looking back over their shoulder to see if they’re doing it right, if they have their superior’s or mentor’s approval. That’s where, if the one with the authority has another job to do, it creates space. Whatever Joshua’s back story was, Moses took a calculated gamble. Rather than lurking around as an observer, Moses goes where he can’t possibly grab the controls. He’s occupied elsewhere. Yet, he still does everything he can to make Joshua successful.

I believe Joshua figured out where his success was coming from. The clue is in the absence of detail about what Moses was saying on the mountain. While most of Moses’ prayers, speeches and arguments with God were meticulously recorded, Moses’ biographer was otherwise occupied on this day. Joshua recorded faithfully the only detail he could see: the posture of Moses’ hands. It gave him the courage to apply his leadership on the ground.


Moses on the Mountain series:

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If I were king

Steve Moore talked about the “reactive hypothetic” — a young leader with enough self awareness and contextual consciousness that he knows what he likes and doesn’t like, but isn’t willing/ready/courageous enough to be the one taking initiative. The problem is that this kind of person can end up in the peanut gallery, taking potshots at leadership.

Coming from a generation that prefers the role of critic, I see this one all the time. I’m reminded of a great moment in The Princess Bride when Andre the Giant is told he can take care of someone “his way.” “Oh, good… which way’s my way?” We know that something’s wrong with a situation, but we don’t know how we’d do it any differently. I’ve always got my eyes open for those exceptional young people who follow through with ideas to fill the void. It’s easy to point out mistakes, but are they willing to offer alternatives to replace what’s broken?

That takes courage and determination. Courage to decide you’re going to succeed with a new model. And perseverance similar to a 1-year-old learning to walk — determination that you’re going to try something, and if it fails, you’ll get up and try again.

Don’t get the wrong impression. I don’t think leaders have to have all the answers before they get started. The close of Deborah Reidy’s Reluctant Leaders paper makes a great point:

Finally, remember that leadership often begins with an uneasiness, a vague, unarticulated sense that things are not quite right but no idea what would be right or how to bring it about. As Ron Heifetz writes, ‘One may lead perhaps with no more than a question in hand.’

It’s a myth that you have to have all the answers, that you have to have it all together, that you have to have the complete package before you lead. Frankly, it’s an outright lie. The best thing for a young leader is to get in the game. You won’t develop leadership abilities in a vacuum, and you probably won’t come up with the answers until you start trying.

Anyone who is willing to combine a good question with a determination to try until they succeed is going to change the world. Ask any of the Gen-X CEOs of Google, YouTube, eBay or Amazon. Did any of them hit gold on their first attempt? Malcolm Gladwell broke down that misperception in Outliers. Kings don’t simply happen; it takes hard work to be king.

The thorn in your side

How do you recognize leadership gifts in someone? You may have read John Maxwell’s scale of leadership. I’m not sure how much I agree with the concept or his analysis of the scale, but it’s a useful device to make an observation from my own experience. If you’re a 7 on the leadership scale and you have an 8 working under you, they will likely be a thorn in your side.

How exactly will that manifest itself? They might be the one who critiques everything you do. They might take initiative on projects you didn’t want them working on. They might be the one who takes the inch and turns it into a mile. They might go around the system instead of working within the boundaries. There are leadership traits on display in every one of those abuses of the supervisory relationship.

There are three choices for the manager, then.

  1. You can either call it leadership and give them opportunities to grow their abilities in a healthy setting.
  2. You can liberate them so they can move on to a job where they can better utilize their “gifts.”
  3. Or you can suppress their initiative.

The third leads to broken trust, continued pain and crushed spirits. I’ve been in that position, and I suggest that there are really only two choices for a person like this.

Let me suggest one possible conclusion: look at them as a chance to work yourself out of a job. Grit your teeth and pour into this emerging leader for a year or two, refine their rough edges and then liberate them by stepping aside. After all, if you’re truly a 7 on the scale, the best thing you can do is recognize the time to step aside and let them shine. If you do it right, you can count their future success as your success.