Predictable unpredictability

On a surface-level reading of Exodus 17:8-16, it seems like Moses hands the reigns to Joshua, saying, “You go fight. I’m going to grab my hiking stick and climb that mountain.” Moses feels no need to explain himself to Joshua, or to us. Why did no one protest or ask questions? I certainly have a few!

The risks of delegation

At this point in the Exodus story, Moses’ track record leading his own people is fairly brief. Since the day he reappeared from 40 years’ solitude in the wilderness, the people’s relationship with their untested leader has been running hot and cold. Their gratefulness and worship in Exodus 4:31 quickly turns to accusation by 5:21 when Pharaoh takes his anger out on the people. Moses then manages a series of crises—some of which he provoked. A few weeks after the highs of the miraculous Red Sea crossing (Ex 14), the people are ready to mutiny and stone Moses to death (Ex 17:4). And it won’t be long before the people give up on Moses when he spends six weeks on Mt. Sinai (Ex 24, 32). There’s a surprising arms-length detachment in their assessment of him in Exodus 32:1: “As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”

What kind of leader is Moses? In these first months of his leadership, some of his idiosyncrasies and patterns of his leadership style are still developing. So, at the point the Amalekites attack, Moses hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt with the people.

Viewed through that lens, the risks Moses takes in walking away from the fight are enormous. The quarrel only a few verses prior was no small dispute; Moses feared for his life. It was no-confidence territory. Insubordination. Potential mutiny. So God gave a solution that was very public and deliberate in elevating Moses before the people.

With his leadership so recently in danger, we could forgive an inclination from Moses to solidify his leadership further with one more bold demonstration that he is in charge.

Instead, he walks away.

By delegating the key responsibility, Moses also risks the people latching onto Joshua and giving him credit, just as David’s successes would be a threat to King Saul (1 Sam 18:8) and Absalom would one day steal followers from his father, David (2 Sam 15:6). But Moses shows no fear.

Moses’ choice looks naive, uncalculated. He simply isn’t driven by politics. He clearly knows God has called him to this role, but these are God’s people. This stewardship view of leadership removes any fear that he might lose his job. Yes, Joshua might get the glory and gain some followers due to his hands-on, ground-level leadership among the people. Moses isn’t driven by those motivations, and that allows him to make a courageous choice.

I find Moses to be unpredictable, and yet also entirely predictable.

What about me?

I ask myself: Is my spiritual practice, my means of leading out of my relationship with God, predictable? Have I established a track record of obedience, of hearing God, of drawing on my time with him to take courageous steps? So, when God prompts surprising plans or methods, the one predictable thing about me is my quickness and readiness to follow?

I’ve had years with my senior leadership team, and they’ve noticed my style of decision-making and leading. Would an action like Moses’ be out of character for me? Would my team trust me implicitly?

The key seems to be Moses’ focus on following God, no matter what. My first instinct often isn’t spiritual leadership. I think things through and gather data. My responses are measured, and it’s really only in the past decade that I’ve learned to lean on my intuition. I’m still early in my journey into using discernment methods. One of Ruth Haley Barton’s foundational principles for discernment is to rely on God’s goodness and “ask God for the grace to desire his will—nothing more, nothing less, nothing else” (Pursuing God’s Will Together, p188)

Moses’ authority to lead is spiritual in nature. It comes from the fact that his followers know he has spent time with God. By Exodus 33:7-11, he will eventually establish a pattern of conversing with God face to face in the tent of meeting. It’s obvious to the people exactly how much time he spends with God; when he goes in the tent, they stand at the doors of their tents and worship. Even his countenance reveals he has been with God.

How obvious is it with your followers the amount of time you’ve spent with God?

When you have been with God and then propose a wacky idea like marching silently around a city for seven days or throwing nets on the other side of a boat or walking away from battle to climb a mountain, followers’ doubts are quelled. That predictable unpredictability is the signature of a leader worth following.


Moses on the Mountain series:

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Romans 12 – criticism part II

My pastor, Chan Kilgore, once said that people never build monuments to critics. Is that really true? When he said it, I immediately thought of a lot of the figures in the Revolutionary War. Thomas Payne and Paul Revere were pretty serious critics. But there’s a difference between protesters who take potshots and protesters who do something about their beliefs. And victors always get to define the terms. Instead of “critic” and “traitor,” we in the United States prefer “forefather” and “patriarch.”

The question I want to consider is: why should a leader bless those who persecute him? Verse 20 gives one answer: to heap “burning coals” on them. It seems to me that alone could serve as a nasty motivation for “kindness.” But is that what this passage is about? Of course, the Bible preaches a countercultural message: seek genuine blessing for your critics. Why?

Point number 2: critics are essential in the life of a leader. Many gurus have written about the inability of senior leaders to get accurate assessments; candor is inversely proportional to level of position. Therefore, if a leader can receive it, the poignant commentary of a critic is essential because of his immunity to persuasion. He provides that “alternative” viewpoint we need so much.

I have a challenge for you. Next time you’re persecuted, ask yourself, “What if they’re right?” It could cast some light onto your blind spots.

An Old Testament example takes it one step further. In 2 Samuel 16, David’s son Absalom has taken the throne by force, and David is forced to flee from Jerusalem. While David is at a low point, an opportunistic descendant of David’s predecessor begins throwing stones and verbal lobs, claiming that David is getting a taste of his own medicine. David’s men want vengeance, but he rebukes them:

My own son is trying to kill me. Doesn’t this relative of Saul have even more reason to do so? Leave him alone and let him curse, for the Lord has told him to do it. And perhaps the Lord will see that I am being wronged and will bless me because of these curses today.

David shows incredible restraint, perspective and confidence in God’s Sovereignty. I think we’d all do well as leaders to respond the same way. What if God has given you a critic for a specific purpose? If you could see criticis that way, wouldn’t you pray for them, seek to bless them tangibly and work to overcome them by doing what’s right?

Lest we idolize David too much, let’s look at the rest of the story in 1 Kings 2:8-9. Years later, when David gives his final instructions to another son who is taking the throne legitimately, he admits that Shimei stuck in his craw. David tells Solomon,

I swore by the Lord that I would not kill him. But that oath does not make him innocent. You are a wise man, and you will know how to arrange a bloody death for him.

Don’t we wish! If only we could all keep our hands clean and leave it to our sons to clean up for us. Not sure how to respond to that one. It certainly speaks to the deep, irreversable pain a critic can bring to a king. It’s easy to do the right thing for a while, but difficult to let go of the feelings surrounding the experience.

Romans 12 – criticism

14 Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them…. 17 Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable…. 19 Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say,

“I will take revenge;
I will pay them back,”
says the Lord.

20 Instead,

“If your enemies are hungry, feed them.
If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap
burning coals of shame on their heads.”

21 Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.

Criticism is one of the hardest things for a leader, in part because so many are driven by a desire for approval. This passage speaks to the very heart of that issue. I think I can sum up these verses with two main points. First, a leader’s response to criticism will reveal his heart — his faith and his character. And second, that critics have their place. We need them because they can provide contrast and excellent feedback.

Nothing exposes a leader like a good critic. People who get under our skin, who persecute us or who find fault with every attempt to move an organization forward can fester like nothing else. They try us most because they are immune from all of our skills of influence and persuasion. They therefore quickly expose our foundations. Do we really have faith in God’s sovereignty? Do we really believe that God will deal with them? And what is our character made of? Are we really honorable, kind and full of grace? Or are we vengeful and vindictive, impatient and short-tempered?

I got a recent insight on this topic from Shepherding a Child’s Heart. When kids are bullied at school, what do parents teach them? Tedd Tripp’s response draws straight from Romans 12:

It doesn’t take grace from God to ignore the oppressor. It doesn’t take supernatural grace to stand up for your rights. To do good to oppressors, however, to pray for those who mistreat you, to entrust yourself to the just Judge, requires a child to come face-to-face with the poverty of his own spirit and his need of the transforming power of the gospel.

So, whether we’re a leader or a child, God calls us to a higher standard that cannot be achieved apart from His supernatural grace at work in our own lives. What’s the condition of our own hearts?

Since I’ve taken so long composing this post, I’m going to go ahead and publish part 1.

Why reluctance part 3: criticism is easier than leading

Another factor in leaders’ reluctance is that it’s easier to deconstruct than it is to construct. Postmodernity is at its heart a critical theory. As Sarah Arthur and others have said, it’s not really an –ism because it isn’t really a philosophy itself (at least, not yet). So young people today are great at pointing out what’s wrong, but they often don’t know what should take the place of what they’ve critiqued. That, of course, leads to great frustration by established leaders who are taking all the risks. It’s simply easier and more comfortable to sit in the back row and shoot at the leaders. So the challenge is to find ways to get young people to enter the dialog. It’s not that they don’t have ideas or suggestions; usually it’s quite the opposite, and they don’t think anyone in authority is willing to listen.

A thirty-something friend of mine, who had developed an unfortunate reputation as a back-row complainer, has recently felt called by God to step up to the front and lead. It’s a different role, and it comes with risks. In taking on a new position of responsibility, this friend is adjusting to a different role, with new influence but different options available to her to voice frustrations and ideas. As she told me the other day, “If nothing else, I have no problem being a front-row criticizer who’s in on the planning as well.”

Leadership has its privileges and responsibilities. You simply can’t do the same things as the back row critics. But it’s contagious. As a mentor told me early on in my career, “Once you’re in the game, it’s hard to leave it.” If you want to change the world, there’s no better alternative to earning a voice of influence that gives you the means to do something about an issue rather than just complain about it. I’m not talking about a desire for power, but a tipping point where the desire to be heard overcomes your fears of responsibility.

My suggestions? As an established leader, find a way to give voice to the rising, reluctant and potential leaders. You need to hear their critiques and ideas. And they need you to hear them. And challenge them to step up. I watched a situation where one of my direct reports had a great idea to completely revamp the way we do our short term trips. I admire my boss’s response when he heard the idea: he asked the young leader if he believed in the idea enough to make it happen. It was a challenge to step up and show his stuff.