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:

  • Don’t delegate this!
  • Predictable unpredictability
  • Who was Joshua? (coming soon)
  • Eyes wide open (coming soon)
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Moses on the mountain: Don’t delegate this!

I have been on a journey around spiritual leadership in the past seven years. That kind of leadership doesn’t come naturally to me. In terms of my style of leadership, I’m more of a king than a prophet or priest. When it comes to spiritual leadership, there is no better model than Moses. Ever since a board member first handed me a copy of Ruth Haley Barton’s book, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, I have been intrigued at the depth of Moses’ relationship with God as the basis for his leadership. However, I’m not sure spiritual leadership came naturally to him either—it was an acquired discipline, skill and way of life. Over the next few weeks, I want to mine some gold from one event in particular.

In Exodus 17:8-16, Israel faces its first battle since God miraculously helped them escape Egypt and single handedly wiped out Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. Now, as Amalek attacks, Moses turns to someone never before mentioned in the Bible and tells him to choose men, go out and fight while he goes up on a mountain. The passage never definitively unpacks what happens at the top of that mountain.

Have you ever read a passage where numerous things don’t quite add up? You sense it needs deeper study to understand the complexity. Over the past year, I’ve been continually drawn back to Exodus 17. At one point, I read it every day for a month, writing down my discoveries. It’s not transparent, and there are layers to be peeled back. Some of the questions that triggered my study were:

  • If Moses has a “tent of meeting,” where he regularly talks to God face-to-face, why does he go up on the mountain to pray?
  • When we have so many great prayers of Moses recorded, why do we know nothing of Moses’ day on that hill other than his hand positions?
  • When he comes down at the end of the battle, why does he have a message about Amalek so completely out of touch with Joshua’s experience that day?

My study of this passage has shaped my understanding of spiritual leadership and how my role needs to shift. Let’s jump in.

Don’t delegate this!

To be effective, every leader has to ask the question, “What is it that only I can do?”, then delegate everything else. That’s the lesson Moses will get drilled into him by his father-in-law in the next chapter. The ancient historian Josephus says Moses was a general in Pharaoh’s army. Sure, he’s long retired from his own fighting days, but when Amalek attacks, he chooses to delegate on-the-ground leadership while keeping spiritual leadership responsibilities. Why?

There are some hints about the insights that lead Moses to this conclusion.

The first thing I noted is that this story begins with the word, “then.” It begs the question, “what came before this?” Moses has just produced water from a rock, but in a context where the people are angry enough to stone him. It’s a critical-enough moment in Israel’s history that the place will forever be identified with the events of that day. However, rather than naming it after the miracle, Moses names it after the danger: “Testing and Quarrelling.” There are several fundamental questions raised in that event:

  • Is God among us or not?
  • Does Moses speak for God?

Moses clearly identifies the circumstances as a spiritual attack – an indirect attack on unity, using accusation and division.

Before they have even left that site, a direct attack comes. It’s a test of a very different nature, and Moses recognizes that it needs a different response.

We also have the benefit of hearing Moses’ commentary on that moment, recorded years later. In Deuteronomy 25:17-19, he would remind Israel that, “When you were weary and worn out, [the Amalekites] met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind.” Such predatory behaviour, picking off the weak and isolated, resembles Peter’s warning to believers: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8). 

The second half of the chapter is a continuation of the same two foundational tests: whether God is among them, and whether Moses speaks for God. Moses could dive into the task at hand, boldly leading the people in battle from the front. Instead he holds onto components that address the deeper spiritual nature of this challenge. That is the part he can’t delegate.


Moses on the Mountain series:

Mark of a movement

Let’s continue mining the leadership development principles found in Acts 6. When the apostles made the decision to remove their fingers from day-to-day program management, who did they turn to? First, they opened the problem to “all the believers,” inviting their input. Second, they went local. The problem was a Greek-speaking versus Hebrew-speaking issue. The apostles were Hebrew-speaking, and when accused of some latent racism, they selected Greek believers to address the problem. They found a local solution. Third, they turned to the next generation. There’s no indication of age, so I don’t want to imply that they handed over responsibility to young leaders, but they clearly handed responsibility to the recipients of the gospel message.

That’s the mark of a movement: those who bring a new idea or message and hand it off to the recipients of that message to take it where they didn’t imagine it could go. We’re experiencing that within Wycliffe. There’s a movement exploding in many parts of the world, carrying forth Bible translation in ways and to places our founders never dreamed of. For instance, I just spent a few days with leaders of 25 non-Wycliffe organizations birthed in Central and South America who are just as passionate about advancing Bible translation in their countries and from their areas of the world as we are. We’re joining together in an alliance to figure this new world out together. It’s a world where language groups are setting up their own Facebook pages, beginning work before we ever get there and becoming evangelists to neighbouring people groups.

Here’s the ugly side, though: the one who can most easily suppress a movement is the original messenger. We westerners do this all the time. To give us the benefit of the doubt, most oppression by a majority is unintentional. We simply don’t realize where we shut down innovation, fail to hand over ownership or fail to see potential. A friend of mine calls it “institutional racism.” In older organizations, it can be a historical colonial viewpoint that has long been eradicated in the obvious places but has become institutionalized in policies, procedures and practices that have never been challenged. It’s time for some audits of the deep, dark corners of the organization.

Since this blog is about leaders, let’s not let ourselves off the hook. Let’s make it personal. Have you audited the deep, dark corners of your own core beliefs for inconsistencies in what you say and practice in terms of holding onto authority or ownership? I remember reading a passage in Sherwood Lingenfelter’s Cross Cultural Leadership about a missionary who had to return to the United States. He successfully found and prepared a national worker to assume responsibilities for preaching in the local church while he was gone. By the time he returned, this local pastor was thriving in his role over a growing church. What a tremendous success! That’s our dream, right? Imagine what happened next. This missionary thanked his brother and took over preaching responsibilities again. I wanted to throw the book down! I wanted to throw some stones!

Until I realized I probably do the same thing all the time. I take back a role I empowered my kids to do, because it’s part of my identity. I delegate an assignment to a subordinate and begin meddling again without thinking. How often have I done that? I couldn’t tell you, but I’ll bet my subordinates and the minorities who have worked with me could tell me… if I created a setting where they could speak openly. I won’t be throwing any stones.

In response, here’s a better way: Let’s lay hands on “the next generation, pray for them and posture ourselves behind them. Let’s lay aside our feeble visions for the capacity of the next generation and allow God’s vision for them to prevail. He may well have a movement in mind.

Do what only you can do

For years, I’ve pondered the leadership development principles found in Acts 6. That’s the passage where the apostles noted,

We apostles should spend our time teaching the word of God, not running a food program.

Isn’t that a somewhat arrogant statement? In the servant leadership model, shouldn’t leaders be willing to do anything? Aren’t “Level 5 leaders” full of humility? I’ve come to believe that this statement isn’t arrogant; the more arrogant move would have been to hold onto running the food program.

It’s easy for leaders to get pulled into the minutiae and tactical activity surrounding a program that may be critical to organizational success but pulls them out of their element. The leadership principle is to do what only you can do and delegate everything else. A failure to delegate is a lack of trust. Underneath it is a foundational belief that you can do it better yourself.

But what if, like many nonprofits, you don’t have anyone ready to step in? This is a common problem for organizations that are rapidly growing or still run by their founder, but it’s also a problem for organizations that lack future focus. Why is it that some organizations seem to have an abundance of leaders available while others don’t seem to have anyone willing or able to take responsibility? Frankly, the failure to have people ready to step in probably reflects a long practice of doing things yourself. The root cause of a failure to develop leaders in the pipeline is the same as a failure to delegate: pride and control are the ugly idols hiding beneath.

What’s at stake when we as leaders don’t deal with our idolatry? At best, we become a limiting agent. Worse, the organization can become derailed. Consider what would have happened if the apostles had continued to spend time with widows. The new church would have ceased to grow. It would have neglected the Word and prayer. Spiritual development of new believers would have ceased while physical needs were taken care of.

No doubt the apostles’ decision was a controversial one. First, the elderly likely protested the loss of personal relationship with the founders. Second, the optics were bad. You don’t want to give the appearance that you don’t care about widows and the elderly. Third, the food program lost some of its luster, no longer falling under the top of the org chart.

But the decision was a complete success.

So God’s message continued to spread. The number of believers greatly increased in Jerusalem, and many of the Jewish priests were converted, too.

A decision or a program in qualified and empowered hands, released from our control and micromanagement, often is a greater success than anything we could have done ourselves. But the real reason the church grew was not the food program as much as it was a group of leaders who were freed up to do what only they could do.

“Is this a decision I need to make?”

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.