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:

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I’m a graphic designer. Non-practicing, I’ll grant you, but a designer nonetheless. There are no former graphic designers, just as there are no ex-alcoholics. I’m a designer, and I always will be. It’s how I see the world. It’s the way I think. It’s the way I operate, no matter what my specific job responsibilities are at the time. Let’s take non-profit leadership, for instance.

I lead as an art director. I paint a picture for my team of a preferred future or the direction I think we should go, and then I invite them to bring their best to help make it happen. Because people are creative, with experiences and vantage points I’ll never have, the result is almost always better than I ever imagined. Of course, the more diverse those vantage points are, the stronger the result will be.

The leader’s job is to inspire and motivate, but not to hold his idea too tightly. The ideal is to achieve buy-in and then let go. Of course, buy-in requires that a team has been given significant opportunity to speak into and even sway the direction we’re going. The more the team gets excited about the idea and brings their best, the more alternatives and improvements they will propose, and the more momentum the concept will gain.

The key for the leader is to decide ahead of time what the non-negotiables are going to be. What is the deadline? What elements must be included? Just as a kite will not stay in the air if it is not held in tension with the ground, creativity is impossible if there are no parameters. A graphic designer cannot get the first mark on a page if there aren’t some ridiculous tensions that generate sparks: the name of the company, the fact the client only likes green, the minuscule budget and the unreasonable deadline. The designer might grumble at the constraints, but now she has some material to work with.

Leading as an art director means there will be compromise. Any gathering of creative people will include passion, tension and rabbit trails. If the project is drifting too far from the intent, does the team need firm direction or is it okay to let them run with it for a while? Is the drift in fact an improvement over the original idea? Perhaps my dream was too small, and the team is seeing new opportunities to expand the idea. Perhaps the new direction is in fact the creative foundation for another project. 3M has made a killing, when the proposed solutions didn’t solve the immediate problem, by allowing employees to persist in the belief that they’ve solved something (they just don’t know what yet) until it becomes viable. Consider the history of the sticky note.

In some cases, the idea just doesn’t work. The leader must then have the courage to shut it down. If the project fails or leads to bad results, there are a few possible reasons:

  • I failed to adequately describe my vision.
  • I didn’t fully pass the baton. I didn’t achieve the buy-in I was shooting for, or I held onto control unnecessarily.
  • I didn’t pull in a diverse enough team to add their strengths.
  • It wasn’t worth doing, or it failed. Some ideas just aren’t robust enough to stand on their own. Others are risks that may or may not survive.

A few years ago I heard an old leader muse that most leadership books try to boil down a leader’s experience into a formula that won’t work for anyone else’s context, and wouldn’t even work if that leader tried to apply his own formula again. Perhaps that’s why I’ve found it so difficult to articulate my instinctive leadership style. Multiple times I’ve tried to put thoughts to keyboard and then given up. I’m still not satisfied that I captured the essence of the way I lead.

So perhaps this methodology is best left as a blog post fleshed out just enough to paint a picture, and allowing readers and leaders to bring their own creativity to the practice and make it even better.

My summer reading was pretty diverse. It started and ended with Jesus, then ran on a Second World War theme and borrowed inspiration from the Global Leadership Summit:

  • Christ for Real, by Charles Price
  • The War Magician, by David Fisher
  • Churchill: A Study in Greatness, by Geoffrey Best
  • Creativity, Inc., by Ed Catmull
  • Jesus on Leadership, by Gene Wilkes
  • Extreme Prayer, by Greg Pruett

One overarching theme was really impressed on me through this reading. I was inspired as I read the accounts of Jasper Maskelyne and Winston Churchill. In one case, such creativity organized toward creating illusions that turned the war momentum. In the second case, such sheer determination and eccentric energy focused in one direction. But something bothered me about the fact that everyone looked to these men, and their teams were ineffective without them. These biographies fall firmly in the camp of Thomas Carlyle, who said in the 1840s, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

Wikipedia describes the resulting “Great Man Theory” this way:

a 19th-century idea according to which history can be largely explained by the impact of “great men”, or heroes: highly influential individuals who, due to either their personal charisma, intelligence, wisdom, or political skill utilized their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact.

Since I was young, I’ve enjoyed biographies about these giants in history who turned the course of history. But I’m getting a bit jaded.

It wasn’t until I read Creativity, Inc. that I put my finger on how I have changed. In Ed Catmull’s critique of Walt Disney, I began to wonder why the legendary animation studio become so ineffective after the great man passed away. The expectations were so high, and so much revolved around Disney’s demanding, energetic presence that the studio just couldn’t keep going afterwards.

When Walt Disney was alive, he was such a singular talent that it was difficult for anyone to conceive of what the company would be like without him. And sure enough, after his death, there wasn’t anybody who came close to filling his shoes. For years, Disney employees attempted to keep his spirit alive by constantly asking themselves, “What would Walt do?” Perhaps they thought that if they asked that question they would come up with something original, that they would remain true to Walt’s pioneering spirit. In fact, this kind of thinking only accomplished the opposite. Because it looked backward, not forward, it tethered the place to the status quo. A pervasive fear of change took root. (p165)

Instead, Ed Catmull’s goal at Pixar—and later at Walt’s animation studio—was to create a culture that would produce greatness even after the founders and visionaries were gone. He wanted to build a company with interchangeable parts. Some of the ideas he explores in his book:

  • “My job as a manager is to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for the things that undermine it” (p xv).
  • “Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture… wasn’t a singular assignment. It was a day-in-day-out, full-time job” (p 65).
  • “All we could do at Disney, I knew, was create a healthy creative culture and see what developed” (p 274).

He begins by talking about the importance of finding the right people and getting them to work together in a way that produces great ideas. He certainly accomplished that by assembling an amazing collection of creative directors at Pixar. He then talks about the goal of management to constantly empower those people to solve creative problems together. He promotes the ideas W. Edwards Deming pushed at Toyota, referring to “a democratic central tenet: You don’t have to ask permission to take responsibility.” (p 51)

Ultimately, Catmull’s greatest success was to bring the ideas of candor and empowerment to the culture of Disney, leading to successive #1 films—”Tangled” and “Frozen”—after 16 years without a box office hit. Rather than replace the existing staff to accomplish this feat, he proudly points out that the studio “was still populated by most of the same people John [Lasseter] and I had encountered when we arrived” (p274).

Let me come full circle, as my summer reading list did. Jesus did the same thing as Ed Catmull did. Or rather, Ed did what Jesus did. He took a ragtag group of fishermen, zealots and tax collectors and spent three years challenging their mindset, changing their hearts and establishing a new culture. He certainly made himself dispensable and created a structure where interchangeable parts would keep the movement going for at least 2,000 years. Granted, we don’t have all the same tools he had available.

And yet, we do. As Jesus told his disciples, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12) and sending the Holy Spirit (v16). Though he probably wouldn’t say it this way, Catmull simply expounds a form of servant leadership that originally came from Jesus. There’s just something about having someone else say the same things again that makes them come alive and allows us to see them with fresh eyes. For that, I’m grateful to Ed Catmull.

I’m not sure I want to read any more “great men” biographies. I want to read about men and women who built great systems and great cultures that continue to the next generation.

There’s another important lesson about leadership in Numbers 11. The passage refers to a “spirit of leadership” resting on the seventy in a way that is far more tangible than I have allowed myself to think of before. Clearly, it’s talking about God’s Spirit falling on and filling individuals in a way that helps them carry the burden of leadership.

To tell you the truth, I have not put a lot of thought into the idea of spirit-filled leadership. In fact, I don’t think I’m alone in being a little nervous about the unpredictability of the Spirit. I like to feel as if I’m in control, but I’m increasingly convinced that my attempts to control actually limit my usefulness and effectiveness. So let me approach this passage with intellectual honesty and try to draw out a few principles all leaders should pay attention to in terms of their need for the Spirit of God. I’m preaching first to myself.

The first principle about the Holy Spirit is that leaders shouldn’t leave home without him. The way God promises to put his Spirit on each of the seventy parallels the experience of the apostles as they prepare to lead the early church. In Acts 1:4, Jesus instructs them not to leave Jerusalem until God sends them his Spirit. Without this critical provision, they will not be able to be witnesses or baptize or teach. So they wait. It’s only when the Holy Spirit falls in Acts 2 that Peter is enabled to step boldly to the microphone and preach a multilingual sermon that results in 3,000 baptisms.

Second, the presence of the Holy Spirit bestows identity and credibility. The unique visible and overt outpouring of the Spirit in the form of prophecy also happened to a young man named Saul in 1 Samuel 10. When Samuel anoints Saul as the first king of Israel, he tells him “the Spirit of the Lord will come powerfully upon you, and you will prophesy… You will be changed into a different person.” The experience is so noteworthy that a proverb was birthed: “Is Saul also among the prophets?”

It is typically as difficult to see the Spirit’s movement as it is to see the wind. So God uses occasional visible evidence of his Spirit to give individuals credibility to lead. In Numbers 11, it affirms the elders’ calling, leaving no doubt as to who was set apart among the seventy. Even the two in the camp get that clear stamp of authority. The passage makes it clear that the ability to prophesy is tangential and temporary. Though the seventy prophesy only once, that is sufficient to establish credibility and reassure that the Spirit’s power is on them. From this launching point, we need to look for the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) and the exercise of the gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor 12) for ongoing evidence that the Spirit is at work in a leader.

This leads to my third principle: the primary purpose of the Spirit’s filling in a leader is equipping. It starts with leaders themselves, but it flows out to their followers. In Numbers 11:17 God tells Moses the Spirit will give the seventy the ability to bear the leadership burden with him. In 1 Samuel 10:7, Samuel tells Saul that God’s presence will enable the new king to do what needs to be done. Rather than simply referring to skill-based or learned leadership that originates from ourselves, this is a leadership that springs forth from God himself. The gift of leadership in Romans 12 is a specific empowering of the Spirit for administration and governance roles. Ephesians 4 makes the purpose of these gifts clear: they are designed “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” and helping us attain unity, knowledge and maturity (Eph 4:11-13).

The body is a helpful metaphor, as these gifts come with variety. Disciples are transformed into apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers. My personal bent toward the “kingly” roles — motivating and organizing people and sharing vision — needs balancing with other body parts. Leadership should also include “priestly” elements such as caring for and feeding the flock and “prophetic” elements such as discerning issues, understanding the times and rebuking behaviour. The Spirit helps move a leader from administration to the more prophetic task of challenging the status quo. Leading change had better flow out of a response to the Spirit’s prompting, because anyone challenging the way things are is venturing into dangerous territory.

Spirit-empowered leadership should stand out from other forms that lack power. My fourth principle is the untapped secret available to believers called to lead: the Spirit amplifies leadership with immense power. Paul made this point as he asked God to give the Ephesian church “the Spirit of wisdom and revelation”:

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know… his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms. (Eph 1:17-20, NIV)

The same power that raised Christ from the dead was available to Peter in Acts 2. The transformation in his life must have left his colleagues wondering whether this was the same Peter they knew. Nothing short of Jesus’ resurrection power could have turned the Peter of the gospels into the Rock of the early church.

The same power was available to Moses and the seventy elders. In my next blog post, we’ll look at what Moses learned about that power.

And the same power is available to us as well. Incredible! The question is whether we’re tapping into it. Are we seeking to be spirit-filled leaders?

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.

Sometimes reframing the question simply means choosing to look at a problem as an optimist rather than a pessimist. Let me give an example from Wycliffe — an organization that’s 65 years old in the U.S. and 50 years old in Canada. As a result, both have an increasingly aging population and a large number close to retirement age. You could see that as a negative, since we’re going to need to replace a lot of workers, outpacing the retirements with recruiting if we want to grow. If we face that situation in a scarcity mode, the tendency is to either get depressed or try too hard to swing for the fences with one big solution rather than keep doing the things that have worked for a long time.

Let’s reframe the question. Wycliffe has four generations working side by side. What an opportunity for mentoring! How do we get those who’ve served 40 years in Wycliffe to pass on some of the corporate mythology to the younger generations? How do we get the young generations to help the older generations understand the times and that the values can remain constant in spite of “crazy” new methodology?

Here’s another thought: what if the decrease isn’t a problem? In other words, what if God is doing something new? At the same time as North America is becoming a tougher market to recruit in, there’s explosive growth in the Church in South America, and it has a missionary vision. What if we were to conclude that some of the dollars spent here would get a better return in Brazil or Bolivia? In addition, what if our burned-out recruiters, who have tried so hard for so long, some with very little fruit, could do a staff swap with someone in Bolivia, getting their vision refreshed and helping Bolivian Bible translation mobilizers figure out how to direct some of that missionary impulse toward the Bible translation movement?

Or what if we concluded we have to work in new ways and in new roles? Perhaps God is moving us toward more of an equipping and empowering role within the global Bible translation movement.

My point is that, if we look at the question from any of these perspectives, we come to different conclusions than if we assume the trend is problematic. Perhaps you’ve got another perspective or your own case study. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

What about the theological belief that the Holy Spirit empowers believers and gives spiritual gifts to all who know him? In John 16, Jesus unpacks the Holy Spirit for the disciples he leaves behind, promising that they’ll be even better off with God-as-Spirit than with God-in-human-form.

Certainly, the idea that the Holy Spirit works in and flows through a leader has implications on a leader’s role. Many have written on this subject. In fact, our leadership book discussion group at Wycliffe is getting ready to read Bill Hybels’ The Power of a Whisper. I may have more to say about the leader’s need for discernment and his role in “drafting the Holy Spirit” after I’ve read that book. Instead, I want to focus for a minute on another question.

What does it mean for a leader that every believer has spiritual gifts? It means all followers are empowered. First, leaders must listen to their followers, because the Holy Spirit might speak through a prophetic gift or someone with a gift that complements the leader’s blind spot. Second, leadership is just one part of the body. Just because there are fewer heads than fingers doesn’t mean the head is more important or any less needed. That’s hard for most leaders to believe. Leadership seems a more important gifting.

But leadership is just one of the spiritual gifts mentioned in Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12. It is not given special prominence in the Bible; in fact, leadership falls under the principle that “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” Certainly, Jesus said that leaders shouldn’t “lord it over people” but should be “servant of all.” So where do we get the idea that leaders should be rewarded disproportionately to other gift-holders?

Let me offer a biblical perspective on leadership from Fast Company magazine. Yes, you read that right. Fast Company. Author Nancy Lubin offers this zinger in the midst of her article, “Do Something: Let’s Hear it for the Little Guys”:

The working world would be a happier place if more of us aspired to roles that were just right — if we valued job fit and performance at every level and stopped overemphasizing the very top.

Lubin says we should honor chief operating officers, midlevel managers and staffers. She would probably add career placement people, whose job it is to get staff into the right positions. So, let’s hear it for the followers!

I think Lubin has a little prophet in her:

The underappreciation of followers has a major bottom-line consequence: crazy redundancy. You can see it in the not-for-profit sector, which has a gazillion little organizations replicating one another. We all want to run our own thing, so not-for-profits never die. As a result, we have huge inefficiency and ridiculous amounts of overlap in the sector. This is wasteful, and this is fundamentally bad business.

When you consider Christian non-profits, it also reflects a lack of unity. Considering that Christ said the world would know we are Christians if we’re unified, Lubin’s statement is a complete indictment of Christian leadership. So, a failure to understand that the Holy Spirit has empowered all believers leads to a misunderstanding of the importance of followers. Bad theology leads to misprioritized values, pride, redundancy and waste, not to mention derailing our witness.