When Joseph’s first son is born, he names him with honesty: “God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household” (Gen 41:51). Whether Joseph is referring to a recovery from homesickness or from bitterness, it’s easier to just forget his family and the betrayal he endured. But God isn’t willing to let it go; he intends to bring it all back again as his family re-enters the picture. God does this to bring Joseph to full healing and complete the good work in him. He also does it to fulfill the dream he had given him so many years before; his family must bow before him.

Returning to our roots is the true test of change. Joseph never returns to Canaan while his father is alive, but his family comes to him. When we head home for the holidays, or go to a class reunion or spend time around old friends, it creates all kinds of tensions in us. Those who know us well today may start seeing different behaviours and mannerisms that they don’t recognize. But it’s also true that those who knew us well before may not recognize the person we have become. Clearly Joseph is a different man today than the boy his brothers knew. How will he handle those tensions?

I won’t spend a lot of time examining the details of Genesis 42-45 because I want to keep the focus on Joseph’s development and leadership. But there are some things worth noting.

The tests
Joseph needs to know some things about his brothers, so he engineers a series of tests—somewhat like an extreme behavioral interview.

  • First, Joseph tests for honesty (Gen 42:16) and discovers that the brothers are not completely honest with him—or themselves—that one brother “is no more.” It seems to have become a shorthand way of referring to him that dodges personal responsibility. His test produces a brutally honest discussion among the men (42:21-23) that’s marked by guilt and blame.
  • Second, Joseph reproduces his own imprisonment—the entire group for three days and then Simeon for months. Twenty years later, Joseph is the first thing on their minds when they re-emerge (Gen 42:21). The fact that they would attribute current misfortune to their actions against Joseph is a testament to the remarkable staying power of guilt.
  • Third, Joseph tests their integrity by returning their money (Gen 42:25) and hiding his cup in their sacks (44:1-2). They respond with a sense of self-centred victimization (42:28).
  • Fourth, Joseph overwhelms them with kindness (Gen 43:16-25), which produces fear.
  • Finally, Joseph singles out their younger brother—first with special favor (Gen 43:34) and then an opportunity to blame and abandon Benjamin (44:9-17) as they had Joseph. Rather than responding to a chosen younger brother with envy, the ten brothers now respond with fierce protection.

Dr. Leong Tien Fock says the hoops he makes his brothers jump through have a purpose.

The accusations, tricks and torment could be interpreted as payback, but each move has a purpose; Joseph carefully exposes his brothers’ motivations, challenges their memories, and tests their character. Joseph used his political skills to test his brothers and the authenticity of their repentance and sorrow. He created conditions to draw out character and sacrifice, prompted confession and reproduced the favouritism before he revealed himself. “For ‘only by recreating something of the original situation—the brothers again in control of the life and death of a son of Rachel—can Yosef be sure that they have changed’ (Fox 1983: 202; cited in Waltke 2001: 566).”

These tests eventually reveal the weight of guilt carried by the brothers, the deep conviction of Reuben and the transformation in Judah’s character. It’s their response to favouritism that moves the needle for Joseph. He can hold back no longer, and he reveals himself.

The reunion is also a test
At first, the brothers are speechless and dismayed (Gen 45:3). Joseph suggests they are distressed or angry with themselves (45:5), but he’s never been all that great at emotional intelligence. It is Benjamin, his blood brother, who recognizes him and embraces him, breaking the ice for the others. When Joseph kisses them and weeps over them, their hearts finally open to him (45:15). As God tested Joseph and forced him to deal with his bitterness, now he does the same for the brothers.

As Fretheim (1994: 630) puts it, ‘the brothers need to pass through an ordeal in order to bring their memories and guilt to the surface, where it can be dealt with adequately, before reconciliation can truly take place, and hence safeguard the future of the family.’” (Tien Fock)

But the brothers have reason for skepticism themselves. They once saw firsthand Joseph’s pride and unskilled attempts at leading with few followers. Now imbued with power, he has real capacity for abuse. Just as he was gauging their character from behind his Egyptian disguise, they are now no doubt watching him. They don’t have the benefit of constructing a behavioral interview, but they can closely observe his character over time. No doubt they watch how he interacts with Pharaoh (Gen 46:31-47:12). They watch how he manages the crisis and responds to the desperate Egyptians (47:13-26). Clearly they still have suspicions by chapter 50 when their father passes away. They reason that perhaps Joseph has been restraining himself, putting on an act for his father while he lived.

Returning to second place
Joseph clearly provides for his brothers and saves their lives (Gen 50:20). He takes the role of leader in the family for a period of time, giving orders to his brothers and bringing back his father. But Rev. Bernard Bouissieres points out that, “When his father shows up again in his life, Joseph treats him as number one and submits to him.” While his father submits in accordance with Joseph’s dream, Jacob is clearly the patriarch, and Joseph is no longer in charge. In fact, Jacob commandeers Joseph’s boys as his own, and they will replace Joseph in the twelve tribes from this day on. Of course, this act of adoption has another meaning: it officially installs Joseph—firstborn son of Jacob’s favourite wife—as his legal firstborn (1 Chr 5:1-2). Joseph gets the double portion of the inheritance and the place of honour.

But in this clan, being firstborn never implies primary leadership. Joseph soon slides into the second chair again. There is no doubt that Judah is leading the clan at this point. Rev. Bernard notes that when it comes time for their father to bestow blessings, Judah receives the prime blessing (Gen 49:8-12) while Joseph receives second-best (49:22-26).

These two half brothers are an interesting contrast. A showdown of sorts takes place in Genesis 44:18-34, when Judah gives an emotional plea to his yet-to-be-revealed brother. While Joseph holds political power, Judah’s integrity, vulnerability and unselfish sacrifice gives him immense personal authority. In laying down his life for his brother, he wins over his father, earns the respect of his brothers and foreshadows the Messiah who will descend from his bloodline. Joseph blinks first.

Why does Judah emerge as leader of the nation of Israel instead of Joseph? While Judah went into self-imposed exile and repented of his sins in chapter 38, I don’t think Joseph ever repents of his own culpability in stoking his brothers’ jealousy. Joseph’s tone in Genesis 50 strikes me as mildly paternal and self righteous. The result is that Judah becomes spiritual leader of the clan and gets the spiritual blessing while Joseph earns lingering mistrust.

Concluding well
As the account of Joseph ends, he leaves his brothers with God’s vision of the future. “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place” (Gen 50:25). The nation’s sojourn in Egypt will be temporary, and God will lead them to their own land.

Upon his death, Joseph is honored both in Egypt and Israel for his leadership and character. The Egyptians embalm him and entomb him as a hero. 400 years later, Israel remembers their promise to him. Exodus 13:19 tells how, even in Moses’ rush to leave the land of Israel’s captivity, he demands the bones of Joseph. Remarkably, the Israelites carry his sarcophagus with them for 40 years and eventually bury him in Jacob’s land in Shechem (Josh 24:32).

Shaped by his circuitous and painful path to leadership, Joseph’s character was radically challenged and reworked so God could use him for his purposes. One of those purposes is foreboding; he uses this man who has seen the dark side of favouritism so many times to create those conditions at a national level and lay the foundation for Exodus 1. As Bob Deffinbaugh says, “the prosperity of Israel at this time paved the way for her future persecution.” Psalm 105:24-25 looks back on this time of disparity and notes that it is God’s intent:

The Lord made his people very fruitful;
he made them too numerous for their foes,
whose hearts he turned to hate his people,
to conspire against his servants.

This nation-within-a-nation will become a threat once a new Pharaoh takes the throne, “to whom Joseph meant nothing” (Ex 1:8).

Throughout his life, Joseph bore the mantle of second chair leadership well, and we can learn much from his example. But his greatest lesson to us might be the fact that he was a vessel available to help accomplish God’s purposes. After all, every Christian leader should be a follower first.


Joseph series:

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In my last post, I unpacked the art of influencing. The second major challenge of second chair leadership is to understand the nature of authority. This is key to leading when the vision or the decision is not yours.

In John 19, Jesus stands before Pontius Pilate in the face of questions about where he came from, whether he is a king, whether he is the Son of God. Pilate finally asks in frustration, “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” (v10). Jesus shares a secret of authority in that moment, to that sole audience: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been give you from above” (v11). Authority comes from above—from the power you represent, the one who sent you, the one in whose name you act.

The Roman centurion in Luke 7 shows an astounding grasp of the principle that leadership is stewardship of the authority we have been given. Jesus himself marvels at the man’s faith, which flows from his understanding of the authority given to Jesus from above. He believes Jesus can simply speak the word, and his son will be healed. Why is he so certain? “For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (Lk 7:8). It follows that if Jesus is acting on behalf of the Creator, he has command of the very elements. Indeed, in the next chapter, even the wind and waves obey Jesus’ orders (Lk 8:25).

There are three primary challenges to a second-chair leader when it comes to authority.
1. When lines of authority are unclear. Confidence comes from clarity in direction and scope of authority. When either is unclear or confusing, a leader’s ability to lead is undermined. When there is daylight between the first- and second-chair leaders, followers can be disillusioned, or they can be emboldened to take advantage, playing one against the other.

2. When we disagree with our supervisor. It is inevitable that you, as a second-chair leader, will be asked to carry out a decision you don’t believe in or spoke out against. Even leading within a servant leadership model, where each has ample opportunity to be heard and to provide input toward a group decision, will lead to decisions that weren’t unanimous. So now you are committed to carrying out a decision that you once argued against. Your team may well make the same arguments you made. Is your job as a second-chair leader to toe the company line or confide in your team that you made the same objections?

Siding with your team against those in authority is not leadership. Leadership means carrying out a decision even if it’s not popular, even if you might agree with some of the criticism, even if you have your own doubts. The time to make your opinions, your arguments, your doubts clear is in the privacy of a meeting with your boss or leadership team. Once you leave that room, you move forward with one voice. The alternative erodes trust and undermines leadership authority.

3. When our authorities disagree. The confusion for believers is that we have a higher master than our immediate supervisor. Christ is our master, just as he is master over our direct reports and our supervisor (Eph 6:5-9). When our two sources of authority disagree, the choice over which authority we will obey is clear. When we’ve expressed our objection on biblical grounds, and our earthly supervisor disagrees, what then?

Think about Joseph again. He is a man under authority. First, he could clearly see God’s hand in his life—the successes, the tragedies and the waiting were all part of his preparation for this role. He knows God has sent him to this position (Gen 45:8), and he is a man who will not compromise his high morals (Gen 39:9). Yet he is clearly also under Pharaoh’s leadership. If he disagrees with Pharaoh, can he disobey? Besides loss of position, he may face exposure of his past, perhaps a return to prison, perhaps a loss of life. But Joseph could make a stand, or surely he could engineer an escape from the country. Most of us, even leaders, can quit if we’re faced with bad choices.

On the other hand, Joseph knows that the prophecy hasn’t been fulfilled, and God hasn’t completed his mission. He can’t walk away. God has prepared him, led him to this point and filled him with his Spirit (Gen 41:38). So Joseph co-leads Egypt through this period of adversity as best he can, balancing the tensions to the point that today, we can’t see light between him and Pharaoh.

Ultimately, confidence comes from the knowledge that your supervisor will be held to account. The Lord himself raises up and removes authorities (Dan 2:21, Jn 19:11), holds leaders to account (Heb 13:17), and rewards faithful servants (Eph 6:6-8). We can only be responsible for ourselves and the way we respond to the situation we’re dealt. God will take care of the rest.


Joseph series:

My last two posts were largely about leading with integrity as a believer, with the subtext being that Joseph is a religious minority, an exile living within a foreign culture, where integrity might be defined or practiced differently. It’s easy to second guess some of his decisions, seeing the consequences: the currency collapsed, the people of Egypt enslaved, and the foundations for inequality laid.

Before we move on, then, it’s worthwhile reflecting again on second chair leadership. How many of these decisions were Joseph’s and how many were Pharaoh’s, governing through Joseph? After all, in modern day government, the power of a prime minister to set government policy can vary widely. Think of the difference between a prime minister in Russia and Turkey versus Britain and Canada. Which model is closest to Joseph’s context? Genesis 41:40-44 and 55 suggest a hands-off delegation approach that left decisions very much in Joseph’s hands—with Pharaoh ruling as Potiphar and the prison warden had done, paying “no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge” (Gen 39:23). If Pharaoh is as unengaged as it would appear, then Joseph has a lot to answer for.

But I recently read a different perspective from Walter Brueggemann in his essay, The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity.

Pharaoh gets organized to administer, control and monopolize the food supply. Pharaoh introduces the principle of scarcity into the world economy. For the first time in the Bible, someone says, “There’s not enough. Let’s get everything”…. Because Pharaoh, like Hitler after him, is afraid that there aren’t enough good things to go around, he must try to have them all. Because he is fearful, he is ruthless. Pharaoh hires Joseph to manage the monopoly. When the crops fail and the peasants run out of food, they come to Joseph. And on behalf of Pharaoh, Joseph says, “What’s your collateral?” They give up their land for food, and then, the next year, they give up their cattle. By the third year of the famine they have no collateral but themselves.

As a second chair leader, Joseph may have had constant pressure from above—either in the form of an autocratic dictator or an occasional micromanager, swooping in from time to time to impose his will. Either style of leadership would relegate Joseph’s role to a position not far removed from slavery, albeit with a higher standard of living.

These are the challenges of second chair leadership. First, how do you lead upwards to help craft policy and strategy? Likewise, as a believer in a hostile or pagan setting, how do you help influence for good? And second, how do you lead when the vision or the decision is not yours? Let’s look at the first idea, using Joseph’s experience as a lens.

An influence for good
The crux of second chair leadership is to be loyal followers and co-leaders in the mission. Ultimately, all leaders have a responsibility to the organization, city, nation or supervisor they report under. Many centuries later, when God sends his people into exile in Babylon, he tells Jeremiah that he intends them to be loyal, even to make it their mission to help that nation succeed, “because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer 29:7). This verse applies to those of us who operate as believers in places where our values are foreign, and we can have an influence. Our perspective changes when we understand that we have been sent. As we seek the good of the organization, business or state we work for, God may well bless those we work with because we are there, as he did with Potiphar for Joseph’s sake (Gen 39:5). Now, as Pharaoh prospers, Joseph clearly prospers, and God’s people then prosper.

But what about decisions that Joseph disagrees with? Does Joseph have sufficient standing to try to stem the tide and stand in Pharaoh’s way? Would that work? Joseph likely would find himself on the outside looking in. This is a very real challenge for many believers who work for autocratic leaders. As long as they agree with their boss, they can continue to have influence. But do they really have a voice when the moment they make a stand, they could very quickly become cut off and vilified? Where should they draw the line? Make a stand too early, and they lose all their influence. Make it too late, and after a series of compromises, they might not recognize themselves anymore.

Living as an exile is an art and sometimes a dance, and this point is not simply relevant to believers who work in a hostile marketplace. Pastors in Canada and leaders of Christian organizations must also learn when to speak out and when to live to see another fight. As Jesus warned the first domestic missionaries, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16).

The neck that turns the head
In the film, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” the bride’s mother shares the secret of second chair leadership. In a culture where the man is clearly in charge, the bride-to-be despairs of changing her father’s mind. Her mother confides in her,

The man may be the head of the household. But the woman is the neck, and she can turn the head whichever way she pleases.

How does Joseph use his influence? The dynamics of Pharaoh’s relationship with Joseph are not overt. We are given two glimpses. First, we know that Joseph was selected because he had wisdom Pharaoh needed, and that discernment would be ongoing because he had the spirit of God in him (Gen 41:38-39).

Second, on one occasion we see how Joseph steers Pharaoh. Joseph has made his boss very wealthy without asking for much in return. So when his brothers come with their flocks, Pharaoh is pleased to offer the best of the land. That’s when Joseph suggests the land of Goshen, the prime grazing land where Pharaoh keeps his own livestock. And he advises his brothers to emphasize their experience with cattle as well as sheep, knowing that shepherds are abomination to the Egyptians (Gen 46:34-35).

Turning the head is an art with the potential to backfire, because it constantly flirts with manipulation. It reminds me of the humorous British TV show called, “Yes Minister,” which explores the ways members of the British civil service carefully drive the direction of the cabinet minister in the direction they want him to go, all the while saying, “Yes, Minister.”

A wise husband or a wise first chair leader will surround himself with smart and competent co-leaders and rely on them to not simply agree with him, but expect them to influence decisions. But too many leaders fail to do that. In my next post, I’ll examine the idea of leading under authority.


Joseph series:

The leader whose thinking is constrained within well-worn ruts, who is completely governed by his established passions and prejudices, who is incapable of thinking either gray or free, and who can’t even appropriate the creative imagination and fresh ideas of those around him, is as anachronistic and ineffective as the dinosaur. He may by dint of circumstances remain in power, but his followers would almost certainly be better off without him. (Dr. Stephen Sample, Thinking Gray & Free: A Contrarian’s View of Leadership)

In my last blog post that spelled out what I call leading as an art director, I promoted the idea of gaining buy-in and then letting an idea go. Letting go doesn’t mean the leader can’t continue to feed the idea. He or she needs to do this by challenging lazy thinking and by destroying natural constraints to thinking. Here are four ways to do that:

1. The threshing floor. I love the concept of the threshing floor, where ideas can be tossed in the air to see what solid nuggets of wheat fall to the ground while the chaff blows away. I am a proponent of “thinking out loud.” Until an idea is stated and turned over a few times, you don’t know its value. I believe everyone has something to contribute, so when a meeting ends and someone never spoke up, I wonder what held back. I’m convinced introverts could solve most of the world’s problems, but they’re happy to take their solutions to the grave!

2. Design thinking. I can’t articulate the concept of design thinking as taught at Stanford’s d.school, but I learned the concepts the hard way, through five years of undergrad training and nine years of practice. One basic tenet is that the ideal is not ready-aim-fire as much as ready-fire-aim-fire again. In other words, don’t analyze something to death before you ever move. Trial and error is the best way to develop an idea.

Another tenet drummed into me at Georgia State is that your first ideas are likely worthless. However, if you don’t get them out on paper and then intentionally throw them away, they will limit your thinking. Push yourself to come up with at least one more viable idea. Many leaders talk about the trap that results when everyone in a meeting is in agreement, and they intentionally push someone to argue the other side or challenge group think.

3. Thinking free. Former USC Chancellor Stephen Sample articulates this practice in a fabulous leadership book called The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. It’s a process where a group of people intentionally remove all constraints to their thinking for a period of time so they can break out of their ruts. It goes way beyond brainstorming, allowing anything to be considered and sometimes exposing a simple, obvious solution no one has ever seen before. Sample explains the idea in the second half of this essay:
Thinking Gray & Free: A Contrarian’s View of Leadership

4. Fresh eyes. When someone is new to a team, a company or initiative, their most important asset for the first three months is their ability to see with fresh eyes. I try to meet with them in the first week to empower them, encouraging them to ask silly questions, challenge our thinking and point out anything that doesn’t make sense. Without encouragement, they will keep these observations to themselves because of natural desires to assimilate.

Dr. Sample offers an excellent rationale:

It’s well known among engineers that the most important inventions in a particular field are often made by people who are new to that field – people who are too naïve and ignorant to know all the reasons why something can’t be done, and who are therefore able to think more freely about seemingly intractable problems. The same is true of the leadership of institutions: It’s often fresh blood and a fresh perspective from the outside that can turn an ailing organization around.

5. Courageous questions. It takes a secure leader to encourage radical thinking and invite questions. We must always have the courage to ask the right questions, even if we don’t want to go where the questions might lead us. If the questions lead us back to where we are, then we have greater confidence in the direction we’re already moving. Or they might expose the absurdity of our current path and open the door to new possibilities.

The point of these exercises is that inertia creates laziness, and leadership is never about going along with momentum. If, as Gary Hamel put it at Global Leadership Summit 2009, “It’s so easy to mistake the edge of your rut for the horizon. We have to learn to be contrarians.” There are some proven exercises that can help you forcibly break out of your own thinking or lead a team to release the constraints that bind their imaginations for what could be.

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.

In 1970, Robert Greenleaf introduced a paradox that swept the business community: the idea of The Servant as Leader. Many leaders have picked up his books, embraced the concept and developed a servant leadership methodology. They do mind tricks like inverting the organizational chart, and they develop great management practices, all while missing Greenleaf’s point: he wasn’t writing to leaders.

Few recall that Greenleaf wasn’t suggesting that leaders should become servants. Rather,

The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That perhaps is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions….

The natural servant, the person who is servant first, is more likely to persevere and refine a particular hypothesis on what serves another’s highest priority needs than is the person who is leader first and who later serves out of promptings of conscience or in a conformity with normative expectations. (p50)

Greenleaf was starting with different building blocks: a different attitude, a different spirit, a different person who gets noticed and promoted. In this sense, Nehemiah was a great candidate for development. He learned servantship through years as an exiled cupbearer, attending to the needs of a foreign king. When he eventually aspired to lead, Nehemiah didn’t lose his sense of grounding and character. As a godly governor, he really believed his call was to serve and relieve the people, not add further burden upon them. He was a servant leader long before it became the rage.

So why did Nehemiah use his platform to critique servant leadership?

It turns out that even servanthood doesn’t guarantee the right attitude. In chapter 5, Nehemiah’s turns the harsh glare of his spotlight on his predecessors, who laid heavy burdens on the people. He doesn’t stop there, condemning their followers: “Even their servants lorded it over the people” (Neh 5:15).

That sentence just sticks in my craw! I can’t rationalize this seemingly-impossible paradox. How can servants lord it over anyone?

But we do, don’t we? We all leverage any power we can get. From the exaggeration regularly found in CVs to the length of a person’s title, we all use every tool at our disposal. There’s a constant temptation for the administrative support staff of any leader to use the influence of their boss to gain power for themselves. If we’re really honest, we’re all laid bare by this critic of the accepted business practice of his day.

How do we steer clear of lording servantship? What can we learn from Nehemiah?

1. The position doesn’t change the person.
The position of governor came with a high level of responsibility and expectations, one of which was hospitality. Chapter 5 tells us Nehemiah could anticipate as many as 150 gathering at his table any given day. He was a good host, assuring that they had the finest food and a selection of wines. He was a connoisseur, after all.

This was clearly a business expense, and it was a right his predecessors had readily used. In fact, to claim the allowance would not draw any attention, while refusing the perk could create headlines. Nehemiah chose to forego his rights.

Why? My pastor, Glen Nudd, notes:

There was something bigger going on in Nehemiah’s heart and mind than the opportunity to enjoy an enormous hospitality budget.

This decision alone demonstrates that Nehemiah did not change when he got a promotion. After stepping up to enormous responsibility and position, he didn’t forsake humility.

2. Followers pay a cost.
Pastor Nudd says any perk received by a person in a position is a tax, and taxes always have a cost.

No government programs are ever free; they have to be paid by someone.

Nehemiah perceived that the people already carried a heavy burden, and he wasn’t going to add to it. Instead, he sought to lighten it.

The ‘servant-style’ of godly leadership demands that we ask ourselves questions about privileges we’re given, offered, and expected to take and then to ask ourselves the question: ‘If I take advantage of that particular thing, could it potentially undermine my mission to serve those I’m leading?’

3. We are all followers.
What was Nehemiah’s motivation? Verse 15 says it was the fear of God. Because of his understanding of his position in relation to God, he knew his position in relation to the people.

Centuries later, Jesus would marvel at the faith of a Roman with high position willing to beg him to heal a highly-valued servant. This centurion told Jesus he was not worthy to have him step into his home, but knew he could heal with a word.

For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” (Matthew 8:9)

It’s easy to see the nature of authority in that quote. Sure, the centurion could tell people what to do. The key is that first phrase, “For I too am a man under authority.” If we know who we’re really serving, then we don’t abuse power; we handle authority and position with care. Servants don’t lord it over anyone.

4. Servants can “lead upwards.”
Followers usually emulate the behaviors and attitudes they see in their leaders. Nehemiah’s servants were right there with the people, rolling up their sleeves to lay stones in the wall. But what happens to followers who serve beneath a lording leader? Do they get a pass?

Chapter 3 draws out of obscurity the actual men and women who built the wall of Jerusalem. In the middle of this chapter, we see a case study of servants who plotted their own course. Verse 5 says the Tekoites repaired a specific part of the wall, and verse 27 adds that they went the extra mile, helping build a second section. They went above and beyond in spite of the example of those who should have been their role models. While the Tekoites put in the hard work, “their nobles would not stoop to serve their Lord” (Neh 3:5). What powerful phrasing, though a footnote is quick to point out the word “Lord” could also mean lords, or supervisors. Frankly, it’s all the same. When we serve our supervisors, our leaders and our followers, we’re serving our Lord (Eph 6:7).

Before Nehemiah ever aspired to lead, he revealed his posture and his heart. In his prayer in chapter 1, he used the word “servant” seven times. He put himself in good company with Moses and Israel as a “servant of the Lord.” It was easy for Nehemiah to think that way, because I’m convinced he thought the two words – “leader” and “servant” – were synonyms.

Nehemiah never undermined his mission. His character inspired a generation of Jewish leaders. His honest account in the book of Nehemiah influenced many generations to come. And as an exile in a hostile culture, he likely offered a striking contrast to the leadership style of an ungodly king in an ungodly culture. On that point alone, his life and his leadership are certainly relevant to us today.

If I had a nickel for every time someone referred to me as “our fearless leader,” I’d be a wealthy man. I realize people are trying to honour me, and I accept that, but the label rubs me the wrong way because it suggests that I’m cut from different cloth. It suggests I must be among the fearless ones, when most people have fears, and many are debilitated by fears.

It puts a leader on a pedestal that places leadership safely out of reach for the normal person.

But leading isn’t about being fearless. It’s about overcoming fear. Think about some of these Old Testament characters. We remember that all three boldly approached a foreign king, asking for favour:

  • Esther seems to have tried to dodge the pending annihilation of her people, keeping her heritage hidden beneath the robes of a queen. But then she accepted her cousin’s charge that she was God’s woman on the scene “for such a time as this.” She asked her people in the city to fast for three days while she summoned courage to visit the king and make her request. She concluded, “If I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:12-17). After winning the king’s favour, she still took two days to make her request, easing into it by filling the king’s stomach with feasting. Was it continued nerves or a strategic approach?
  • Ezra’s burden to teach the returning exiles God’s Word led him to approach the king and ask for favour to return to Jerusalem. He had more faith than strategy, because he kicks himself for failing to ask for protection. This became an extra burden when the king was so taken with this scribe’s request that he appointed him governor and overloaded him with donations. God’s hand and love had been so clearly extended to Ezra that he “took courage” (Ezra 7:28), but he admitted a few verses later that he had been “ashamed to ask the king” for protection after boasting in God’s power (Ezra 8:22). Desperate, he proclaimed a fast “and implored our God” to come through for them.
  • Nehemiah prayed four months before slipping up and allowing the king to see the burden he carried. When asked why he was so glum, he was “very much afraid.” He gulped and offered a teaser. When the king took the bait and asked his request, this cupbearer prayed a desperate plea before illogically seeking an appointment as construction foreman for a city wall (Neh 2:1-5).

My point is that we usually remember the outcome, not the struggle. Often the perception is self-inflicted, as leaders reinforce the hero myth. If followers only see the outcome, they put leaders on the pedestal. Leaders need to be clear about the burden we couldn’t shake, the wrestling with God, the dark nights of the soul that led us to make a bold decision.

Worse yet, sometimes leaders convince themselves that they were fearless. Perhaps it’s delusion, believing the headlines. Perhaps it’s forgetfulness. Perhaps it’s poor self awareness. Both Ezra and Nehemiah refer often to “the hand of God” being on them to the point of compulsion. They never claimed credit for their own courage.

Followers can also play a role in overcoming fear. In a later scene after Ezra gets to Jerusalem and exposes a pattern of sin among the clergy, he faces a horrendous decision. The king had given Ezra incredible authority to back up his teaching with strict judgment: death, exile, bankruptcy or prison (7:26). Still, Ezra struggled with the decision until his followers—the ones caught in sin—told him he must follow-through. “Arise, for it is your task, and we are with you; be strong and do it” (10:4). What an amazing verse of followership! Clearly God’s hand was on Ezra to have followers ready to face their punishment.

So how do you overcome fear? As I was putting this blog together, a friend referred me to the blog of Jeff Iorg, President of Golden Gate Seminary. In July 2012, he wrote three powerful and practical blogs on the subject of overcoming fear. They’re a worthy follow-up to this blog post.