The day begins as any other in prison—no hope, no indication that today’s dreariness is going to be any different than any other. Joseph’s sentence is undefined and subject to the whims of Pharaoh. At thirty years old, he’s become jaded, burned from briefly allowing himself to hope that the cupbearer would put in a good word. His optimism faded long ago—two whole years, like an added sentence. So in Joseph’s wildest dreams he couldn’t begin to imagine what this day holds. He doesn’t allow himself to dream.

Suddenly a summons, and a whirlwind of activity. Bathing, shaving, new clothes, makeup. In a few short hours—minutes perhaps, given Pharaoh’s sense of urgency—Joseph is transformed from a lowly prisoner and slave to advisor, standing before Pharaoh like an intern called before the president. He doesn’t seem to have been given any context, any indication of what he’s being asked to do. All these years of waiting, and Joseph has a few minutes to make an impression. There is no transition.

Joseph can’t possibly have a plan; the opportunity is so sudden, he is clearly working off the cuff, relying on God to guide him. And yet all of Joseph’s thirty years have prepared him for this moment of spontaneity. Upon his summons he has the presence of mind to offer a rebuttal that it is God who can give Pharaoh what he wants; Joseph is merely a spokesperson. Then he has a few minutes to listen to God’s word to Pharaoh, sense the meaning in it, collect his thoughts and give a response.

In Genesis 41:1-32, Joseph does exactly as requested and expected: he tells Pharaoh seven years of abundance will be followed by seven years of famine.

It would be a completely different story if Joseph ends there. However, like the sons of Issachar (1 Chronicles 12:32), Joseph not only understands the times but knows what to do. That’s where Joseph crosses a line from being simply a prophet to being a discerning and wise strategist. The key, of course, is that in Joseph “is the Spirit of God” (Gen 41:38). He combines wisdom with action, and the courage to follow through. Joseph takes an enormous risk advising action to Pharaoh. I imagine a deafening moment of silence when he finishes, with all eyes on Pharaoh. In verse 37, a smile creeps over Pharaoh’s face, and things will never be the same for Joseph.

Pharaoh’s gut tells him he needs to promote this young man as the one to implement this plan. To come up with such a specific plan of action with no advance preparation, it’s clear to all that God must have shown him the strategy, too. It is this God who makes Joseph stand out above Pharaoh’s own wise men (Gen 41:8,38-39). Pharaoh makes a key observation: that this is not a one-time incident; if the Spirit of God dwells in Joseph, no one will be as continually discerning and wise as Joseph. Within the next nine years, God will make Joseph a “father to Pharaoh” (Gen 45:8), and he will instruct princes and teach Pharaoh’s elders wisdom (Ps 105:22).

By the end of the day, Joseph has a new name, fine clothing, a signet ring, a private chariot and a new bed in his own palace.

But Joseph is not content to kick back, enjoy his new status and his new wife. Motivated and ready for action after waiting so long, he quickly gets to work. How does Joseph lead in times of prosperity? First, he scouts the country and secures his status. It’s important as a newcomer that he be seen, and it’s important that he see the land. He learned leadership at a much smaller scale, which allowed him to get to know and attend those under his care, and his new scope requires travel. His education in Egypt has also been incomplete, and he must learn the agricultural industry. As the Theology of Work Project puts it,

His office would have required that he learn much about legislation, communication, negotiation, transportation, safe and efficient methods of food storage, building, economic strategizing and forecasting, record-keeping, payroll, the handling of transactions both by means of currency and through bartering, human resources, and the acquisition of real estate…. The genius of Joseph’s success lay in the effective integration of his divine gifts and acquired competencies.

Joseph has a high level of responsibility and loyalty, and with a looming deadline, he has a lot to manage. Like any businessman today, Joseph needs agility to take full advantage of opportunities and resolve bottlenecks, and the right balance between stockpiling and investing for “the business cycle of economic boom and bust” (Tien Fock). Planning and preparation is required to preserve some grain for sowing at the end of the famine, while the rest will be portioned out by year. Security at the storage facilities will also need to be part of the plan.

True to the plan he had laid out to Pharaoh, he taxes the revenues during this period of abundance at 20%. He scales the management task, creating a regional oversight structure under competent leaders and designing regional storage collection. And he tracks inventory and revenues, until the abundance is too great to measure. Some accounting historians suggest this passage is marking an epic change in bookkeeping from tokens to writing; “the breakdown of the means by which the surpluses could be measured” (Jose and Moore) may precipitate a shift in how accounting is done in the ancient world. In short, God’s abundant provision breaks the system.

A rising tide raises all boats, and this period is a time of fabulous wealth for all. Joseph enters his own seven-year period of fruitfulness, gaining two boys (Gen 41:50-52) and incredible favour with Pharaoh. God is restoring Joseph and nurturing an environment that will preserve life, and especially Jacob’s family line (Gen 45:5-7). The edge that Pharaoh enjoys above any others is Joseph’s extraordinary insight into the timing of the trends. However, there is no way Joseph could tax the people and store this much grain in secret. As a man of integrity, Joseph wouldn’t have practiced insider trading; the timeline of abundance and famine had to be made public, and others had a chance to follow Joseph’s investment plan. Yet all evidence points to a failure by any individual Egyptians to properly plan for the seven years of famine.

The season turns, and the time of plenty comes to an end. Joseph has proven himself as prime minister, fulfilling his promise as a leader. There are different challenges to leading in abundance than leading in scarcity, and we’ll look at how Joseph adjusts in my next post.


Joseph series:

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This is one of my favorite leadership qualities. In times of vast discontinuous change, leaders who understand the times are as rare as they are valuable.

In the Old Testament, there are two references to people who understood the times (Esther 1:13, I Chron 12:32). All kings seem to have surrounded themselves with men who understood the times and knew the direction the king should go. Kings had an uneasy relationship with these “wise men,” sometimes choosing to follow their advice and sometimes going their own way. For instance, Solomon’s son Rehoboam.

I want to pick an earlier and more familiar example, however. Everyone remembers the story of Joseph, a young man who was sold into slavery by his brothers. After some fruitful years as a slave in Egypt, managing the household of his master efficiently, he’s railroaded and thrown in prison. Even there, God’s hand is on him, and he thrives, taking on responsibility. One day his opportunity for redemption finally comes in the form of a dream by the king. God gives him the ability to understand the meaning of the dream and to come up with a plan that will rescue Egypt, preserve Israel and make his boss really wealthy.

Joseph certainly understands the times. He knows there will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of severe drought. He deploys his plan with efficiency and discipline. When the task of stockpiling gets too difficult, he doesn’t give up on collecting food; he gives up on counting. So, when the seven years of plenty end, Egypt and Joseph are in good shape. That’s where the story gets interesting.

Two years into the drought, everyone else’s worst-case scenarios have expired.

  • Genesis 45:6 says the famine has reached a critical stage for Joseph’s Canaan-based family by year two of the drought.
  • 47:17-20 records how Joseph bought all of the property of Egypt and Canaan with the grain he’d collected.
  • By 47:21, he owns all the people. He can then dictate terms under a rollover contract that lasts long after the famine ends.

But here’s the thing that caught my attention. In the years of plenty, no one but Joseph saw the drought ahead. Anyone who did plan ahead saved up a couple of years worth to get them through what would surely be a short-term decline. Joseph’s value came in his God-given ability to understand the times and know what to do.

Is there anyone who understands the times today? We have no context for the changes we’re going through. A global financial crisis has never happened before, so all the previous models just don’t apply. It’s obvious that old guidelines don’t cut it in 10%+ unemployment, unheard-of foreclosure rates and frozen credit. Eddie Gibbs, in Leadership Next: Changing Leaders in a Changing Culture, says:

It is evident in rapidly changing times that knowledge does not necessarily flow from experience. Yesterday’s solutions and procedures may not provide an adequate or appropriate response to present challenges. Hence, the biggest hurdles facing long-time leaders may not be in learning new insights and skills, but in unlearning what they consider to be tried and true and what thus provides them with a false sense of security.

My response is that God is still God in good times and bad. He was still God while Joseph fumed in prison. Our brothers and sisters in the non-Western church can testify that they still have hope, joy and faith when the economy simply doesn’t rebound. I think we have a lot to learn from them, whether it’s patience in endurance or a theology of suffering. Christianity thrives in difficult times… because we realize we need God!

I suggest we learn from Joseph to be faithful and do the little things even from exile, even from prison.

I suggest we leaders seek the God who does understand the times and occasionally chooses to disclose them to those who listen.

I suggest we try our best to be ready when opportunity happens, even in the darkest situations.

And I suggest we seek to help each other out, offering our best to fellow prisoners with little hope of reward.

You never know how God might choose to use these times, because he holds today, and he holds the future.

“Hurry, everybody! Hide! The future is coming!”

I think my three-year-old daughter summed up the way a lot of people feel about the future. Time to put our heads in the sand. Maybe it’ll go away.

I’m really enjoying the premise of the new show, FlashForward — the idea that everyone on the planet gets a two-minute glimpse of their future six months ahead. For some, this glimpse gives them hope. For others, it’s agonizing. As the season moves ahead, I’m looking forward to seeing how the show tackles ideas like free will, our ability to control our destiny and our inherent brokenness. I’m quite sure I’ll be disappointed, but I might also be pleasantly delighted at the truth the show exposes.

Yesterday morning I led Wycliffe USA’s leaders in a discussion on succession planning. One point I made is that you can’t anticipate the leadership needs of an organization or department by looking at today’s leader. The tendency if you do that is either to seek a clone to succeed an incumbent or rather to seek a reaction to the incumbent — someone who has strengths where the incumbent is weak. Unfortunately, the present is a bad starting place for succession planning. You have to force yourself into an assessment of the organization and an assessment of future trends that then defines the leadership needs of an organization or department. Where are the challenges and opportunities going to be? Who can take advantage and lead us in that reality?

The future is coming. Are you the kind of person who sticks your head in the sand, or one who wishes you could see around corners? Are you excited or depressed about what you see?

Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying.

How does a leader maintain perspective in chaos and crisis? With everyone’s eyes on her, the leader has to keep her calm and her optimism. We expect it of our leaders. They are our barometer and our plumline. Leaders cannot panic, and they cannot show their despair. So what does she do if she fears the same things that panic her followers? She has a choice to either fake quiet confidence or find some bedrock of her own.

I want to suggest three ways to do that, inspired by Paul’s words above. I’ll cover the first one here and follow with the others. The most important thing is that a leader has to know where to find hope for herself. David penned Psalm 121 for pilgrims climbing the long, steep, dry mountainous road toward Jerusalem. He recognizes that his hope doesn’t come from the strength of mountains or the literal and figurative strength of the city Jerusalem.

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the LORD,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber…

“Our confident hope” means that the leader takes confidence in nothing but the faithfulness of God and the work of Christ. God is the one who doesn’t change, the great Creator who never sleeps. Christ is the one who took the foolish things of this world and appointed them over the wise. There’s no reason any of us should be leaders except for the fact that Jesus redeemed us from our brokenness and gave us hope.

Starting from that point means a leader can strengthen her inner core, find confidence and even rejoice in spite of chaos and crisis around her. Circumstances don’t sway someone who has a strong foundation. And setbacks don’t derail someone with a strong vision that goes beyond their organization or even their tenure in office. And a leader who doesn’t lose hope inspires those whose eyes are watching her.

Moses was one of those kinds of leaders. His foundation was firmly set on a personal relationship with God and his eyes fixed on the vision of “a land flowing with milk and honey.” Over and over, Moses’ response to adversity was to go to God for help. He spent hours with God and was transformed by the experience. He dumped his complaints before God and urged Him to defend His name. In return, God was his avenger, speaking on his behalf and even striking down some who publicly spoke against him. Moses’ help came from the Maker of heaven and earth.

I’ve just finished reading Leading With a Limp, by Dan Allender. He says hope comes most out of situations of despair and disillusionment, when a leader’s optimism and idealism “suffer a mortal injury.” When the leader realizes that she can’t do everything or that she can’t solve this one problem, she hits the wall and her own limitations become clear. That’s where the God whose “strength is made perfect in weakness” can do His best work. God alone is our hope, and we realize it most when all of our other idols are exposed. That’s the best position to lead from.

As my friend Paul Edwards said once, “We gaze at Christ and glance at the waves around us.”