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:

In my chronological reading through the Bible, I’ve arrived at the book of Nehemiah—a remarkable study of leadership. Many others have preached, blogged and written on the leadership principles gleaned from this case study. Nevertheless, I’m going to attempt to draw out some fresh points. As you will recall, Nehemiah was a cupbearer to King Artaxerxes, the Persian King. In spite of his status as a Jewish exile, he earned a position as part of the bodyguard protecting the ruler of one of the world’s two greatest powers at the time.

From the very first moment we meet Nehemiah, we sense a calling. As he serves the king in Persia, the news reaches him that Jerusalem is still lying in ruins after almost a century. It wrecks him. He weeps, he mourns and he prays day and night—for four months. Nehemiah doesn’t just pray with objectivity; he prays himself into the solution: “let Your servant prosper this day, I pray, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man,” the king (Nehemiah 1:11).

In other words, Nehemiah does something Moses and Gideon would never have dared. While they said, “send somebody else,” Nehemiah says, “send me.” God honours his request, and it starts him on a promotion path. First King Artaxerxes appoints him as foreman of the rebuilding effort. Then, after some early success in Jerusalem, the king promotes him to governor. When my pastor Glen Nudd preached on Nehemiah recently, he summarized it neatly:

At the end of it all, Nehemiah is given a job, a position, an assignment, a mission. He invites it, he receives it, he accepts it, he embraces it.

Can you do that? Is it okay for believers to show such ambition? Aren’t we supposed to resist the temptations of advancement and the lure of power? Isn’t it Christian to be content and to suppress ambition? Doesn’t Nehemiah’s action show complete lack of humility? As Pastor Glen put it:

Sometimes, as believers, we think that to be spiritual and godly we should always refuse advancement, promotion, or any kind of upward mobility and just go play in the shadows quietly, unnoticed and not expecting to influence anything very much. Maybe we think it’s the humble thing to do.

Were Moses and Gideon more godly than this young upstart, Nehemiah? After all, wasn’t Moses described in Numbers 12:3 as the most humble person on earth? Yet a careful reading reveals that Moses and Gideon were paralyzed by fear. I think many believers today have the same problem. While Pastor Glen allowed that there are valid reasons to turn down promotion, he pointed out that sometimes humility is a mask for the real issues for reluctance: fear of responsibility, fear of commitment, or fear of having our faith and abilities tested.

Pastor Glen asked us to consider promotion in a different light:

What if God wants to promote you so that He can use you in an even greater way to be salt and light in a dark world? What if your “no” is actually refusing the potential for great influence and ministry and impact for the Kingdom of God?

Proverbs 29:2 says, ‘When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when a wicked man rules, the people groan.’

It’s a good thing, a God-honoring thing, when God’s people are promoted and the salt gets better distributed and the light shines farther. When the gospel and the glory of God are advanced, that’s a good thing.

There’s no Biblical prohibition on ambition for a cause, and that’s why Nehemiah willingly accepts position. The question is how you lead in whatever position God gives you. Jim Collins will tell you that a great leader engaged in a cause should lead with humility. I met a few Proverbs 29 Members of Parliament a couple of weeks ago in Ottawa. I was impressed at their quiet competence, but also their fire when it came to causes like human trafficking. Like Nehemiah, they embraced high positions and the voice it gave them. Through years of faithful witness, each has earned respect for the way they handled the challenges of federal politics.

So, is the act of stepping up in leadership antithetical to humility? Not at all. The answer, as we’ll see in Nehemiah 5, is servant leadership.

As I mentioned in my April 12 post, I needed to pick a leadership movie for our film study in Wycliffe’s Leadership Development Initiative. After considering more than 65 suggestions from comments here and other social media venues, I settled on one. Let me start with the runner up, which didn’t make any of my previous lists.

Runner Up: Band of Brothers

I can’t summarize it any better than my friend Brandon Rhodes, who made the initial suggestion:

Band of Brothers is the best sustained exploration of leadership that I have ever seen. Hard to narrow it to one episode, though, since it unfolds the issue in such detail over many incidents—episode 1, 2, 3, 5, or 7 might do. That last one especially, as it shows someone who displays de facto leadership while not actually possessing rank over the soldiers he winds up leading, encouraging, and protecting. Note that the first episode takes leadership as its topic, and also includes not a single act of violence—which might make it more appropriate for an audience that might include people who are sensitive about violence in film.

Not having seen the whole series, I borrowed the disks and watched all of the episodes during a one-week window. An incredible series that looks at leadership from a lot of different sides, at different levels. Some of the characters who model leadership:

  • First Lieutenant Sobel models everything you don’t want to do. Do his problems stem from a lack of character or a lack of confidence? I suspect it’s the latter, and much of his autocratic style is designed to mask his personal deficiencies.
  • Like Brandon, I really enjoyed the servant leadership style of First Sergeant Lipton during unfathomable difficulty. While the ranked leaders fail, he steps into the void. He gains a title only after he demonstrates leadership.
  • Major Winters is of course the leadership hero. While others demonstrate greater feats on the battlefield and he only fires his gun once in battle, he’s a hero to me because he consents to be promoted and step away from his loyalty and love for Echo Company. The series does a great job of portraying his competence but also his sacrifice for the greater good.
  • I think my favourite leader has to be First Lieutenant Speirs. He seems to have an instinctual ability to lead men. I love the way he cultivates his image. He builds a reputation on a couple of brave, crazy acts that keep his men in awe and fear, then refuses their attempts to dispel the rumours and break down the image. And because he’s decisive and excellent under pressure when those traits are most needed, he becomes the rescuer the company needs, fostering a form of love and loyalty that I suspect went both ways.

In addition, the stories are extremely well-told and depicted. If you want evidence, ask my wife, who regularly falls asleep in action movies. She watched every minute of Band of Brothers. Well, she did drift off during that one battle… I loved the way every episode followed a different character and used different story-telling techniques. A very clever, well-done piece of art.

So if I liked the series so much, why did I not pick it? It’s not the violence that held me back. Brandon nails it: the series is a sustained exploration of leadership and didn’t suit the format of one tight movie. I wasn’t happy that any single episode would meet my need.

I want to spend a bit of time looking at two cautions in the leadership lessons of Numbers 11.

Do we cut God’s abilities short?

God answers the people’s request. He tells them he heard their complaint, and he’ll provide meat. But lest you read tenderness into this “answer to prayer,” God tells them they will have so much meat it will be coming out of their nostrils, and they’ll hate the sight of it! Moses is quick to point out the impracticality of God’s words. As you consider his hesitation and lack of faith, consider his track record with God. In Exodus 3, God said he heard Israel’s cry and had come to rescue them. Then he shocks Moses with his solution: “Now go, for I am sending you to Pharaoh” (v10) Here, when Moses hears God say he’ll provide meat, he’s probably thinking of all the work he’ll have to do to make it happen.

He learns a couple of important principles. One, God doesn’t work in the same way every time. This time is more like the plagues, when Moses sat back and watched. Two, he has to consider this fantastic question: “Has my arm lost its power?” Another version renders it, “Is my arm too short?” This is a very direct challenge to Moses’ faith, and a great question for leaders to consider.

In what ways do we cut short in our minds and in our planning the ability of God to work wonders? In what ways do we take on God’s responsibility as we lead his people (1 Peter 5:2)? It’s a dangerous thing to conclude, “If this is going to happen, I’m going to have to do it myself.” God makes it very personal for Moses: “Now you will see whether or not my word comes true!” (Numbers 11:23)

Do we take God at his word?

God has given us promises as leaders. He has given us general ones through Scripture and when he gives us a vision, he often accompanies it with overt and implied promises that are much more personal in nature. Part of leading is our own faith journey — our ability to take God at his word. This was the challenge Moses experienced at that moment of crisis.

Of course, God comes through in a miraculous way. Can you imagine seeing quail piled three feet deep and stretching a day’s journey in any direction? Can you imagine the number of birds? Moses couldn’t either.

Do our mistakes influence others?

Joshua only shows up once in this story, but there are several important points to consider. As Moses’ assistant “since his youth,” it’s clear that Moses identified his leadership ability early on and has mentored him for several years. But in this instance he earns a rebuke for attempting to protect Moses. Why?

I suspect he’s afraid of insurrection. With all the people whining, there could be danger in the fact that two leaders stayed behind in the camp rather than accept the invitation to join the other 68 at the Tabernacle. So Joshua begs Moses to stop those two from prophesying. Moses, on the other hand, points out that Joshua doesn’t need to be jealous for Moses’s sake. Moses knows he isn’t the point.

In addition to the natural tendency for an assistant to see himself as guardian of his boss’s honour, Matthew Henry suggests that Joshua would have been one of the seventy himself. He may well have been “jealous for the honour of their order.” In that moment, Joshua demonstrates a foundational flaw in his belief system. Could it be that he had a scarcity model, as if God’s Spirit going to others might dilute the power in each individual? Or could it be a desire for control, as if Moses could restrict or put parameters on God’s Spirit? In our most unguarded moments, our core beliefs become evident.

Most importantly, I suspect Joshua heard Moses whining. After all, other passages talk about how Joshua is a witness to the intimate conversations between God and Moses. He was the only other person allowed on Mount Sinai with Moses, and he was often in the tent of meeting as Moses and God talked face-to-face. So it’s reasonable to expect that he heard Moses complaining. While Moses quickly rebounds to leadership form, Joshua doesn’t recover quite as quickly. He’s clearly on the wrong side in this one, and Moses has to rebuke him. It’s a reminder that others can be drawn into and hurt by our sin and weakness. I’m all for vulnerability and modelling, but it can be both instructive and destructive.

The good news is that Joshua made his mistake before he stepped onto the leadership stage himself. It was a learning opportunity. And that is probably the greatest leadership lesson in this passage: we are all learners. Whether we’re already in that position of leadership and influence or on our way, we never stop growing in our understanding of God, our faith in him and our ability to lead. Thank God that he’s not finished with us, and he shows grace to help us learn from our mistakes.

The struggle over the greater good revealed the character and leadership ability of Lincoln.

At first, Lincoln was mildly inspirational about his desire to see the thirteenth amendment passed. He was somewhat aloof, casting vision and attempting to cash in political capital. He struggled with his desire to end a war that had claimed 600,000 lives and yet the moral opportunity to change America forever for the good.

Honest Abe was very open with his cabinet about his struggles over legality. He showed vulnerability in pursuing the best course he could see at the time. Was he right to use war powers? Did he really have the ability to emancipate the slaves as seized property? He admitted that all those previous steps would leave him very much exposed if he didn’t take it all the way and win legal freedom for the slaves. In the end, his vulnerability won over his leadership team.

Then Lincoln struggled with the means. He tried to keep his hands clean, asking his Secretary of State to organize the dirty work himself. But when push came to shove, Lincoln abandoned deniability and realized the vote would fail without his personal involvement. He waded into the work to win votes, meeting personally with some key leaders who were on the fence.

He led from a broad base of input and used a broad range of tools. He sought input from voices as disparate as influential donors, a cabinet of political foes, soldiers both black and white, telegraph men and White House servants. He pushed, pulled, cajoled and won over. Only when he’d narrowed the gap to two votes at the eleventh hour did he attempt to bring his considerable power to bear.

In the end, he had to sit back and hope that he’d done enough. It was out of his control. Thankfully, it went the way he desired. But that’s leadership: you really only have influence, and then people make their own decisions.

This film was a completely different story than Amazing Grace, which detailed a 40-year peaceful struggle to free the slaves. But Lincoln was just as compelling a story and leadership profile. It left me thinking, and it left me inspired. (more…)

I was recently telling a colleague in Canada about a friend of mine I’ve worked with for some time who has a lot of leadership ability. This individual has a lot of influence, is engaging, has strong networks and is very competent. But something’s lacking. While relating to people well and even reading audiences intuitively as a speaker, this young leader is missing a key part of emotional intelligence. I finally think I’ve identified it: a dearth of curiosity. When I told my colleague about my friend, she challenged me: “Then how can this person be a leader?”

A dearth of curiosity is a career derailer. Curiosity is critical to leadership. It’scritical for lifelong learning. It’s critical for teamwork. And it’s critical for diversity.

On my flight to Toronto, I read an article by David Marcum and Stephen Smith, called “The Ultimate Team.” The authors point out that we all assume that good teams need diversity. However, diversity of viewpoints, age, ethnicity and experience doesn’t guarantee anything.

Diversity, without curiosity, isn’t worth much. Great teams know how to tap into the collective experience  and POV of everyone of them. But that “tapping” isn’t frequent enough on most teams to move them from “good enough,” to great.

One of the problems with a lack of curiosity is that it’s a form of arrogance. It signifies a person has concluded they know everything they need to know. They therefore hold back on colleagues and team members. They make judgments quickly, and are often unfortunately final in their decisions.

So if a dearth of curiosity is death to a leader and to a team member, is there no hope for my friend? There has to be a way to grow in curiosity. How do you increase your capacity for curiosity? Give me your best ideas. There are a lot of people who need your help.

A quick follow-up to my last post on positional and personal authority, lest you think I fell off the earth.

Personal authority includes spiritual authority. Let me give you an example from the biography I’ve just finished, Hudson Taylor and Maria, about the missionary pioneers to China. Author J.C. Pollock tries to parse the incredible influence of this frail, slight, poor and often-sick man so dedicated to his vision. Here’s how one of Taylor’s early recruits with the China Inland Mission puts it: “His strong yet quiet faith in the promises of Scripture, his implicit confidence in God, this it was which compelled submission on my part to whatever he proposed for me.”

Taylor had no social standing, positional power or imposing stature. Instead, it was his simple faith, total dependence on God and intimate prayer life, followed by unwavering dedication to his vision, that allowed him to achieve greatness.

Isaiah says the same thing about the Christ in Isaiah 53:2:

There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance,
nothing to attract us to him.

Jesus didn’t attract followers because of his looks. (Aside: It’s an interesting thought to me that God didn’t bestow his ultimate creation with the looks of Brad Pitt.) He didn’t attract them for his stature or his magnanimous personality. He attracted them for completely different reasons. Some of the greatest men who ever lived follow in his footsteps: you wouldn’t notice them except for their incredible following.