Looking over your shoulder

As we continue exploring Exodus 17:8-16, I want to turn our attention to the foot of the hill and the young leader who steps into the spotlight for the first time. Joshua is designated by Moses to lead the forces of Israel in their first battle. They go on to route a larger army that is better prepared and has every advantage.

Of course, we know why he really won. My question is whether Joshua figured out the secret of his success. Could he see the three men silhouetted on the hill? Did he wonder what they were up to? Did he eventually logic out that it wasn’t whether he did anything great on his own, but whether Moses’ arms were raised? Did he have one eye on his present situation and one checking behind him to see Moses’ posture? And, in doing so, begin to work with God?

Clearly, the story doesn’t tell us. We can only guess, because so many details are left out of the story of Joshua. For a man who featured so heavily in the story of Moses, who then becomes leader of Israel for 27 years and even has a book named after him, we know surprisingly little. We don’t know if he ever married. We don’t know his back story. And we don’t know his thoughts or fears.

Knowing Joshua’s confidence level would give insight into whether he figured out his role in the successful battle that day. An overconfident leader would conclude that it was all about his great strategy—only to discover at the debrief that he had very little to do with it (v14). A leader unsure of himself would spend too much time looking over his shoulder at Moses, to see if he was doing it right and to watch Moses’ hand positions. Which one describes this young leader of 30 or 40 in his public debut?

Joshua’s back story

A leader’s confidence is so often tied to his or her back story. Great books like Dan Allender’s, Leading with a Limp, urge us to lead out of who we are, and to embrace the brokenness in us that comes from prior experiences. But what was Joshua’s back story? We simply don’t know where he was prior to Exodus 17:9.

We know he lived in Egypt. Given the role Moses offers him, there’s a good chance he had some form of military background in Egypt.

We know he participated in the first 17 1/2 chapters of Exodus. But that simply leads to more questions about how he developed his leadership aptitude.

  • Where was he among the skeptical Hebrew leaders in Egypt when Moses first showed up with a message from God (Ex 4:29-31)?
  • Where was he when the foremen complained to Moses that he had made them a stink in the sight of Pharaoh, who ended the distribution of straw in retaliation (Ex 5:21)?
  • Where was he in the exodus from Egypt, that night when Moses had to signal to an entire nation that it was time to leave?
  • Where was he in the crossing of the Red Sea, as the people nervously paced the beach, watching the dust rise from chariot wheels?
  • Where was he when the people were grumbling?
  • Where was he in the first half of this chapter, when the people were ready to stone Moses?

Leaders don’t burst on the scene fully developed, so there are two possibilities.

Perhaps Joshua was an emerging leader, beginning to catch Moses’ eye by taking on unmentioned roles—helping mobilize the people on Passover night, vigilant on the beach beside the Red Sea as the pillar of fire kept the Egyptian army at bay, a loyalist giving encouragement to Moses.

Or, Joshua was already in some kind of leadership position and had to choose to come under Moses’ authority. Note in the paragraph above that those in established positions were not always on Moses’ side. In fact, the first seven verses of Exodus 17 tell us that not everyone was part of “Team Moses.” There was an insurrection brewing. Which side was Joshua on?

In other words, if Moses wasn’t the one to first draw out Joshua as a leader, when did the young man convert from critic to loyalist?

Whatever the back story, in this moment Moses trusts Joshua implicitly. Joshua is thrown into the deep end and finds himself leading a battle. Soon Joshua will become indispensable to Moses.

With those musings as a foundation, let’s get to a few points of application.

1. Leaders are followers first. Godly leadership takes a conversion from the role of skeptic, critic and grumbler who wishes he was in charge, to a new role as a loyalist who surrenders to God’s leadership.

2. Our best strategy is to participate with God in his purposes. Did Joshua’s strategies even matter to the battle? What would have happened if Joshua had laid down his weapons? Would he still have prevailed? There’s a lesson here about why God so often only lets us see the big picture after the fact. Somehow, in some way, our efforts and strategies do matter, but so often the real results come from a spiritual strategy or prayer. We take great risks when we foray out on our own without that foundation.

3. We need to give young leaders space. There’s a risk with young or inexperienced leaders. They may be put in the driver’s seat, but they spend all their time looking back over their shoulder to see if they’re doing it right, if they have their superior’s or mentor’s approval. That’s where, if the one with the authority has another job to do, it creates space. Whatever Joshua’s back story was, Moses took a calculated gamble. Rather than lurking around as an observer, Moses goes where he can’t possibly grab the controls. He’s occupied elsewhere. Yet, he still does everything he can to make Joshua successful.

I believe Joshua figured out where his success was coming from. The clue is in the absence of detail about what Moses was saying on the mountain. While most of Moses’ prayers, speeches and arguments with God were meticulously recorded, Moses’ biographer was otherwise occupied on this day. Joshua recorded faithfully the only detail he could see: the posture of Moses’ hands. It gave him the courage to apply his leadership on the ground.


Moses on the Mountain series:

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The art of influencing

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:

Joseph: Leading in crisis

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:

A leadership case study: football in Florida

You knew I’d eventually have to comment on Urban Meyer, coach of the University of Florida. As a student of competition as well as a student of leadership, I love watching sports management, draft decisions and trade discussions. Football in Florida this year offers some interesting scenarios and lessons for leadership, with Bobby Bowden’s retirement from Florida State after 34 years and Urban Meyer’s health leave.

For some time, I’ve been watching Florida State because of their succession planning arrangement. I admired their decision to try to work out a seamless transition but observed with interest how they handled some of the pitfalls:

  • How does the incumbent leader know when to step away?
  • What if he knows it’s time but is afraid of the future?
  • What happens if the successor deems himself “ready” before the incumbent leaves?
  • Who has the real power in hiring decisions?
  • Is the university still committed to going in the same direction a few years after they named the successor, especially when that successor hasn’t looked like the savior they hoped him to be?

Though Florida State fumbled the handoff a bit and ended up creating some bitterness with Bobby’s family, Jimbo Fisher has taken the reigns and has been given the flexibility to remake the coaching staff because of the way things shook out this season. Florida State football is moving in a predictable direction, and the future looks bright under its new coach. All as a result of forethought and planning.

Florida, on the other hand, was caught completely by surprise when Urban Meyer announced December 26 that he was stepping down. I’m sure Florida’s administration had some forewarning, but it was still a shock. How on earth could a coach resign out of the blue after five wildly successful years? Florida had just breathed a sigh of relief when Notre Dame hired someone else; they knew they could plan on having their coach for a lot more years if he was willing to turn down his “dream job.” They were so confident they let their emergency plan walk out the door to coach Louisville. Yet, here they were, caught without a coach or even a thought of transition planning.

Florida acted quickly and managed to talk Meyer into calling it a leave of absence rather than a resignation. Gator Nation breathed a sigh of relief — with the hope that Meyer will come back, the recruiting class is safe and the administration has a bit of time to put a plan together. However, I want to ask, from a leadership standpoint: Is Florida in a better place today — both short and long term — than they would have been if they went out and found the best coach on the market? I think Florida has some very uncomfortable days and decisions ahead. The questions I’m asking:

  • How well has Meyer’s leadership style set up his assistants to succeed? We’ll find out pretty quickly how much of the offense came from Meyer himself. With a lot of transition in the team and an interim coach without real authority, there’s a recipe for failure here in the short term. This was going to be one of Meyer’s toughest coaching years anyway. Now the interim coach inherits that challenge.
  • What if Meyer doesn’t come back in 2010? How long do they wait for him? How long will the University be strung along?
  • What if Meyer comes back too early? In the last few days, he’s shown that he’s willing to yield to pressure, at the expense of promises to family. How much pressure will there be to return by August? What happens if Meyer can’t handle the stress during the season?

Let me be clear here. Yes, I am a football fan, but many of these questions aren’t football questions. They’re leadership questions. Here are a few of my conclusions. First, no leader is ever irreplaceable, and no leader can guarantee his or her future. Boards and supervisors must always have a plan for emergency and long-term successors.

Second, there are certain priorities that override your business objectives. Health is one of those. To their credit, Florida showed that its people are their priority, not just a winning product. They clearly showed loyalty to a coach who has given them everything.

Third, sometimes making a clear but difficult decision, without looking back, is better for business than sentimentality. While I admire Florida’s loyalty to Meyer, I think they’re going to regret their attempt to hold onto past success by holding onto Meyer. I think they could have showed just as much loyalty and honor to Meyer while saying goodbye with great pomp and celebration. Then they could have moved on.