In the early years of Genesis 37:2-18, a few things are established about Joseph—threads that will weave throughout his story. Some are strengths, and some weaknesses.

A. Pride
It’s clear that Joseph is a proud shepherd. As students of the Bible or history know, there would later come years where shepherds were the lowest of the low. In fact, that would be the case when Joseph arrives in Egypt. It shows that pride is not dependent on position or status or circumstances. A self-focused heart attitude can thrive anywhere. So he wears his coat everywhere and relishes in the dreams.

B. Low emotional intelligence
Joseph is low on emotional intelligence, with extremely poor impact awareness. The pair of dreams in his early days are for him; God is providing the hope, the promise, the anchor that will sustain him in those years when he will walk through the shadow of death (Rev Bernard Bouissieres). Whether his pride leads him to disregard the potential impact of sharing his dreams, or whether he is unaware that it prompts even his father to ridicule him, his loose lips in this moment seem to be the tipping point for his brothers. They hate him enough to consider killing him. Joseph doesn’t seem to sense the danger when his father sends him out to his brothers again. Is it naiveté or courage that allows him to walk into the seething trap that will alter the course of his life?

C. Mentoring
The favour Joseph enjoys from his father gives him a unique gift: special access to a patriarch. In a sense, he has a mentor who takes a liking to him. What does he learn from his father by working so closely with him? Jacob had proved to be a very effective shepherd during his 14 years serving Laban (Gen 28-31). He worked adversarial conditions to his own ends, building the roots of the flock his sons now shepherd. Jacob was gifted in leadership and strategy—the dark side of which is manipulation. As a young man, Jacob lived up to his name: a deceiver who showed entrepreneurial giftings. But after a twenty-year period of character building under his uncle Laban, he was a changed man. In Genesis 33-35, he wrestled with God and was given a new name, then pursued reconciliation with his brother and came to hate deception (Dr. Leong Tien Fock). Jacob is therefore a deep well for Joseph to draw on if he takes advantage of these years.

D. Leadership gifts
So let me address the question I raised in my previous post. Is Joseph already holding a leadership position at age seventeen? The pivotal question is the significance of the special tunic Jacob bestows on his son. Why would his father give Joseph such a flagrantly visible sign of favour, and why would Joseph wear it everywhere? The answer I heard in Sunday School is that it is a gift showing favouritism, accompanied of course with the simplistic moral that favouritism is bad. But there are far more layers to this tunic. Most translations call it a “coat of many colours,” but the footnote in my Bible hints at other meanings of the phrase. In The Living Torah, Aryeh Kaplan explains the Hebrew can be translated to say the robe was either colourful, embroidered, striped, contained pictures, abnormally long or made of fine material. King David’s daughter would wear something similar in 2 Samuel 13:18-19. In other words, it is a royal robe. Did Jacob intend it as a sign of favour or a depiction of assumptions that Joseph would assume leadership of the family? It may well be the first prophecy in chapter 37.

Some commentaries read leadership into other areas of this passage. Jamieson-Fausset-Brown (JFB) Bible Commentary says Genesis 37:2 implies leadership: “Joseph being seventeen years old was a shepherd over the flock”. Rabbi Moshe Reiss says the Hebrew text mixes up the word order: literally, “he was shepherding his brothers with the flock.” In While Shepherds Watch their Flocks, Gary Laniak points out that there are multiple levels of shepherding. The larger the flocks, the more hierarchy is required. An overshepherd focuses on managing a flock while others provide more individualized care for smaller groups of sheep. The overshepherd watches for trends in food supply, health and birthing, makes decisions about selling animals, negotiates access to grazing land and obtains veterinary care. He may not be with the sheep all the time, but insists on spending time among the sheep in order to know what they need (Laniak, pp 231-235).

So let’s play it out. What does it mean if Joseph at seventeen was an overshepherd? It changes everything about the story. Now it makes sense why Joseph visits the sheep while pasturing them instead of being there all the time, as his brothers are. It adds a darker tone to the hatred developing between step brothers. It changes the nature of the bad report Joseph brings to his father. It provides the foundation for Joseph’s near-fatal errand in Dothan; he is following through on his responsibilities to lead. And it explains why Jacob feels the need to set Joseph apart with a unique tunic.

In the tunic, Jacob seems to be giving his son a title. But as John Maxwell is fond of saying, a title only borrows a bit of time to prove your leadership. As a potential leader, Joseph has no followers in this first act. The only one who puts any thought into Joseph is his father, who begins to mull over what the dreams might mean. For Joseph’s brothers, his would-be followers, the robe becomes a focus of their anger, and they send a multi-layered message to their father by dipping it in blood.

So Joseph has the raw materials for leadership, but his character and skills are lacking. God has a plan for him, and the next thirteen years will be painful as he’s tested, trained and prepared to fulfill his promise.

Take a moment to think back to your early days. What promise of leadership would others have seen in you? Did you get any special opportunities or have a mentor who paid special attention to you? What mistakes did you make? Today, would you entrust your earlier self with leadership?

About ten years ago, I completed a 360 review as part of a leadership development course, and I decided to include two people who had worked with me in my days as a first-time supervisor. Over the years, they have both been enthusiastic supporters of my leadership, one as a mentor/supervisor and one as a direct report. When I saw the results of the 360 review—lightly edited to protect anonymity—I was surprised to note that their comments stood out. The feedback from these two trusted colleagues were outliers; no one else agreed with their assessments. These comments were simply untrue of me today. I was overwhelmed by the sense that, in spite of the obvious mistakes they had observed, they were consistently such strong advocates for me. Their support was entirely based on potential! While I had worked with them, I had the raw materials, but a long way to go in developing my leadership. This is the Joseph of Genesis 37.


Joseph series:

Advertisements

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Without wading into the politics of it, I want to ask a simple question: does anyone else think Elena Kagan would make a better executive than a judiciary? Everything I’m hearing about her qualifications is focused on her leadership abilities rather than her ability to be fair and unprejudiced.

I found this recent Harvard Business Review blog that uses Kagan’s nomination as a springboard to make some excellent points about the challenges and obstacles to women taking leadership roles. Emily Harburg reinforces my suggestion about Kagan’s abilities, along the way making some very important and nuanced observations about the leadership strengths women bring to executive positions. She does a good job of articulating some of the issues friends of mine have struggled with. These are issues that organizations like Wycliffe need to pay attention to.

Harburg also points out the unique characteristics women bring to leadership. Women are ideally suited for leadership in today’s collaborative environment. Many are good at “transformational leadership,” a style that empowers, mentors and inspires their followers. I’m grateful for some of the amazing women God has placed on the Wycliffe USA board, and it’s been my privilege to work with two of them closely over the last year and see the way they lead. I read somewhere recently that some studies in Europe show that companies are more successful with women in key positions of leadership, including the board. I agree: we need women in leadership!

I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially those from my female readers.

William Pitt the Younger details the life of “a penniless twenty-three-year-old with no previous experience in office” who was elected to England’s House of Commons in 1782. Within 18 months, he was prime minister. It’s a story that captured my interest since seeing a rendition of it in the movie Amazing Grace. At one point, author William Hague — a current member of parliament — asks a question I want to consider as well:

How was it that opinion in the eighteenth century would accept youthful seniority to an extent inconceivable two centuries later?

Was it really very different back then? He notes that 100 members of parliament in the early 1780s were under age thirty. 100 under thirty?!! It wasn’t just in politics. “The number of young prodigies in many disparate fields was far greater than it is today.” For example:

  • Alexander Pope wrote his first verses aged twelve, and was famous at twenty-three;
  • Henry Fielding’s plays were being performed in London when he was twenty-one;
  • Adam Smith was a Professor of Logic at twenty-eight;
  • the evangelist George Whitefield was preaching to crowds of tens of thousands in London when aged twenty-five;
  • Isaac Newton had commenced his revolutionary advances in science in the previous century at the age of twenty-five;
  • and Mozart had composed symphonies when eight years old and completed tours of Europe at the ripe old age of fifteen.

I guess we could point to Mark Zuckerberg and other internet pioneers, or Hewlett, Packard, Dell, Gates and Jobs in the generation before. But there seems to be more resistance to young leaders today, especially in established fields, businesses, organizations… or politics. The fact is that in most cases where a young leaders reaches high position, it’s because he or she founded the company.

Hague wonders aloud what was unique in that culture that so much was accomplished by people so young. Why did they get so much greater opportunity and empowerment? He explores a number of ideas, including the influence of aristocracy in bestowing “instant credibility.” Perhaps the most obvious example was a group of twentysomething monarchs in Europe, but it extended to people like William and Thomas Pitt building on their father’s name and reknown. It wasn’t just privilege; it was also early exposure. William Pitt the Younger gained incredible oratory skills at the feet of his prime minister father.

Those were important factors, but I think Hague nails it in his conclusion:

Perhaps the greater risk of early death produced an impulse of young brilliance, and certainly the intensive use of private tutors added to it.

To put it in today’s terms, the two greatest factors were urgency and mentoring. We no longer fear death before age 40. To require a young person to put in time in a job before taking leadership is a luxury they didn’t enjoy back then. On the other side of the coin, young people felt like they had only a few good years to contribute, so they gave it their all very quickly. Pitt was an extreme case, much of his brevity self-imposed. His physician concluded that he “died of old age at forty-six as much as if he had been ninety.”

Pitt’s private tutor was a man who would become a prominent minister in the Church of England. His father was prime minister. These mentors shaped a young man who dreamed of parliament as his next step, straight out of college.

My question today is this: Is there room in your organization for young leaders? In Servant Empowered Leadership, Don Page challenges how leaders are selected.

The typical pattern for moving people into leadership positions must be changed. First, nice people who are good at what they do are thrust or promoted into a position of leadership, without regard for their ability, or sometimes even their desire, to perform in a leadership capacity. Secondly, they are evaluated on their ability to produce short-term results for the organization and finally, if at all, on their ability to lead people. Yet this ability to lead others is the long-term basis on which those results can be sustained or improved upon.

If leadership gifting, competence and calling are all clear at an early age, why aren’t more organizations willing to allow young people to work in their sweet spots rather than promoting good practicioners with seniority? Experience in a field is simply not the same as leadership gifting. So, do we feel an urgency to find the best leaders available, to pour into them and to give them space? Until we do, we’re not going to gain the benefits of this generation’s William Pitts, Adam Smiths and George Whitefields.

I’m back after a short absence. I’ll try to be more timely in my blogging again. Over the next few posts, I want to go back to the reluctant leadership idea. In particular, what causes reluctance to step up?

I suggest there are a number of reasons. Perhaps the foremost is a fear of failure. Young people with potential for leadership need to be identified early and mentored. Part of the strength of the mentoring relationship is the commitment between mentor and mentee – a commitment that can be the difference in a young person stepping up.

They say delegation without support is abandonment. Well, it’s the same with mentoring. Even if the mentee seems ready, that commitment may still be the lifeline. Throwing a young leader into deep water before they have the tools to swim will only reinforce their deep-seated fear that they weren’t really able to do the job. When failure happens, as it certainly will to some degree, how will they handle it? Often, it sets Gen-Xers back for years and causes them to flee responsibility at least until the setting seems right to try again.

A young man knocked on my door one day. He hadn’t shown interest in the Threshing Floor when we first started it. I suspected he had leadership gifts, but he’d actually moved downward in the hierarchy at Wycliffe since I first met him. Recently, however, he had showed glimmers of interest. He came to our group with his Gen-X supervisor, and now he was at my office wanting to talk. He said he’d been talking quite a bit with his boss about leadership and she suggested he might get a lot out of The Threshing Floor. After being around other young leaders, he was so excited and wanted to soak up all he could. He unfolded the following story.

A few years before, he’d been put into a position of leadership with the promise that he would be mentored by his predecessor for two years. But within 6-9 months in the position, the mentor left him due to various reasons and eventually moved to another position. This young man quickly became overwhelmed and asked to move back to his previous role. He’d tried leadership but wasn’t prepared or supported adequately and had a bad experience. It took him years to come back around to wanting to try it again.

Shortly after our conversation, his supervisor – who was equally young but had a broad range of experience and success in various positions – was promoted. Now, in a much more supportive setting, he agreed to move back to the same position he had burned out on before. He’s doing great, and we’re seeing even greater leadership abilities emerging.

What does someone like this need? A safe, supportive environment to cultivate their leadership gifts. A setting that allows failure and provides a chance to get back up again. And a mentor committed to making sure they’re really swimming before letting go.

I was meeting with a friend recently in Atlanta when he took control of the conversation with a great question. Paul is the CEO of a small mission organization, and I get together with him every time I’m in town. I appreciate his wisdom and experience, and our conversations seem to be mutually beneficial, though I’m quite sure I get more out of it than he does. Anyway, the last time we met, he suddenly asked me, “What can I do for you?”

I sure wasn’t expecting the question, but I won’t say I wasn’t prepared. I knew I had an opportunity, so I asked him if he would be willing to be a mentor. Jim Collins suggests that every leader should have a “personal board of directors,” and I wanted Paul to be among that small group. To tell you the truth, I don’t know what it means or how it works, but he had some ideas. We’re going to talk monthly by phone in addition to our face to face visits.

I love that question. Of course, it’s not a new question. I skimmed Bruce Wilkinson’s Prayer of Jabez book a while ago and missed it. Only recently did I became aware that he recommends that question. Whenever he prays that God would expand his territory, he turns and asks the person immediately behind him, “What can I do for you?” It always leads to a ministry opportunity.

But it’s even older than that. Nehemiah had just been wrecked by news from Judea that Jerusalem was still lying in ruins. He prayed for days that God would do something and that the king would be favorable to him. When he finally got an opportunity to tell the king his heart, Artaxerxes responded with that question. Nehemiah was ready with a request.

I think that question is the key to mentoring. It opens the door between established leaders and rising leaders. It gets past the walls we set up to protect ourselves. It begins the unloading of wisdom and resources between the generations. There are a large number of established leaders who are willing to be mentors but don’t know how to get started. And young leaders who would love a mentor. Often the initiative comes from the latter, and that’s probably appropriate; I can’t imagine someone saying, “I’d like to mentor you.”

Setting up a mentoring relationship is like a dance. Someone has to take the first step. That question lowers the guard and starts the dialogue.

What can I do for you?