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:

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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.

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.

In October 2009, my shortest blog post (appropriately) asked how I could have 23 devoted Twitter followers if I’d never tweeted. The point being that you can’t follow a stationary object. Just for the record, I’ve decided to start tweeting, but I’m still working out my strategy. I don’t want to be a random tweeter. But that’s not the point I want to make here.

Over the last two years, I’ve tried to come up with working definitions of leadership and management. I’ve struggled with understanding where the murky swampland between the two firms up on either bank. And I’ve rejected numerous definitions as being too simplistic. Or too biased.

It hit me that the main requirement for leadership is that you have followers. That suggests two parts to a working definition:

  • First, it’s not about position, but about influence. Position or no position, whether you feel like a leader or not, it’s clear: if you have followers, you’re a leader. The opposite implication is just as true.
  • Second, you can’t have followers if you’re not moving. Therefore, leadership implies change.

Therefore, let me give the definitions a stab. Feel free to add your thoughts.

Leadership: the stewardship of one’s personal authority over others to set their pace and direction.

Management: the stewardship of one’s positional authority to maximize the use of resources toward the previously-set pace and direction.

A few clarifications. I don’t think it’s fair to say, as some do, that managers protect the status quo. Managers encourage movement toward the ends, but they don’t try to change the pace or define the direction as much as rearticulate the vision.

I also think it’s worth defining what I mean by personal authority and positional authority. These terms are attempts to specify the source of a leader’s influence, borrowed from Dr. Paul Hersey. Positional authority or power is the capacity to influence others by one’s dominant organizational position. In contrast, personal power is the capacity to influence others by one’s own being.

So, there you are. Give me your reaction to these definitions. With your help, maybe we can craft something worthwhile.

[re-posted from my ministry blog, teameyre.wordpress.com]

“Are you excited?” and “Do you want the job?” are among the most common questions we’ve received. While Becky and I didn’t pursue this position with Wycliffe Canada, we made a series of prayerful decisions to go the next step in the process. And then the next. So, when the Board selected me unanimously, we saw the hand of God in that decision. This is simply our next step of obedience to God. It’s a role that will stretch us, challenge us and cause us to depend on God in new ways.

I think many look at the position of president in terms of the honor that it is. Certainly, it is an honor to be chosen. It comes with a platform, a high profile and authority. But when I look at the position, I see responsibility. There are significant challenges that need to be tackled. I feel a burden to support the 400 members plus volunteers and paid staff working throughout the world. And I feel the urgency to draw out the vast resources Canadians can contribute to making the Word of God accessible in every language in this generation.

I’ve quoted it several times before here, but I’ll say it again. In The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, Dr. Steven Sample quotes the advice of one of his colleagues:

Many men want to be president, but very few want to do president.

So, Yes! I am excited. And, Yes! I am terrified!

As I was walking into the office a couple of weeks ago, I noticed that a young leader was wearing a blazer… again. In a pretty casual department his attire stood out. Turns out he’s been dressing up consistently since the new year. When I asked about it, the response was that he’s trying to take himself more seriously.

Taking yourself seriously is a quality worth adding to our list of early seeds of leadership. There are a number of indicators that a person is preparing himself for future roles. At the earliest stage, this might include dressing up. It might also include a desire to spend time with senior leaders. Let’s look at a few examples.

When I was visiting with another organization recently, one of the senior leaders pointed out what first stood out to him about their youngest vice president: he had never been intimidated by leaders at the highest levels, instead choosing to interact with them… and ask lots of questions. I’ve seen this kind of thing myself when the board or senior leadership team gathers. A few young, rising leaders inevitably show up at break times.

A fortysomething leader came to me one day and told me he was considering throwing his hat in the ring to be considered for a promotion. He asked me what I thought. Among other things, I asked him if he considered people at that next level to be colleagues. How comfortable was he with walking into their office to have a conversation? Realizing that he was already at ease at that level was one factor in his decision to pursue a new leadership position.

What it comes down to is whether someone acts like the position they see themselves serving in.

I’m not talking about people who “sell out” to get a position. I think authenticity is extremely important in leadership. In fact, when I moved into the Offices of the President a year ago, I went to two people who knew me well and gave them permission to call me on it if they ever saw me becoming a clone of those I work around. If I ever become someone else in an attempt to get ahead, I want friends who are close enough to point out my hypocrisy.

What I’m talking about is the way David, hiding out in a cave in the wilderness, acted like the king he would become. His circumstances didn’t matter, and he didn’t let the group of misfits surrounding him bring him down to their level. He behaved in a manner suited to a king, and in so doing, laid a course for the way he would act as king.