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:

Let’s start our study of wartime leadership by examining our defenses. In 2 Corinthians 2:10-11, Paul gives instructions to the Corinthian church for dealing with a specific case, then adds these critical words: “…so that Satan will not outsmart us. For we are familiar with his evil schemes.”

Are we familiar? What do we know about Satan’s attacking style? The Bible offers us a few helpful metaphors.

  • A prowling lion: Satan is seeking whom he may devour (1 Pet 5:8).
  • Thief: Like thieves, Satan doesn’t come in through the front door. He sneaks in to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:1-10).
  • Masquerade: Satan disguises himself in an attempt to resemble an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14), and he sows weeds to blend in among the wheat (Matt 13:24-30).
  • Footholds: Satan uses slow erosion and any opportunities offered him (Eph 4:27).

What do we know from the Scriptures about Satan’s specific tactics? His primary tools are:

  • Division: He sows discord and goes after the unity of fellow believers (Rom 16:17). The Corinthian church is a great example (1 Cor 1:10, 3:3, 11:18)
  • Distraction: He attempts to entangle us in “civilian pursuits” (2 Tim 2:4) and get us busy doing good things, rather than remain alert and sober-minded (1 Pet 5:8).
  • Lies: Satan is identified as the “father of lies.” Lies are his mother tongue (John 8:44). He twists truth and speaks half truths to deceive those who don’t know the truth well (Gen 3:1-4, Rom 16:18).
  • Deception: Jesus referred to false prophets as “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matt 7:15). Even Peter became a false prophet and attempted to subvert the plans of God. Jesus quickly exposed Satan hiding in his words (Matt 16:23). The tricky part is that Peter thought he was carrying truth.
  • Betrayal: I think of this as weaponizing people. Those who are close to us know our weak points. When Satan can turn one of us against the organization or the community, he or she knows how to hit where it hurts. For instance: Judas with a kiss, knowing Jesus’ hangout (John 18:2); Peter’s denial (Luke 22:61); Demas’ desertion because he loved this world (2 Tim 4:10).
  • Accusation: Satan is identified as the “accuser of the brethren” (Rev 12:10).
  • Picking off the unprotected: While lions may have the power for a frontal attack, they seldom come straight on. They hunt for the weak, the young, the old or the outliers rather than a full-out attack on the strong or the main group itself. Therefore Peter is saying that Satan pokes around the edges of the Church, looking for weak points. He targets the proud, who don’t believe they could fall (1 Cor 10:12). He pursues the exhausted and burned out. He picks off the isolated, including those who are traveling and alone.

I could go on and list doubt, discouragement, fear, the desires of our eyes and the pride of life (1 John 2:16). Instead of trying for comprehensiveness, let’s bring it right down to ground level and make it applicable. Take a step back and review the last couple of years.
1. How does Satan usually attack you? What is your weak point?
2. Where have you seen Satan’s tactics at work within your organization?
3. Where have you seen them in your church?
4. Where have we seen them in the broader Canadian and U.S. Church?

Now, consider the future.
5. What can we expect that we haven’t seen yet?
If there’s a specific form of attack you haven’t seen as much as you might expect, it’s likely an indication of what might be just around the corner. How can you prepare for it?

We know more than we think about how Satan operates. We need to be vigilant for ourselves and our brothers and sisters so that we don’t fall and so we don’t unwittingly help the opposition by causing another to fall. Denial only plays into our enemy’s hands.

In my next post, we’ll consider what we can do to protect ourselves.

16 Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people.

This was one of the verses that made me think the entire chapter was written to leaders. The issue isn’t how much or whether you enjoy the company of ordinary people. It’s that you even think there are classes of people.

Now, let’s be careful here. We have to acknowledge that leaders are different. The sacrifices, stress, risks, crises, blame and weight of decisions are enough to make Dan Allender conclude that if you’re not called to lead, why on earth would you ever do it? Leaders are different. But as leaders, what is our attitude toward those differences?

Pride sneaks into a leader’s life in subtle ways. Leadership positions feed it because of the uniqueness of the profession. Isolation can feed it. Holding onto secrets can feed it. Safety concerns can feed it. Decision-making power can certainly feed it. Let me share a subtle example.

I recall a story I read in Freakonomics. Some researchers came up with a pretty simple way to measure employee honesty: they talked to a bagel company that provided bagels to the break rooms of businesses in a major U.S. city. This company used an honor system, a little jar beside the bagels to gather payment. Over time, the empirical data showed some trends. Which group of employees as a general rule cheated the most? Right. The entitled ones on the top floor!

It hurts to read that! So, let’s have some discussion. What has worked to help you overcome the pride that sneaks up behind isolation, secrecy and security? How do you continue to think of yourself as an “ordinary person”? What keeps you grounded?

Of course, Jesus would have a problem with the idea that leaders are ordinary. Remember that the night before he was arrested, he gave a powerful lesson to his disciples. John 13:3 recounts that because “Jesus knew that the Father had given him authority over everything and that he had come from God and would return to God,” he got down on his knees and did the lowest possible job in that culture: he washed his disciples’ feet. Jesus stated counterculturally that leaders should be last. Not ordinary, but last. The pyramid is inverted, and leaders are at the bottom.

So, let’s not try to be lofty leaders, or even ordinary people. Let’s be men and women who exist to support and encourage and serve those whom God has entrusted to us.

I want to go one step further with the topic of ambition. It’s easy to link to someone else’s blog and take no risk with my own thoughts about ambition. I want to explore a few verses on the subject, asking two questions. One, is ambition the opposite of humility, as some seem to suggest? And two, what does healthy ambition look like?

First, let’s look at the Bible, starting with 1 Timothy 3:1.

This is a trustworthy saying: “If someone aspires to be an elder, he desires an honorable position.”

In the next couple of verses and in Titus 1, Paul lays out a string of traits needed in an elder, such as faithfulness, self-control and gentleness — elements related to humility. In verse 6, Paul lists a concern that new believers who become elders might become proud and get tripped up. So, I take from these verses that it’s okay to aspire to be an elder, but in a way that does not lead to pride.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins described the ideal CEO as a “Level 5 Leader,” the marks of which are “a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will,” best expressed as an ambition for the company. So, humility does not necessarily exclude ambition. What’s the difference between this kind of ambition and the version the Bible condemns? It’s the focus of the ambition.

Let’s look back at the verses in my last post on the subject. 1 Thessalonians 4:11,12 describes an ambition to live a quiet hard-working life. Why? On first glance, his reasons seem shaky. First, to win the respect of outsiders. Well, respect can be dangerous if it’s means recognition, acclaim or popularity. But Paul’s goal is to win over outsiders to the cause of Christ. He’s always focused. Second, to not be dependent on anybody. Independence can be dangerous when paired with ambition. Independence usually doesn’t align with Christianity very well. But we know from other contexts that Paul had a desire to avoid asking those he was trying to reach to pay his salary; he wanted to fund his own ministry while he worked among them. So Paul is saying in this verse that his audience should aspire to do whatever it takes to avoid any offense to the cause of Christ.

Romans 15:20 describes an ambition to “preach the gospel where Christ was not known.” Sounds to me like Paul had a healthy, Level 5 ambition to expand Christ’s kingdom. I don’t think there’s any question that Paul had humility and stubborn will. But the last part of that verse shows some of Paul’s heart: “so that I would not be building on anyone else’s foundation.” Do you see the edge in that phrase? I would think Paul opened himself for criticism for his desire to be first or to go it alone. On the other hand, I think God has given ambition to certain people to be trailblazers and entrepreneurs. Without Paul’s gift, the Church wouldn’t have expanded as quickly as it did in the first century.

So here’s my theory. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with ambition, if it’s directed correctly. There’s nothing wrong with a desire to do something great. There’s nothing wrong with a desire to be a trailblazer. And there’s nothing wrong with aspiring to greater influence. The question is motivation. If your ambition is directed toward yourself — to be great, to be known for trailblazing, to get a name for yourself, to have greater power — then you’re setting yourself up against God. That didn’t work out so well for those in Babel or for their descendant Nebuchadnezzar. But I think God has gifted people with ambition in His service. And those people can accomplish amazing things as they apply their gifts, their stubborn willpower, their strategic minds, and yes, their humility, to the cause of Christ.

Let me close with a personal story. When I was asked to be an elder at my local church a number of years ago, I questioned whether I should pursue it. One day I heard my pastor read 1 Timothy 3:1. I’d never noticed that verse before. You mean it wasn’t sinful to desire to be an elder? I’d wanted to be an elder for some time, because I thought God had gifted me with some of the qualities that make a good elder. It was the character traits that humbled me; it’s quite a list to measure up to. I noted in my journal that I asked myself a question from Steve Sample’s The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. Was I willing to “do” elder, or did I just want to “be” elder? Once I settled my motivations, I believe my ambition for that position met the demands of Scripture.

I still struggle to meet the qualifications, and I still struggle to do the work, but it’s my ambition to help expand the kingdom of Christ through this local church. And it’s my ambition to see Bible translation begun in every language that needs it in this generation. I think it’s my life’s work.

On day 2 of Willow Creek, one theme that stood out: Big change is accomplished by little things.

Dan and Chip Heath and Bill Hybels both talked about a series of little things. The Heaths recommended shrinking the change you want to see. If you can get it down to little things that are attainable, you can do it. And it’s amazing what those little things can add up to over time. They gave examples of people who changed counties, communities and countries by doing small things.

If you feel optimism versus being more and more discouraged, you’ve shrunk the change enough.

That paraphrase of what Dan said rings true for me in my experiences. Big change and big projects can sure lead to feeling overwhelmed. But when you work on the list of tasks you know you need to do today, after a year or two, you look back and you’ve accomplished something remarkable.

Hybels followed up with a reminder of the story of Naaman, where his entourage called him on his failure to obey Elisha. His paraphrase: “You’re a great man and would have done it if it was a great request. Do the little things he asked you to do.” It’s a great reminder of how God works, and our propensity for efficiency: one big thing to solve the world’s problems rather than faithfulness with smaller loads.

I see two issues. My dad used to watch my brother and me unloading groceries from the car, with a dozen bags hanging on our arms. He called it a “lazy man’s load.” “Why don’t you just take a bunch of smaller loads?” he’d ask. I still like lazy man’s loads.

I think there’s one deeper element to Hybels comments, though. I think we think of ourselves as “great men” and believe the lie that great men do great things. We want to do that great thing that gets noticed and puts us on the map. It’s the SportsCenter approach, where athletes try to throw in a few moves in a game so they get on ESPN’s highlight show that night.

But God cares more about faithfulness and fruitfulness than our pride. As Dave Gibbons reminded us yesterday, God’s metrics are different. He’s not all that concerned that our graphs always move “up and to the right.” He evaluates things differently, and he has a different definition of success.

One of the other things Perry Noble asked young leaders pierced pretty deeply.

Are you more interested in being discovered or being developed?

Ouch. I had to do some self evaluation. Here are a few random follow up questions.

Do I feel deep down that I deserve that next step? If I arrive at the wrong conclusion, the result of my pride will be bitterness… and jealousy when others don’t notice my abilities. I recently started compiling a list of people who used to work for me but are now in higher positions than me. It was a good discipline, because it exposes my sin nature! I had to remind myself that those are successes. Perhaps I played a part in their development, even if the best thing I did was get out of the way and not hold them back.

Do I have a realistic picture of myself? I completed a 360 review last summer that even looked back on some previous jobs. My memories of my abilities and acomplishments in Canada were dashed as I read the feedback of two colleagues who pointed out some real flaws. Amazing to think that these two were among my biggest encouragers and supporters. When they looked at me, they obviously saw my potential more than my abilities. Thank God I’ve grown a lot since those days.

Am I a lifelong learner? Many have said that the first step of leadership is leading yourself. After all, the first and easiest thing I can control is myself. As I mentioned in a previous post, even those at the top don’t have it all figured out. I pray that when I’m 60, I’m just as devoted to trying new things. I pray that I continue to read and listen to things that challenge me and disagree with me. I pray that I still learn from others — even those with less experience than me.