God has a way of building character in a young leader with high potential. Often it takes wilderness years, tragedy or failure to break down a young leader and build into him the character needed for high responsibility. In fact, in Leading with a Limp, Dan Allender postulates that a young leader can’t really develop the humility and servant heart required for spiritual leadership if he doesn’t go through those experiences.

As we’ve seen in my previous posts, Joseph lacks the character he will need for huge responsibility, so God breaks him down by taking the bottom out twice over a thirteen-year period. First, he experiences his brothers’ betrayal. After spending time in “distress of soul” in a dry cistern (Gen 42:21), he endures the humiliation of being sold and resold. The resilient Joseph surfaces again, proving himself and gaining responsibility in the estate of the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. Joseph may well relish his independence and fresh start in Egypt, enjoying the luxurious setting and the distance from his dysfunctional family. But God isn’t finished shaping him; for doing the right thing in a time of temptation, he is thrown into prison.

At what point are his rough edges broken off? How does he struggle with bitterness, blame and lack of forgiveness? When does he recognize his motivations, blind spots and the ugliness of his pride? The Bible gives a few clues to his spiritual and emotional journey once he emerges on the other side. In naming his boys, Joseph offers a glimpse of his troubles and the perspective he gains with time: “God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household” (Gen 41:51) and “God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering” (Gen 41:52). At two points when he’s testing his brothers’ character, he breaks down and weeps (Gen Gen 42:24 and 43:30). Is it simply his joy and relief at seeing his family and evidence of their repentance, or is he personally struggling with forgiveness?

Let’s dig deeper to see how God uses the tragedies, the successes and the prophecy to shape and prepare Joseph to function competently as prime minister of Egypt.

1. Joseph develops faith and integrity
This sheltered young shepherd must develop his own faith and self control in a dark world of loose morals, fleshly attractions, injustice and politics. The temptation to sexual sin is particularly poignant because it exposes roots of self pity, entitlement and bitterness. The scars of his family’s betrayal could have led Joseph to reject their faith and chart his own course. Instead, he taps deeper into his faith in God. Further, this incident of low-hanging temptation was practice for the day that Joseph would bear the responsibility of power and its accompanying ease of access to sin.

2. Joseph learns to be a witness
In this first test with Potiphar’s wife Joseph begins to learn to let his light shine so God receives glory (Matt 5:16). As he refuses to take the bait, he even goes out of his way to mention his faith (Gen 39:9). The fury of Potiphar’s wife—a woman who likely wasn’t used to refusals—may well mask conviction. When he eventually gets an audience with Pharaoh, Joseph uses the opportunity to point him to God (Gen 41:16). By that point, his witness has made a noticeable impression on Potiphar (Gen 39:3), the jailed cupbearer (Gen 41:9) and Pharaoh himself (Gen 41:38).

3. Joseph grows in God awareness
It is the hand of God that steers Joseph into not just any Egyptian household, but the captain of the guard. Not just any prison, but the royal prison. Acts 7:9-10 says God was with Joseph in Egypt “and rescued him from all his troubles.” Likewise, it is the hand of God that gives him success at every stage (Gen 39:2,3,21,23). Seeing God gives Joseph clarity of mind in his first moment of temptation; his sin would be betrayal.

4. Joseph learns to serve
Joseph begins his time in Egypt by attending Potiphar (Gen 39:4) and quickly works his way up to running the entire estate. In the royal prison, Joseph attends Pharaoh’s officials (Gen 40:4). So Joseph learns service before he gets leadership position. As Robert Greenleaf said, “The servant-leader is servant first… That person 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 Servant As Leader, p50). There are few ways to learn servanthood better than a period of slavery.

5. Joseph learns forgiveness
Dr. Leong Tien Fock says Joseph responded well to the twin tragedies of slavery and imprisonment.

In view of the powerful position he was going to hold, he needed to be put on the receiving end of injustice and suffer much so that he would do justice and love mercy when placed at the giving end of power. The fact that he prospered in both situations showed that he responded positively to the ordeal. If he had been unforgiving and bitter, his life story would have been different.

6. Joseph develops economic, administrative and political skills
Joseph rises in leadership wherever God places him, and as he does, he begins honing the skills that will serve him well in the years ahead. Rev. Bernard Bouissieres says, “Joseph was trained by God in the School of opposition. He became a better administrator in Potiphar’s house, a better manager in prison. He got training for the task ahead.” Likewise, he will certainly use the economics lessons he learns from managing the estate.

He also learns politics and influence. Early on he attracts the investment of a benefactor and potential mentor, and some remnant of that favour guides and guards Joseph throughout his darkest days. While Potiphar has to take action on his wife’s accusations, he maintains a personal interest in Joseph. First, he chooses not to kill Joseph and instead imprisons him with the king’s prisoners—in a facility he oversees. So Joseph continues to serve the captain of the guard (Gen 41:12) and receives special assignments from him (Gen 40:4). Potiphar seems to hold up well to the passages in Scripture urging slave holders to treat their slaves with equity and justice, without ever hinting that they should set them free. But it leads to a complex cultural arrangement that is simply a whitewashed form of perpetuated injustice. While the slave holder gives increasing responsibility and protection, he is unwilling to risk his reputation by releasing his slave. Joseph clearly gains from this arrangement, but I wonder how comfortable Potiphar will feel on the day of reckoning, when Pharaoh will set Joseph free.

No doubt Joseph picks up the written and unwritten rules by observing Potiphar’s household, and even more when he spends years with political prisoners who have fallen out of favour. He learns from what they did wrong, absorbs a lot of the politics and overhears innumerable secrets. Early evidence of his abilities can be seen when he attempts to leverage his interpretation of the baker’s dream to get a quid pro quo. It’s pretty brazen to ask for a shout-out to Pharaoh! But he also learns even more when the baker quickly forgets him; there’s not much leverage from prison.

7. Joseph is tested by the Word
Finally, he is simultaneously encouraged and tested by the prophecy about him. Rev. Bernard says, “How did the dream sustain him in the dark years of waiting? God’s promise to him gave him hope.”

However, Psalm 105:17-19 adds a layer of complexity to Joseph’s vision. When Joseph was sold as a slave,

his neck was put in a collar of iron;
until what he had said came to pass,
the word of the Lord tested him.

In other words, until it came to pass, the prophecy that he would one day rule mocked him. Doubts likely set in, made even more acute by the two-year extension in prison. But Dr. Leong Tien Fock says, “When God’s word finally came true, the ordeal had not only refined his character but also inspired in him the conviction that God had sent him to Egypt for a purpose. For when he revealed himself to his brothers he could comfort them saying, “it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Genesis 45:8).”

When we say that Jesus is Lord and master, we submit to his will, his shaping, his timing. He is the potter, and we are the clay. My personal experience is that God’s methods of leadership development are not mine; they seem circuitous at best. However, the result of God’s process is far deeper, far more effective—and admittedly far more painful—than we would ever choose. But he will accomplish his purposes, and we may see that larger perspective with time.


Joseph series:

I remember a young lady in my graphic design classes at Georgia State University who had a take-it-or-leave-it approach to conflict. She would offer her opinion and, if someone challenged it, would respond, “What do I know? I’m just a graphic designer.” Her delivery of this line contained overtones of pluralistic acceptance and a passive-aggressive conflict style, but I’ve heard similar words expressed with different undertones.

That phrase – taken at face value – could be read a different way. It could reflect a deep-seated lack of confidence. Think of Gideon, who protested God’s call by claiming his clan as the weakest in his tribe, and he the least in his family. I can hear him now, saying “I’m just a grain farmer.” But God didn’t see him that way; the angel greeted him, “Mighty hero, the Lord is with you!” Wow.

Many of us think too little of our abilities or hide behind a simple skill-set when God has called us to much more than that. As a friend reminded me the other day, I could have skated by on my artistic talents instead of getting into leadership roles. Now, I’m not badmouthing graphic design; I’m badmouthing skating. Each person should pursue with enthusiasm and courage the role God has called him to and gifted him for.

If you’ve been reading my blog for long, you’ll know that I’m not suggesting that leadership is a greater gift, skill-set or body part than any other. Instead, I’m about matching giftings with needs. I’m about taking advantage of opportunity and moving forward courageously. And I’m completely against settling or skating by.

But let me turn the issue around. I think we are in danger of typecasting and overlooking people. Let me give you a couple of examples. I recently picked up my wife’s copy of the historical fiction book Lineage of Grace, by Francine Rivers. Rivers provides insights into the lives of five important women in Christ’s lineage:

  • Tamar was “just” a Canaanite wife, one of the foreign women God warned his people about intermarrying with. When she was mistreated by her father-in-law, she masqueraded as a prostitute to expose his hypocrisy.
  • Rahab was “just” a Canaanite prostitute who nevertheless believed in the Hebrew God and became the sole survivor when Jericho fell.
  • Ruth was “just” a Moabite widow who gave up her family and culture, risking everything to take on a Jewish identity and care for her mother-in-law.
  • Bathsheba was “just” a rape victim, stolen from her husband and forced to marry King David after he got her pregnant and killed her husband.
  • Mary was “just” a poverty-level teenager who consented to fulfill prophecies of a virgin birth at the risk of  having her reputation trashed by false charges of cheating on her fiance.

These five were the only women worthy enough to be mentioned in Jesus’ family tree in Matthew 1. Where man might overlook them, God honoured them and angels greeted them as “highly favoured.”

Wycliffe taught me early to be nice to everyone; you never know which staff member who reports to you today will end up being your boss. There is no natural ladder to the top in this organization, so never underestimate what people might have given up to take a current assignment.

I learned this life lesson the hard way when my wife and I were going through Wycliffe’s four-week orientation course in 1997. We were studying basic linguistics through the form of exercises and word puzzles that gave us a false sense of being gifted as translators. Each week, the exercises got a little harder until we reached a language with clear rules that were undecipherable by our group of aspiring linguists. It turns out the language was from North America, home of some of the most linguistically-complex languages in the world. In fact, one of them was used as a basis for the only code the Japanese never broke in World War II. Once we were sufficiently impressed with this language’s complexity, our instructor sprang the trap. He pointed out that the translator of the New Testament in this language was on the orientation program staff. After we exhausted our guesses of all obvious candidates, he pointed to the little, hunched-over lady who had been in and out of the room the entire month, running errands and making copies. I don’t think I had ever even noticed her. She was just an administrative assistant, right?

Who are you overlooking? Is it someone else, or yourself? I firmly believe a leader’s job is to make heroes of the “just” castes. We need to notice them, and we need to tell their stories. So here’s to all the administrative assistants, maintenance staff, receipting clerks and graphic designers who fly under the radar.

Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:26-28)

Incidentally, I still look at the world as a designer — a unique viewpoint that sometimes allows me to see opportunity in challenging contexts. I’ve used that line before in leadership. At the end of the day, I’m “just” a graphic designer.

Leadership isn’t just something you’re going to when you grow up. It’s something anyone can do, right now. If you think you need a position to lead, you’re not really a leader.

Consider Jephthah in the Bible. Don’t know who he is? He’s worth looking up. Judges 11 says he was a great warrior but born into a broken family that left him an outcast, chased off by his half brothers. “Soon he had a band of worthless rebels following him.” You know you’re a leader when people follow you without any effort on your part. The thing I like about Jephthah’s story is that he didn’t mope or give up. He led where he was, and it was in the land of Tob that he sharpened his leadership skills. Sure enough, his family’s clan soon got into trouble and begged him to return and lead them, “Because we need you.” As you’d expect, he was very, very careful before he stepped into a greater position of authority, but he was ready, and he led Israel through 6 years of war.

Consider David. He also didn’t have the pedigree of a leader and was overlooked by his family. His resume was pretty thin when Samuel first put him on the succession plan. He was then put on hold for decades and had to flee for his life. After a series of escapes, including feigning insanity to avoid detention in Gath, he ended up in a cave. I Samuel 22 says, “Soon his brothers and all his other relatives joined him there. Then others began coming — men who were in trouble or in debt or who were just discontented — until David was the captain of about 400 men.” David honed his leadership skills in the wilderness and in exile. He didn’t choose his followers, but he was faithful to lead where he was, and his followers became fiercely loyal.

Leadership is something that happens independent of position or title. Leadership is more about who you are than where you are or what’s on your job description. As “a famous Gulf War general” puts it in The 52nd Floor: Thinking Deeply About Leadership,

[Leadership] is an intensely private affair. I say it is private because it all boils down to your inner experience of the context you are operating in. It’s private in that sense, but public in the sense that it is engaged with others out in the open for everyone to see and scrutinize.

David and Jephthah were by no means perfect. There’s plenty to question in their lives and leadership, but they didn’t wait for their dream positions. They learned their lessons, not in the classroom but in the wilderness. Long before they were “discovered,” they rolled up their sleeves and led where they were.

For more on this subject, check out my post on being developed versus being discovered.

Another major reason for reluctance is the hero myth. In their article Encouraging Reluctant Leaders, Reidy Associates describes this myth as:

the view that leadership is carried out by a person, “the Leader”, who possesses a particular skill set. Included among the skills thought of as constituting leadership are charisma, courage, decisiveness, ability to delegate, time management, and so on. It is not surprising that people often hold this view. Many cultural myths and messages promote a view of leadership based on the hero, the knight in shining armor. The leader/hero has courage, skill conviction, clarity and he (almost always he) holds the responsibility for rescuing the rest of us from whatever threat we face.

This view, of course, is reinforced by superstar pastors or superstar CEOs who seem to have no weaknesses. Of course they do! We just don’t see them, or they never admit them. I worry about people like that, because they seem to fall harder.

Leadership development is a tricky subject, because it always seems to boil down to a bullet list of characteristics needed in leadership. No one person can ever attain such a lofty list of traits. And therefore young people loaded with potential don’t try. How do we create an atmosphere that breaks down this paralyzing myth?

Here are a few thoughts. One, established leaders have to be vulnerable. Pull back the curtain and let us see your weaknesses, your fears and your failures. Admit when you are or were wrong. Unveil your coping mechanisms. Reluctant leaders might learn a few things from your brutal honesty and might love and respect you even more.

Two, let’s publicize the fact that no one person has all the qualifications for any one job. And no one type of leader is perfect for any one job. Different combinations of giftings can match a position perfectly. Or, to put it another way, different combinations of weaknesses can match a position perfectly.

Three, let’s remind ourselves that leaders are simply the right person for the right setting. Winston Churchill was a masterful leader of war but a poor leader of peace. You could say the same about Ulysses S. Grant on our side of the pond.

Reidy goes on:

We think, “I can’t be a leader because I’m deathly afraid of public speaking.” Or, “How can I exercise leadership when I don’t have the: (pick one) college degree, title, solution to the problem, right image?”

Let me suggest a different approach, taken by my sister-in-law, who keynoted a seminar in Atlanta this weekend. Here’s the bio she used:

Emily Bruso is a 28-year-old wife and mother of two young boys. She has a modest education, a messy house, and an imperfect life. She has no awards to her name, but she loves Jesus, loves the Word of God, has experienced the healing that comes from a Godly forgiveness, and wants you to experience it too!

I was in a meeting at Wycliffe one day in the middle of a raging discussion on the latest change. Yes, changes have been more the norm than the exception here since the words “Vision 2025” were first uttered in 1999. After a number of negative comments were made, an older volunteer stood up and asked the crowd whether there was anyone in the room who liked change. I still remember that out of a room of about 200 people, at least 20 of us stood up to say that we thrived on change rather than fought it.

There are those who thrive on change, and they are generally younger. Perhaps it’s just that once you get established, you get used to the way things are. There are probably a large number of personality factors and cultural factors that influence resistance to change, but I don’t think anyone can deny that the rate of change has risen exponentially in recent years. For those who resist change, it’s a nightmare. For those who love it, these are high times.

I read a great diagnosis of the issue of change in The Missional Leader (by Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk):

There are two kinds of change we want to consider in this book: continuous and discontinuous. Let us illustrate the difference between the two types of change.

Continuous change develops out of what has gone before and therefore can be expected, anticipated, and managed. The maturation of our children is an example. Generations have experienced this process of raising children and watching them develop into adults. We can anticipate the stages and learn from those who have gone before us to navigate the changes. We have a stock of experience and resources to address this development change; it is continuous with the experience of many others. This kind of change involves such things as improvement on what is already taking place and whether the change can be managed with existing skills and expertise.

Discontinuous change is disruptive and unanticipated; it creates situations that challenge our assumptions. The skills we have learned aren’t helpful in this kind of change. In discontinuous change:
•    Working harder with one’s habitual skills and ways of working does not address the challenges being faced.
•    An unpredictable environment means new skills are needed.
•    There is no getting back to normal.

Discontinuous change is dominant in periods of history that transform a culture forever, tipping it over into something new. The Exodus stories are an example of a time when God tipped history in a new direction and in so doing transformed Israel from a divergent group of slaves into a new kind of people. The advent of the printing press in the fifteenth century tipped Western society toward modernity and the pluralist, individualized culture we know today. Once it placed the Bible and books into everyone’s hands, the European mind was transformed. There are many more examples, from the Reformation to the ascendance of new technologies such as computers and the Internet, that illustrate the effect of rapid discontinuous change transforming a culture.

I conclude, then, that change is not what people fear. Most change is manageable, after all. It’s discontinuous change that we fear. And we are in one of those periods of history as we shift from modernism to postmodernism. The book goes on to give an example of discontinuous change:

There is a wonderful IBM ad that captures something of what it means. A team of people evidently starting up a business, after working hard to develop an online marketing strategy, gather around a computer as their product goes online. They look hopefully and expectantly for the first Internet sale. When one comes through, they nervously look at each other, relieved that something has happened. Then ten more sales come through. Muted excitement runs through the anxious room. Then, suddenly, a hundred or so orders show up on the computer screen. The team is cheering and hugging one another in exultation; all their hard work has paid off. Then they stare at the screen, beyond disbelief: instead of hundreds of orders, which they couldn’t have imagined in their wildest dreams, there are suddenly thousands. Everyone is overwhelmed. No one knows how to deal with this; it’s outside their skills and expertise. They are at a loss to know what to do next. The organization has moved to a level of complexity that is beyond the team’s skills and ability to address.

In a period of discontinuous change, leaders suddenly find that the skills and capacities in which they were trained are of little use in addressing a new situation and environment.

I might adjust that last sentence to say that established leaders suddenly find that their training is of little use. The next generation of leaders is coming in with a new set of skills and capacities that are ready made for the times we live in. Perhaps the ADD tendencies of the younger generations will serve them well as they move into leadership.

Get used to it. Change is the new stability.