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:

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.

This post is going to be about my questions rather than my thoughts. Pick a grouping or a specific question and give me your comments on this subject, okay?

Like many of you, I’ve been following with interest the successful, peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Success there has created a template for uprisings in Bahrain, Yemen, Morocco and Libya. There are reverberations in numerous countries, including Iran, Jordan and China. Various dictators are considering how to respond, afraid of losing their positions and maybe their lives.

So, what can we learn about leadership from these world events?

First, what happens next when a leaderless group takes on an autocrat? The news has been asking who the government, or the military in Egypt’s case, should negotiate with. But does a leader eventually have to emerge from the egalitarian masses? I haven’t read The Starfish and the Spider. Anyone who has, feel free to give your predictions and thoughts.

Second, we can all agree that some of these leaders need to go. But there are a lot of influential forces, some of whom have been vocal in seeking regime change, who would like to benefit from the tenor of revolution. What happens when some of the more benevolent leaders go down? Does social media-stirred revolution maintain an ethical leaning? Will it always lead to replacing “bad” with “good”? What happens when al Quaida figures out how to steer the masses toward their ends?

Third, in The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Cooper Ramo questions the very foundation of the idea that has shaped American policy for decades: democracy equals peace. Will this move toward democracy bring more peace to the Middle East? I remember a documentary on the Colombian drug scene that depicted the anarchy resulting from an autocratic cartel member being taken down. Is it better to keep the evil you know?

Fourth, given that leaders don’t need a title to lead, what can we learn from the autocrats’ struggle to hold onto positions? What are the implications for leadership in the future with a populous so empowered by cell phones and the internet? Can any totalitarian regime keep enough fingers in the dam to hold onto power?

My read: we’re in the middle of a dislocation of epic proportions that will rewrite the Middle East, that will rewrite leadership textbooks and will rewrite military and public affairs strategy. What’s your read?

3 Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning… (NLT)

3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you… (NIV)

Two versions of the same verse cast slightly different light on the subject of authority. In my July post on authority, I named two kinds of non-positional authority. Paul refers to both here. There’s a reason Paul can speak into the lives of the Church in Rome — because he has spiritual and moral authority in their lives. I think it’s noteworthy that he doesn’t say, “Because of my position as apostle…” There are a couple of times when Paul took a lot of space in his epistles defending his role as an apostle. Apparently, there was some question as to his position since he did not spend any time with Jesus himself. But here he’s not referring to any positional kind of power.

Paul has authority because of two reasons. First, because of his investment in the Roman church, they have given him moral authority in their lives. Second, because God has given authority to him. It’s by God’s grace — what Christ did to pull him out of the life he was in — that he has the privilege and authority of influencing this group. He can therefore teach, encourage, cajole and rebuke the Church in the most powerful city in the world.

Mind you, Paul didn’t necessarily shy away from titles. He regularly identifed himself as “bond slave of Christ” and “chief of sinners.” A position of genuine humility can go a long way to building authority.