Cautionary lessons from Moses

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.

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Lincoln: The greater good

The struggle over the greater good revealed the character and leadership ability of Lincoln.

At first, Lincoln was mildly inspirational about his desire to see the thirteenth amendment passed. He was somewhat aloof, casting vision and attempting to cash in political capital. He struggled with his desire to end a war that had claimed 600,000 lives and yet the moral opportunity to change America forever for the good.

Honest Abe was very open with his cabinet about his struggles over legality. He showed vulnerability in pursuing the best course he could see at the time. Was he right to use war powers? Did he really have the ability to emancipate the slaves as seized property? He admitted that all those previous steps would leave him very much exposed if he didn’t take it all the way and win legal freedom for the slaves. In the end, his vulnerability won over his leadership team.

Then Lincoln struggled with the means. He tried to keep his hands clean, asking his Secretary of State to organize the dirty work himself. But when push came to shove, Lincoln abandoned deniability and realized the vote would fail without his personal involvement. He waded into the work to win votes, meeting personally with some key leaders who were on the fence.

He led from a broad base of input and used a broad range of tools. He sought input from voices as disparate as influential donors, a cabinet of political foes, soldiers both black and white, telegraph men and White House servants. He pushed, pulled, cajoled and won over. Only when he’d narrowed the gap to two votes at the eleventh hour did he attempt to bring his considerable power to bear.

In the end, he had to sit back and hope that he’d done enough. It was out of his control. Thankfully, it went the way he desired. But that’s leadership: you really only have influence, and then people make their own decisions.

This film was a completely different story than Amazing Grace, which detailed a 40-year peaceful struggle to free the slaves. But Lincoln was just as compelling a story and leadership profile. It left me thinking, and it left me inspired. Continue reading

A fresh set of eyes

Anytime you get a new person in your organization, you have an opportunity. Anytime a fresh set of eyes looks at the rut you live in, they’re going to see things that never occur to you. The key is to give that person permission to point out things that don’t make sense. Let them question everything. Your goal as an organization is to maximize that key window of opportunity.

I’ll never forget a testimonial I heard in Junior High about a chain-smoking biker who visited church for the first time. While I don’t remember the entire talk, one line lodged in my mind: At the door, a waiter handed him a menu and then walked him to his seat. Growing up in the church, it never occurred to me how absurd some of our common practices must be to those we desperately want to step in our doors. Why do we do them? Probably because no one ever asked why.

I’m trying to take advantage of my transition time with Wycliffe Canada, especially the months where I don’t have the title yet. I’m asking lots of questions, and I’m okay with the appearance of naivete. I’m fully aware that if I try to act like I know the answer, I’ll cheat Wycliffe Canada out of the foundational questions I should be asking. That’s the approach Patrick Lencioni endorses in his leadership book, Getting Naked.

So a fresh set of eyes is critical to challenge our practices and point out the obvious that is no longer apparent to the insiders.

That said, I think the emperor knew he had no clothes. Deep down, we know we’re maintaining absurdity. We know that we need to make a change; we just don’t want to do it. At the Catalyst conference a few years ago, Andy Stanley shared a quote that didn’t originate from him but stuck with him. Likewise, it stuck with me. It’s a pair of questions to ask your team, to help them move toward action and courage:

If our Board were to fire all of us today and bring in a new team, what changes would that new group of leaders make? What’s to stop us from stepping out of the room, walking back in and doing the same things?

That quote led me to my conviction for any job:

If I know what I need to do but don’t have the energy to do it, it’s time to step aside.

It’s not about the jeans

There’s something about casual Fridays that elicits intense emotion in our office among the younger crowd. I’d even go so far as to say that the older generations really don’t understand the passion. After all, it’s just clothes, right?

It’s not about the jeans. The more I think about it, I realize that it’s more about not putting on a front. It’s about being themselves. It seems every time I go to publish another post, there’s another politician or pastor who’s fallen from grace because they couldn’t take that mask off once they started wearing it. The best antidote is vulnerability. Young leaders know that they’re woefully inadequate jacked-up sinners in need of God’s grace, and most are willing to admit it. So, why dress up?

Okay, it’s also about the jeans. They’re just plain comfortable. Many young people have begun their job searches hoping for opportunities to work in their own setting and their own hours. It’s their preferred workstyle. Hotels are noticing; a few years ago they finally started putting electrical and internet hook-ups and other conveniences near the beds. Why? Because they know their clients sit in bed to prepare their presentations and make phone calls and work on email, shunning the traditional desk in every room. With a laptop and an iPhone, it doesn’t matter where you work. And if it doesn’t matter where you work, it doesn’t matter what you wear. If they get a choice, they’ll pick jeans or a T-shirt and shorts every time.