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:

I was listening to a webinar last week that misrepresented itself and turned out far less useful than advertised. Not an atypical experience; webinars too often devolve into infomercials for the presenter rather than designed for the audience. I recall the words of an old boss. Joe Ledlie used to insist that you have to add value to any piece used to sell your company. If you add value for the recipient, they will listen to your message.

What saved the entire webinar for me was one question raised five minutes from the end. “What do I do with a young person who has an insatiable hunger for a leadership position and incredible impatience with taking the steps to develop?” Given the way my ears perked up at that question, I should have caught more of the presenter’s response. The one phrase that derailed my mind was his characterization of “an over-inflated sense of readiness.”

Have you ever encountered this phenomenon? I’m all for young people stepping into leadership, but too many want to reach the goal without putting in the hard work. Reality TV probably feeds this desire for instance gratification. Young people today would rather be Kelly Clarkson than the Beatles, who Malcolm Gladwell claims put in an estimated 10,000 hours of hard work in Germany before ever making it big.

So, let’s unpack this issue a little bit. First, why do we need young people in leadership? I’ll address that here. In my next post, I’ll argue the other side.

I think organizations are served well by a variety of viewpoints. Ethnicity and gender are two principle means of achieving that diversity, but recognizing that it’s not the skin that’s important, but the unique vantage points their unique experience brings. However, there are a few more elusive forms of diversity, such as age and a fresh set of eyes – someone who comes from outside the organization and lifts the organization out of its rut. Both have expiration dates.

Age diversity incorporates several desirable characteristics:

  • generational viewpoints
  • ability to understand the culture
  • technical savvy
  • coachability
  • open mindedness
  • willingness to risk
  • energy
  • curiosity

I think ability to understand culture and technology has parallels with ability to understand and speak languages. Social media is not my first language; I’m probably a 1.5 generation. But computers are my first language. In contrast, my parents use computers like it’s their second language and find social media completely unintelligible.

The goal isn’t to ditch one generation in favor of another, but to have all working together to create a rich tapestry of perspectives. You therefore need both on your leadership team. If you have a couple of older sages, you can afford to take a risk on a couple of young, energetic change agents. I’ll go ahead and say it: most organizations and businesses take too risk-averse a line when it comes to inviting young people to the leadership table.

Cameron TownsendWhen I look at Wycliffe and wonder how we could ever turn the keys over to a young leader, it’s helpful for me to remember this picture. Our founder was in his twenties when he had the audacity to think he could start an organization that would take on translation for the remaining language groups.

Invictus movie posterI really enjoyed watching Invictus this week. If you haven’t seen the film, it chronicles the first days and months of Nelson Mandela’s rise to leadership in South Africa. Rest assured it is not a sports movie as much as a leadership movie. It portrays several forms of leadership and one leader’s attempts to influence another leader to bring about a desired result.

I was fascinated first by Mandela’s use of symbols. He seemed to bet his presidency on a decision — against the advice of his chief of staff — to focus on rugby as a symbol that would accomplish his desire to bring a divided nation together. It’s true that sports are one of the few things that can create unlikely alliances. Sports success not only unites; it inspires and ignites dreams.

The biggest challenge Mandela takes on in his use of symbols was one of prejudice. Rugby was seen as a white sport, and the Springboks a symbol of everything black South Africans fought against. If the whites cheered for it, the blacks cheered against it. Mandela took a major risk in attempting to reclaim a national symbol. Most leadership gurus would fall on the side of his chief of staff; the associations of most symbols are too powerful to redefine.

Let me try to suggest a parallel. I don’t think we appreciate how crazy it is that the cross has become a piece of jewelry. In the first century, the cross symbolized everything that was hated about the Romans. How many redefinitions has that symbol gone through in the two millennia since Christ stole it from his captors? Of course, that’s 2,000 years. Mandela redefines the rugby team in less than a year. Can you think of another symbol that changed meaning so quickly?

Symbols are a powerful tool for leaders to use to advance their cause. That’s a topic worth another post down the road.

The second thing that struck me was that Mandela staked his influence over the rugby team on someone other than the coach. In fact, I can’t recall the coach appearing in the film. Instead, Mandela challenges the captain of the team. As a player, François Pienaar has the greater influence over the resolve of the team.

Mandela’s conversations with Pienaar are alone worth seeing the movie again. The bi-generational leadership model they employ is celebrated at the end, when each thanks the other for service to the nation. I think what struck me was their two very different styles and roles. Mandela has to lead a nation. His influence comes from incredible personal authority burnished from 27 years in prison. His job is to inspire, make tough choices and sacrifice for the good of the country. He does that in several cases by challenging his people — black South Africans — in essence to do to whites what they wish the whites would have done to them.

On the other hand, Pienaar begins with very little personal authority, seemingly barely surviving a purge of team leadership. In some ways, he is a symbol of the Springboks’ losing ways and racist heritage. Inspired by Mandela, he determines to bring change. He prods and challenges the team to break their self-made molds. He puts in the effort, comes up with the strategy and forces the team to dig as deep as he himself does. He also uses symbol. There’s a great moment when he hands out cans of beer that nobody likes and forcefully associates the taste with losing. At times, like Mandela, he looks very lonely in his leadership. By sheer determination, he carries his team to victory, but then shares the credit 43 million ways.

By the end of the movie, Pienaar shares the stage as equals with Mandela. I’m intrigued by his journey — how a young leader can build a reputation and gain the personal authority needed to influence a nation. The movie’s worth watching, and probably watching again. Give me your thoughts. What stood out for you?

William Pitt the Younger details the life of “a penniless twenty-three-year-old with no previous experience in office” who was elected to England’s House of Commons in 1782. Within 18 months, he was prime minister. It’s a story that captured my interest since seeing a rendition of it in the movie Amazing Grace. At one point, author William Hague — a current member of parliament — asks a question I want to consider as well:

How was it that opinion in the eighteenth century would accept youthful seniority to an extent inconceivable two centuries later?

Was it really very different back then? He notes that 100 members of parliament in the early 1780s were under age thirty. 100 under thirty?!! It wasn’t just in politics. “The number of young prodigies in many disparate fields was far greater than it is today.” For example:

  • Alexander Pope wrote his first verses aged twelve, and was famous at twenty-three;
  • Henry Fielding’s plays were being performed in London when he was twenty-one;
  • Adam Smith was a Professor of Logic at twenty-eight;
  • the evangelist George Whitefield was preaching to crowds of tens of thousands in London when aged twenty-five;
  • Isaac Newton had commenced his revolutionary advances in science in the previous century at the age of twenty-five;
  • and Mozart had composed symphonies when eight years old and completed tours of Europe at the ripe old age of fifteen.

I guess we could point to Mark Zuckerberg and other internet pioneers, or Hewlett, Packard, Dell, Gates and Jobs in the generation before. But there seems to be more resistance to young leaders today, especially in established fields, businesses, organizations… or politics. The fact is that in most cases where a young leaders reaches high position, it’s because he or she founded the company.

Hague wonders aloud what was unique in that culture that so much was accomplished by people so young. Why did they get so much greater opportunity and empowerment? He explores a number of ideas, including the influence of aristocracy in bestowing “instant credibility.” Perhaps the most obvious example was a group of twentysomething monarchs in Europe, but it extended to people like William and Thomas Pitt building on their father’s name and reknown. It wasn’t just privilege; it was also early exposure. William Pitt the Younger gained incredible oratory skills at the feet of his prime minister father.

Those were important factors, but I think Hague nails it in his conclusion:

Perhaps the greater risk of early death produced an impulse of young brilliance, and certainly the intensive use of private tutors added to it.

To put it in today’s terms, the two greatest factors were urgency and mentoring. We no longer fear death before age 40. To require a young person to put in time in a job before taking leadership is a luxury they didn’t enjoy back then. On the other side of the coin, young people felt like they had only a few good years to contribute, so they gave it their all very quickly. Pitt was an extreme case, much of his brevity self-imposed. His physician concluded that he “died of old age at forty-six as much as if he had been ninety.”

Pitt’s private tutor was a man who would become a prominent minister in the Church of England. His father was prime minister. These mentors shaped a young man who dreamed of parliament as his next step, straight out of college.

My question today is this: Is there room in your organization for young leaders? In Servant Empowered Leadership, Don Page challenges how leaders are selected.

The typical pattern for moving people into leadership positions must be changed. First, nice people who are good at what they do are thrust or promoted into a position of leadership, without regard for their ability, or sometimes even their desire, to perform in a leadership capacity. Secondly, they are evaluated on their ability to produce short-term results for the organization and finally, if at all, on their ability to lead people. Yet this ability to lead others is the long-term basis on which those results can be sustained or improved upon.

If leadership gifting, competence and calling are all clear at an early age, why aren’t more organizations willing to allow young people to work in their sweet spots rather than promoting good practicioners with seniority? Experience in a field is simply not the same as leadership gifting. So, do we feel an urgency to find the best leaders available, to pour into them and to give them space? Until we do, we’re not going to gain the benefits of this generation’s William Pitts, Adam Smiths and George Whitefields.

Steve Moore’s list included a good indicator of early leadership that’s worth commenting on: individuals who are willing to take on a challenge others won’t. The ones who show initiative to take advantage of opportunity. The ones whose resistance to risk is overtaken by a compulsion that someone has to do something.

Leaders sometimes appear to come out of nowhere with a sudden success. I suspect I know what Malcomb Gladwell would say: that there are no overnight successes, and the individual has put in a lot of hours beforehand that led to such “instance success.” I agree. I think it’s easier to spot failure than to spot competence, and individuals like these have likely shown signs of potential along the way. What gets them noticed is the turnaround situation where they made something out of nothing.

There’s a well-worn piece of advice that seems relevant: Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Remember that line from Amazing Grace, where a 24-year-old William Pitt first proposes to William Wilberforce that he thinks he can make a run at prime minister?

Wilberforce: No one of our age has ever taken power.
Pitt: Which is why we’re too young to realize certain things are impossible. Which is why we will do them anyway.

Some watch that movie and get inspired by Wilberforce; I get inspired by Pitt. Wilberforce succeeded through persistence and endurance; Pitt succeeded by sheer audacity. Perhaps he was a fool, but maybe that’s the point. In Moore’s recent book, While You Were Micro-Sleeping, he makes the point that experts and elitists “can’t ask the dumb questions that often trigger new ideas.” Most innovations come from fools.

Certainly, the pessimism born from experience becomes a block to innovation, but I think there’s another factor at work than just being too young to show caution. I think it’s a matter of conviction and motivation — that sometimes a situation is so dire, with no one willing to take it on, that a young person decides the worst they can do is fail. They have less to lose. Or that a frustrated young leader who never gets opportunity sees in a challenge a chance to go all in. With great risk comes great reward. We can probably all think of young leaders who took on big challenges and came out of nowhere to lead a new era. These are the kinds of stories we love.

But what about the other side? The stories of those who try and fail — or who never try — don’t get told. The younger generations have been long characterized as having an unhealthy fear of failure. Pessimism and skepticism is just as rampant among the young as it is among the old. I’ve had conversations with three young leaders in the past month who have recently faced choices: one relatively safe and one with greater risk. In all three cases, the young leader has opted for safety. There are good reasons for their decisions. No one would question their logic. But I’m disappointed.

Here’s the thing. Organizations need young leaders to step up. Hierarchical organizations need young leaders who master relational influence over positional authority. High-process organizations need young leaders who push back on bureaucracy and ask uncomfortable questions. Monocultural organizations need trailblazers who easily bridge cultures. And older, established organizations need age diversity.

What it comes down to is that the world doesn’t need an older you. The world needs young leaders who are willing to step up and take on the unique challenges we’re facing… today.

My only angle in diversity is my age. One day I will wake up and discover that I’m an “older white male.” It’s my future, whether I like it or not, so I operate with some sense of urgency. Because age diversity is so tenuous, I spend a lot of my peer mentoring time encouraging other young people to step up and offer their gifts. Organizations need young people who are willing to use their leadership gifts!

But here’s the thing: we’re all destined to get “old.” I recall a talk by Mark Driscoll that drew my attention to a couple of obscure verses at the end of Ecclesiastes 4.

It is better to be a poor but wise youth than an old and foolish king who refuses all advice. Such a youth could rise from poverty and succeed. He might even become king, though he has been in prison. But then everyone rushes to the side of yet another youth who replaces him.  Endless crowds stand around him, but then another generation grows up and rejects him, too. So it is all meaningless—like chasing the wind. (NLT)

I think this parable has incredible relevance today for all those with titles and those who aspire to lead. Note that the spotlight in Solomon’s story is on the one who is rising, not the one who has made it. Solomon is not saying that it’s meaningless to aspire to lead; but he is saying that power is an illusion, and striving to hold onto it is like chasing the wind. By all means, take advantage of the moment that God has given you. Step up, express your voice and use your gifts.

But as you do, remember that it will be someone else’s turn far too quickly. All of us are destined to become foolish kings, when we find ourselves out of the limelight. There is always another generation rising up behind us. So hold power loosely, and spend at least part of your moment investing in the next generation.

The key to the parable is this: what makes a king foolish is the refusal to receive advice. There is no age limit to being a learner. Older, established leaders should make it a habit to keep young leaders around them. Perhaps the most valuable thing they bring to a team is the ability to understand the times. Mentoring should be two-way; there’s always something wise youth can teach established leaders.

I pray that whether I’m a young, emerging leader or an established leader, I will always be willing to learn from others. I pray that as a young leader, I won’t think of my own perspective more highly than I ought. And I pray that as my body ages, I will always reflect youthfulness in my attitude and mindset. As Douglas MacArthur puts it:

You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubt; as young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear; as young as your hope, as old as your despair.

I think the most elusive form of diversity is age. You only have a limited window to capture the treasure of youth. If you wait to have all your doubts about a young leader’s maturity and experience resolved, he or she will not bring you the diversity you need. You’ll have to move to the next young candidate, who will likely bring the same concerns. The fact is that young leaders are high risk, high reward. Sure, they won’t be the most experienced candidate, but they have more room to grow. More upside, bigger dreams and fewer fears.

In his most recent book, George Barna points out that Jimmy Blanchard became CEO of Synovus Financial Corp when he was 29! How on earth could a company like that turn over their operation to such a young leader? You know he wasn’t the most experienced candidate they looked at. They obviously wanted the energy, ideas, passion for people and leadership potential that he and Synovus became known for. It paid off in big ways. Not only did he oversee the period of greatest growth, but they’ve been voted America’s #1 company to work for.

What are the things you look for in emerging leaders? While you may not get a long resume, there are signs of future success. I’m going to spend some time on that topic in the following months. I think it’s worth exploring, because as Boomers get closer to retirement, they’re going to have to turn over leadership to a generation that’s about half their size. Leadership is therefore going to be handed to two generations, meaning leaders are going to be younger.

One final thought. Eventually, every young leader risks becoming what they hate most: an established leader holding onto power too long. Therefore the most important trait to cultivate in young leaders if you want age diversity is the desire and ability to develop others. Maybe I’m biased, but I think if you want any kind of diversity in your organization, that’s the most important trait to have in all levels of leadership. Looking for that ability should be part of all hiring and promotion thought processes.

Development should never be an add-on. If you’ve put the right people in leadership positions, they do it naturally and organically. The next generation benefits, ethnic minorities benefit, the organization benefits. Everyone benefits when you have developers in your organization. Just ask Synovus.