April 7, 2018 • Life for Leaders
He made [Joseph] master of his household,
ruler of all he possessed…
Joseph dreamed of such a day. The beloved and favored son of Jacob had visions of becoming a leader. For the most part, those dreams centered on his relationship with his family. Even then, he could not have imagined what now became clear. He would be given the opportunity to lead the most powerful and advanced civilization of its day: the Egyptian Empire. In an astonishing turnaround, Joseph is transformed from a forgotten prisoner of Egypt to its prime minister. Pretty intoxicating stuff for a young man who just turned thirty.
Coming into power, at any age, can be dangerous. As Lord Acton’s famous adage reminds us, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Yet leadership invariably brings power with it. How do we wield power well? How do we resist the corrosive quality of power in our lives?
Joseph provides some helpful hints.
First, remember the purpose for which your power is given. Joseph’s opportunity to lead Egypt comes for a reason. Joseph understands that saving people from the coming famine is his leadership mission. A healthy vision for leadership is fundamentally not about the leader but about the other—the people served by the leader. After all, leadership is ultimately a favor not a right. Furthermore, that vision is necessarily expansive and inclusive, not parochial. Joseph learned the scope of his work over time, as many of us do. Beginning with his extended family, his leadership horizon grew until it encompassed the known world. In the end, not only his family, not only his fellow Egyptians, but “all the world came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph” (Genesis 41:57). Developing an appropriately far-sighted mission as leaders keeps us from making the near-sighted mistake of focusing on the necessary instruments of power for their own sake. Instead, we can wield them for the well-being of those entrusted into our care.
Second, remember to serve with humility. Joseph’s interactions with Pharaoh during his rise to power (Genesis 41) are remarkable in that regard. “I had a dream, and no one can interpret it,” says Pharaoh. “But I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” Joseph replies, “I cannot do it… but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires” (41:15-16). Rather than focusing on his gifts of wisdom and discernment, Joseph pointedly redirects the attention to God, and to God’s concern for Pharaoh as the leader responsible for Egypt.
It is easy to forget or ignore God’s prior work among those we serve. In another remarkable moment of humility, Joseph says about Pharaoh’s dreams, “God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do.” (41:25) Joseph could easily, and rightly, say that God revealed this to him and not to Pharaoh, since the dreams were unintelligible to Pharaoh. But instead, he acknowledges God’s prior work in giving the dreams to Pharaoh in the first place. Acknowledging God’s common grace among those we serve keeps the focus off us, helping contain the intoxicating influence of the power we’ve been given.
Finally, despite Lord Acton’s warning, it’s worth noting that power is intended to be a gift, not a necessary evil. Joseph comes into his own, not only by Pharaoh’s decree, but by the will of God. And Joseph isn’t just an aberrant example of God’s providence in human history. Instead, the story of Joseph is God’s intention writ large for human beings. As the creation mandate in Genesis 1:26 tells us, all human beings—male and female—are created to exercise power for the good of the world, as living images of God’s character and glory. Still, as today’s psalm emphasizes about Joseph, for that dominion to be exercised as intended, we must invariably be forged in patient suffering unique to our calling and circumstances.
Something to Do:
Reflect on the purpose of your leadership with someone who knows you and your work well. How might you keep that purpose in view this coming week in your work?
Find some examples of God’s prior work in those whom you lead. Can you find an appropriate way to express your appreciation for that work in their lives?
Lord God, we are grateful for the story of Joseph in Egypt, and for how it reminds us of the mystery of your providence in our lives and in the world. We are thankful that you are relentlessly at work to do good in us and in the world.
Help us to see the scope of your calling and purpose in our lives. Forgive us when our vision is too small, and when our faith fails you. Enlarge our hearts and minds to love and serve the world as you intend. Give us courage to serve with humility even when others take advantage of us. Like Joseph, help us to remain faithful to you despite the betrayals of others. We ask in the name of Jesus, Amen.
Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online commentary:
Joseph’s Promotion by Pharaoh (Genesis 41:1-45)
During his adult life, Uli Chi has lived and worked in the intersection between business, the academy and the church. He has had the privilege of serving as past Board Chair of Regent College in Vancouver, BC, as current Vice Chair of the Board of the Max De Pree Leadership Center at Fuller Seminary, and as current Chair of the Executive Committee of the Center for Integrity in Business at Seattle Pacific University. He has also been involved in all aspects of local church leadership, including as a member of the adult ministries team’s teaching faculty at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Seattle.
Click here to view Uli’s profile.