Leadership formation, at least in the biblical sense, seems like a long, painful process. We live in an age of abundant, easy-to-consume leadership advice. But, as others have noted, learning about leadership is not the same as becoming a better leader… Rather, the story of Joseph reminds us that the formation of a leader’s character through suffering, often over long periods of time, is critical.
I had lunch the other day with a young business colleague. He has a good job for which he expressed gratitude. Nevertheless, he struggles with a lack of intrinsic meaning and purpose in his work. He believes that work should be an expression of God’s calling in his life. Still, he couldn’t reconcile that conviction with his own lack of personal connection to his work. If God has called him to his work, shouldn’t he find meaning and purpose in that work?
As Christians, it’s easy to see God’s hand when we flourish in our work. But can we trust that God still calls and sends us into our work when, despite our best efforts, we are “sold out”? Perhaps some of you are facing just such circumstances. Today’s text is both reminder and encouragement that God’s providence is at work in our lives in the most difficult circumstances, and for the most unimaginable results.
As we begin this journey, the first insight about becoming a lead servant is that our leadership is not, in the first place, about us or even about our role as leaders. Instead, it is about God’s larger purpose and work in the world, and about his formation of us for the sake of the world he loves. We are, after all and first of all, servants.
I’ve come to believe that acting “in the name of Jesus” is fundamentally about acting in congruence with Jesus’s character and mission. What mattered to me as a business owner was that my employees understood what we wanted to do as a company (our mission) and who we intended to be as a company (our character). So, as followers of Jesus, we need to thoughtfully reflect God’s mission and character in our everyday work.
Living in exile is an opportunity for the demonstration of faithfulness. In uncongenial, even hostile, circumstances, we are called to do our work faithfully. Much of what we do may seem insignificant. There may be less recognition that our work is of value, since what is valued has itself changed in the world around us. Still, we can—as an act of faith and faithfulness—sing the LORD’s song in a strange land.
It takes intentionality and effort to “make our dwelling among” those we lead. Being present with our followers takes time and attention… “Flesh and blood” leadership, the incarnational leadership that Jesus taught and embodied, requires something more. It means finding ways to live among—in other words, to enter the world of—those we lead.
If you are like me, you struggle with living and leading in a public world where meaning and community are often hard to come by. We are surrounded by senseless human evil, natural disasters, physical illness, and institutional dysfunction. Most of our world seems to be in darkness. But as the prophet Isaiah prophesied millennia ago, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light!”
Jesus startles with his vision of human leadership. It’s hard to imagine leadership more radically different from what people have envisioned or practiced throughout human history. In a world where “the greatest among you will be the greatest among you,” Jesus teaches that “the greatest among you will be your servant.”
Whether we like it or not, being a leader brings recognition. Like success itself, recognition isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Still, it’s easy to fall in love with both. It’s difficult to hold leadership, particularly its successes and rewards, lightly.