It has been said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even a cursory survey of human history brings to mind tragic stories of promising men who ascended to powerful positions only to wind up as corrupt and paranoid mad men. Even recent church history is rife with scandal, as leaders have abused their position through love of money, sex, power, or some combination of all three. The world has taken notice. It is one thing to be a secular leader who falls, quite another when a religious leader does the same. Little tolerance is given to the latter, as Christian leaders in particular have been judged rather harshly for their scandals.
Despite the recent scandals, most Christian leaders live exemplary lives. One of the key ways to keep above the fray is to consider the examples in Scripture. Of course, Jesus Christ is the greatest one to emulate. But in the life of Joseph is found one who rose to the top of the Egyptian government, from slavery, to prison, to Pharaoh’s right hand man, yet was able to keep his head and spiritual life intact with such amazing faith that it can only be viewed as being a gift of God. It will become clear that Joseph’s life is well worth studying for leadership or for life in general. Few can match the leadership skills he displayed. In fact, many people have noted that Joseph is one of the few major characters in Scripture about whom nothing negative is recorded. This post will give various accounts of Joseph’s life and will include four areas of his leadership that are worthy to be emulated: faithfulness, honesty, discernment, and humility. The text of Scripture will be from the narrative on Joseph’s life found in Genesis 37, 39-47, 50.
Trustworthiness – (39:2-6)
When Joseph was a young man of about seventeen, he was sold by his jealous brothers to Ishmaelite merchants and taken to Egypt, where he ended up at the household of Potiphar, an official of Pharaoh. It was partially because of Joseph’s obedience to his father’s command (Gen. 37:13) that his circumstance became so dire, and now in Egypt Joseph demonstrates his trustworthiness again, this time to his master, Potiphar.
We read in the text that the primary reason why Joseph prospered was because the Lord was with him (39:2). But God’s help is in accordance with Joseph’s own faithfulness in fulfilling his duties. Certainly God could override all circumstances, but he chooses instead to work with His creatures, especially in their obedience. When it is said in Scripture that God is with someone or favors someone, it is always in accordance with their faithful actions. Potiphar saw that the Lord was with Joseph and that Joseph was trustworthy, so he put him in charge of his entire household, leaving in “Joseph’s care everything he had” (39:3-6).
Joseph’s trustworthiness was challenged when Potiphar’s wife began to make advances. She desired an affair with Joseph, but his response to her was to cite his master’s trust of him to take care of his household and that to sleep with her would be a sin against God (39:7-9). Though he never touched her, she took his cloak and used it against him, lying to Potiphar that he tried to force himself upon her. Potiphar had Joseph thrown into prison where he found favor in the eyes of the warden, who put him in charge of many prison related duties (39:12-23).
The faith of Joseph in continuing to do good even when bad events follow needs to be heeded. He obeyed his father, yet he wound up in slavery in a foreign land; he faithfully obeyed Potiphar, and he was falsely accused and sent to prison. And even now he was being trustworthy in the most base habitation imaginable—prison. Many times in leadership, we will be tempted to turn away from our faithfulness as negative circumstances choke the life out of our plans and self-image. Yet Joseph demonstrates that the leader God has chosen is encouraged to persevere, knowing that God is with him. Darkness comes before the dawn, and in every position of authority there will be times of darkness. But the Christian leader is to continue to be faithful and trustworthy in his position.
Honesty – (40:9-19)
While in prison Joseph was tending to two of Pharaoh’s servants who had fallen out of his favor, the baker and the cupbearer. One day Joseph noticed that they were down and dejected; after inquiring into the matter he found out that they each had a dream and were perplexed as to the meanings. Joseph first listened to the cupbearer’s dream about a vine with three branches full of grapes that he, the cupbearer, squeezed into Pharaoh’s cup. After listening to him, Joseph gave the positive interpretation that in three days the cupbearer would be restored to his previous position (40:9-15).
After listening to the cupbearer’s happy fortune, the baker told Joseph his dream, one in which three baskets of bread sat on his head while birds ate out of those baskets. Then Joseph had the unenviable task of telling the baker what the dream meant. In three days Pharaoh would hang the baker and the birds of the sky would eat away his flesh (40:16-19). Both interpretations came true; the baker was killed and cupbearer was restored to his position, but he forgot about Joseph (40:20-23).
Another amazing truth about Joseph is that he was incredibly honest. How easy it is to tell people good news! The fact is, human nature is such that we like to be liked—so much so that sometimes the truth is compromised so that peace can be achieved. It is easy to fall prey to such behavior, yet Joseph did not water down the interpretation God had given him regarding the fate of the chief baker. Honesty had gotten Joseph in trouble with his brothers, but that did not stop him from being honest here.
In the same way, leaders are to be honest with everyone even in situations where the truth hurts. Oftentimes it will. Joseph had asked the cupbearer to remember him, but Joseph was forgotten and remained in prison another two years (41:1). And it is almost certain that the baker did not have Joseph high on his list of favorite people. So also, leaders and teachers are to proclaim the truth of God’s word and not try to water it down so that it becomes more palatable for the sheep. Watering down the truth would not have done the chief baker any good, and it will certainly not do Christians good either.
Discernment and Prudence – (41:33-40)
While Joseph was still sitting in prison, Pharaoh had a couple of dreams. In one, there were seven fat cows followed by seven thin cows, and in the other, seven healthy heads of grain, followed by seven dry heads of grain. In both dreams the sickly seven at up the healthy seven. None of Pharaoh’s magicians could interpret the dreams, but the cupbearer remembered Joseph and Pharaoh sent for him. Joseph gave Pharaoh the interpretations, both the dreams meant the same thing—there would be seven years of good crops and plenty of rain, followed by seven years of drought and scarce food. The drought would be so terrible that the people would forget about the previous years of plenty.
After telling Pharaoh the interpretation, Joseph goes on to give him some instructions on the best way to handle the situation. He suggests that Pharaoh appoint a wise man over the land of Egypt along with commissioners to oversee the gathering of one fifth of the grain harvest. This grain was to be kept in reserve for the time of famine. Upon hearing all of this, Pharaoh saw Joseph’s discernment and placed him in charge of virtually everything in Egypt.
Once again Joseph proved himself to be honest in rightly handling the truth of God’s interpretation, but now he is found to be wise in understanding and dealing with difficult situations. While nobody else knew what to do, Joseph put forth a plan that would save the Egyptians, and many others, from starvation and ruin. The wisdom he displayed did not go unnoticed by Pharaoh, who immediately understood who to put in charge.
Christian leaders are to display wisdom and discernment in handling people and various situations that arise. Of course, the first step in attaining wisdom is to know and fear God. Proverbs states that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (9:10). It cannot be overstated the importance of the Christina leader’s relationship with Jesus Christ. Only a humble submission to His Lordship and a firm grasp upon His word will the leader truly lead effectively.
Humility – (45:1-15, 50:19-21)
The famine eventually came and much of the surrounding areas were affected. Among those coming to Egypt for help were Joseph’s older brothers. When Joseph recognized them, he was moved to tears (42:24). But he pretended not to know them and sent them back to Canaan with the orders to bring back the youngest, Benjamin, while the oldest, Simeon, would be kept behind to ensure their return. Upon their return, they met again with Joseph. He gave them a feast and after seeing his younger brother, once again wept (43:30). After a while, Joseph finally revealed himself to his brothers, those who had treated him so badly and sent him into slavery. Weeping loudly, he cried to them “I am Joseph!” (45:2-3). What he said next truly revealed his heart and his understanding of God’s ways: “Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. . .to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance” (45:5,7). He then gave them instructions to bring back his father, Jacob; along with everyone else they were to live in Egypt so that they might have provisions.
What was perhaps the most startling attribute of Joseph was his tender heart. He had every opportunity to let bitterness eat at him while on his journey to Egypt, as a slave, or while in prison. And he also had the chance to become prideful in his new position of authority. Yet Joseph did not let past aggressions or his power to change his heart. He knew God and exemplified what it meant to be a humble servant and leader.
In the same way, Christian leaders cannot afford to let past hurts create a revengeful spirit within them. Forgiveness is to be an important aspect of the leader’s life, since it will be required time after time. If bitterness takes root, the heart will grow cold, and the ministry will dry up. Additionally, a humble, tender heart is especially needed in positions where the flock’s admiration and accolades will threaten to make the leader feel too much pride.
In an age where many leaders, both secular and Christian, have fallen from their positions, and have created a general distrust among the populace regarding people of authority, it is especially important for Christian leaders to look at the life of Joseph as a model to follow. If the need is to feed the sheep, Joseph’s honesty is a model of accurately handling Scripture. If the goal is to model Christ-likeness, Joseph’s humility is a good example of living a godly life. Of course, Joseph was not perfect, but he was used by God to keep Israel from starving in the famine, and is a great example for us today on how to be an effective Christian leader.
All Scripture taken from the New International Version, Broadman & Holman, 1996.