Leaders easily fall into the trap of viewing authority in their organisation or institution as some form of zero-sum game. The more they give away, the less they have. And after all, if you are the leader, you’re meant to be in charge: right?
A couple of interesting perspectives on this come from a couple of episodes in the leadership journey of Moses.
In the first (Exodus 18), Moses’ father in law finds Moses overwhelmed by the task of handling all of the people’s disputes. Jethro was able to see that not only was this bad for Moses, but it was bad for the people.
You and the people will certainly wear yourselves out…
This was unsustainable and it was unhealthy. It’s interesting to speculate about what might have been going on in Moses’ mind that led him to run his business in this way. He had been prepared to delegate the Amalekite military operation to Joshua and had accepted the physical support of Aaron in Hur. But some have suggested visions of grandeur: for example suggesting that he’s acting like a king, sitting on his throne while the people stand around him.
Whatever was going on in his mind, he is willing to accept Jethro’s plan by which he will delegate some of the work to others. As Norman Cohen says, ‘leaders must acknowledge that they cannot control and run everything.’
To attempt to do so is to court trouble. Some leaders may want to give it a go, but it’s unlikely to be good for the long term health of whatever they are leading. Either they become dictators and their people become passive or resentful, they become bottlenecks and progress is stymied, or everyone gets frustrated and the leader burns out.
What Jethro noticed was that what was happening was good for neither leader nor people.
The second episode takes place later (Numbers 11) and this time it is Moses who realises there is something wrong. There’s been yet another episode of complaining on the part of the people who were thinking back to their time in Egypt where they could enjoy fish (free), cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic: now they were longing for meat but all they had was manna. As the people weep, Moses cracks. He cries out to God that he can no longer carry this load.
To which God responds by anointing seventy elders with the Spirit, so that they can share the burden with Moses. The sign of the Spirit was that the elders prophesied.
The story takes a fascinating turn when news reaches Moses that two men who had stayed in the camp, instead of going to the tent of meeting, were also prophesying. Joshua – Moses’ assistant – reacts by asking Moses to get them to stop. Moses won’t hear of it: ‘Are you jealous for my sake?’
There is quite a difference between the reaction of the young assistant and the old leader. Joshua wants to make sure that this anointing remains within the right limits and the Spirit empowers the ‘right’ people. Moses just wishes that all of the people would have this anointing with the Spirit.
There are probably a few challenging implications here. For one thing, how easy do we find it to affirm the work of God’s Spirit in the ministries of people who may not be part of our circle? But there is also a leadership lesson.
Leaders need to reach the place where they realise that it is not about them. Doubtless there are plenty of leaders who find themselves isolated because of their situation (they have been called to a place where there are few leaders) or because of the system within which they operate.
Rather than hold tightly to their authority and control, what if leaders made this their prayer?
Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!