What Would Jethro See in Me?

car engine“What you are doing is not good,” offered Jethro, “you will wear yourselves out.” Let me ask this: What Would Jethro See in Me?

When I think about leadership capacity I can’t help but turn to the story of Jethro counseling Moses on how to avoid burnout in Exodus 18. You know the plot. Moses had become the defacto decision-maker for two million people and it just wasn’t working. “What you are doing is not good,” offered Jethro, “you will wear yourselves out.”

Usually when I hear this passage taught the focus rests on Moses reducing the pain of leadership by increasing his own capacity, delegating wisely, and empowering others to lead. This is true. Anyone who is serious about spiritual leadership must master these crucial lessons. But there is another angle of that is frequently overlooked: the capacity, or readiness, of the followers to whom Moses is entrusting leadership.

A closer look reveals three key criteria that Jethro had in mind for the next generation of leaders. The developmental question I would want to ask myself, as a follower, is: Would I have been chosen according to these criteria? If not, where do I need to grow? It helps me to break
down Jethro’s advice in Exodus 18:21-22 like this:

1. Look at the Hands.

“Moreover, look for able men from all the people…” These new leaders had to have a certain level of competence in living life wisely. This is about skills. If someone were looking for a capable person to perform a certain task, would my name come to mind? What skills must I acquire or strengthen in order to both perform my current role well and prepare me for future changes?

2. Check the Heart.

“…men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe…” Each person had to have a heart that clearly pursued God and his ways. This is about character. Do other people know what I love, fear and hate? Can I be trusted to make and keep commitments, both small and large? Character growth is tricky. It’s not like we can just put some good ideas down on a Personal Development Plan and start checking them off the list. God’s economy doesn’t work that way; it takes time. Also, sometimes I can’t even see my most needed areas of growth because I am blind to them; I need others to help me by speaking into my life. Rather than wait for an annual 360 review, I often ask teammates to give me informal feedback (and keep my heart open to their counsel).

Capacity in character grows naturally as we abide in Christ, walk in the Spirit and bear his fruit. That’s him working, not us. Paul offers several ways that we participate in growing our character: by transforming our mind (Romans 12:1-2), by allowing ourselves to be influenced by other godly people (1 Timothy 4:12), and by embracing suffering (“we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character” Romans 5:3).

3. Examine the Head.

“…and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And let them judge the people at all times.” This is about perspective and discernment. Am I ready to lead ten on a team? How about 25 on a project? How about providing spiritual and strategic leadership to several teams in multiple locations across time zones and cultures? You may not currently aspire to that level of leadership, but God is always using our current responsibilities to prepare us for another future role. Movements requires people – leaders – who can rise above the clattering demands of the present and gain a longer-term perspective from the Lord. (I recently blogged about how I am learning to do this here.)

Finally, the relative importance of these different capacities shifts depending on what level of leadership is required (see the chart below). At the grassroots technical skills tend to be most crucial. We ask questions such as: Can she share her faith? Can he emcee a meeting well? How well can she keep a small group together?


As one moves to higher levels of leadership, interpersonal and conceptual skills take on greaterweight, while the need for technical skills actually diminishes. Different questions surface, such as: Is she worth following? Can he partner and share power with others? Do I trust her perspective and judgment? In choosing that strategy, is he honoring Christ and really looking out for the long-term interests of our institution? Is he lording his position over others or using his authority to serve the community and the mission? These are critical qualities for those who will lead us into the future.

What would Jethro see in you?

(Figure from Leadership in Organizations, 7th edition by Gary Yukl, Prentice Hall, 2010.)

  • http://twitter.com/BVirtue Brian Virtue

    Really liked this Ken. I liked the spin on this to draw us to look at ourselves. Exodus 18 typically is used to help us offload responsibility to others, not to cause us to take an honest self-assessment of our own character and capacity for leadership. That’s a really fresh way of engaging that text.

    I had a weird experience a couple years back while I was taking Justin Irving’s Servant Leadership course and this goes into maybe more the academic realm. We were engaging Exodus 18 a bit because Greenleaf totally sees it as a negative example of servant leadership which goes against most of what I’ve heard. What was odd was that a large percentage of those in the class had really only heard Exodus 18 and the Jethro example used to reinforce hierarchical, top-down leadership and a more authority/hierarchy model. That’s how Greenleaf interpreted too and why he goes after it pretty good.

    I had never heard anyone attempt to teach that passage in any other way that about empowerment and delegation and being wise with leadership limitations. Have you seen that kind of a diversity of conclusions around that passage? If you have recall – curious what you think of Greenleaf’s judgment of the “jethro model” (not that it is a real model).

    But back to your post :) I’ll have to go read that recent post of your own learnings, because balancing the present and the future I find to be really, really challenging. If Jethro were looking at me, he’d see someone pretty tired (though we just had our 3rd child so I’ll chalk some of it up as normal!) and someone who can see where he wants to go and where he needs to go, but is struggling to stay anchored in that reality because of complexity and bad boundaries (and maybe several small kids too) :)

    • http://twitter.com/brianbarela Brian Barela

      i’ll go in w Brian and say that Jethro would see a tired dude. any resources to recommend related to the fatigue of leading well? in my mind i often think leading well means never getting tired or fatigued, yet most if not all biblical leaders spent LOTS of time in the fatigued/overwhelmed area.

      • http://www.destinoyearbook.com de


        I agree most leaders seem tired a lot. A LOT. Being married to Eric, I see how quickly fatigue can set in especially when you are juggling multiple roles and toddlers as we are in our home.

        Two book resources that have been helpful for us are Strengthening the Soul of your Leadership (actually recommended by Gary Runn) and Sacred Rhythms which is written by the same author. Both speak to addressing what is at the heart of our leadership fatigue and tiredness. It isn’t anything terribly new, but it can be profound when put into practice. I’ve seen a significant change in Eric this year after practicing more of a sabbath lifestyle. I think both books do a good job of addressing the heart and character of a person rather than just giving you a method of how to rest better.

        For what it’s worth,

        • http://twitter.com/brianbarela Brian Barela

          thanks kristy! just read the reviews on amazon and will add them to my short list.

          and if you or eric have any magic potion to make toddlers go to sleep on time and sleep in every day i’ll take that as well!

          • http://twitter.com/BVirtue Brian Virtue

            We could use that potion as well!

            • Ken

              No potion. You just keep feeding them for 18 years, then they go to college and you have your schedule back :-0

              • http://twitter.com/BVirtue Brian Virtue

                Awesome. Only 17 years and 8 months to go!

                It already feels like it’s moving so fast so we’ll enjoy the chaos as much as we can while we can :)

        • Ken

          Ditto those book recommendations, Kristy. Ann and I have both of them – they were excellent resources for our sabbaticals in 2010.


    • Ken

      Hey Brian, I am aware of some of Greenleaf’s thinking, being a disciple of Justin Irving’s. Greenleaf argues against single-leader hierarchy and for what he calls “first among equals” team leadership. Our new global team framework (coming soon to a training near you) supports this principle: teams have a team leader and several macro-task leaders.

      I actually see Moses, Aaron and Miriam functioning much in this way. For sure by the time Joshua takes over, clear lines of delineating are drawn between Joshua’s responsibilities and the high priest’s, who was to share in the decision-making process. From that time onward through the remainder of scripture i don’t see many (if any) single-leader models supported.

      My point is: God never designed leaders to lead alone. He doesn’t do it either (e.g. trinity).

      Regarding both Brian’s comments on FATIGUE: leadership fatigue is very real. The two most helpful things I’ve learned to combat it are: 1. Sabbath weekly and 2. Share leadership with others.


      • http://twitter.com/BVirtue Brian Virtue

        I would agree with that totally as it relates to various examples of leadership structures. It hadn’t occurred to me that someone would use that passage to support a single leader, top-down model as “Biblical.” But that was what I was hearing from folks and that was clearly how Greenleaf saw it too and what he was reacting against. I agree that while there might be a lot of single leader type leaders in the Scriptures (say a Saul..), there’s not a lot of support for that being the prescriptive model. I agree that evidence is pretty strong to the contrary. Leaders can’t do it alone.

  • http://www.infinitequeso.com/ Stephanie N.

    Great post, Ken! I like the way you flipped the story on its head. (Although I really need to re-visit the warning on taking on too much as well!)
    I really liked your “ways we participate in our own character development” from Point #2. That’s a question I get often from others. I’m really going to chew on the three areas you listed. Your first 2 come much more naturally than your third (embracing suffering)!
    I also wanted to comment/ask about your chart from Yukl. I agree with the general idea of it. But I might make a case that–at least in a ministry setting–“interpersonal” skills (“heart”) might need to increase to at least the level of “conceptual” skills (“head”), the higher up in leadership someone goes. As we call others to lay down their lives–literally, in some places in the world–I would think it paramount that as a leader I would need to possess a completely compelling character in order for others to follow me. Perhaps it’s simply a personal preference for me?
    Or I wonder how the chart might shift if the group being led were broken down by gender? Or generation? Or culture/ethnicity?

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