7 Leadership Lessons From Jethro

In Exodus 18, we read an account of a conversation that Moses had with his father-in-law, Jethro, where Jethro gives Moses some important advice. This exchange holds some important leadership lessons for us all.

1.​ It Is Good to Bring In Outside Voices

At this point in his leadership, Moses was stuck. Moses was the judge of the people, and he had taken the responsibility on himself of settling whatever disputes they had (the book of Numbers tells us that this was a community of over 600,000 fighting men – plus women and children). As a result, Moses’ time was entirely taken up with this task, and he was unable to do the other things that would have been required of his leadership.

Moses, however, hadn’t noticed the issue. It is often the case that when somebody has their head in the task that they are doing it can be difficult to step back and notice course corrections that need to be made. Sometimes we can be so busy working in our ministries, that we lose the necessary perspective to work on those ministries.

The breakthrough for Moses came when somebody from outside the situation came in and could see things with fresh eyes. This was somebody who Moses knew and trusted, and who was able to provide the insight that unlocked this situation for Moses and enable him to move things forward.

Who are the Jethros for you who can come in and bring an outside perspective on the things that you are doing?

2. It Is Good to Hear Hard Words

The advice that Jethro gave to Moses was not easy to hear. Nobody likes to be told that the way they are doing things isn’t the best way. The way Jethro phrased his counsel was practical, but was also blunt (“What you are doing is not good” – v.17) and it questioned Moses’ perception of his own abilities (“You are not able to do it alone” – v.18).

For many leaders, hearing words such as these could come across as a challenge to their identity as a leader. There are many different ways to respond to hard words like these. Some people respond with anger, or with resentment to the person who brought the advice. Some people take the words personally and their confidence to lead is dented. Some people brush the advice off and carry on as before.

Moses, however, receives the words, however difficult they were to hear and he changes his practice accordingly. As a result, he grows and becomes a much more effective leader.

This is not to say that we need to take every piece of advice offered. Discernment is required. But there is great value in having the wisdom to see good advice when it is offered and in having the character to hear that advice even when it is difficult.

3. It Is Good to Take Advice From Wherever It Comes

In verse 1, Jethro is described as “the priest of Midian”. He was not a member of God’s people and was almost certainly not a worshipper of God (and to this day he is revered as the chief prophet in the Druze religion).

None of this caused Moses to turn his nose up when it came to the advice that Jethro offered.

Of course it is a very good idea to have believers providing input into your church, and there will be certain issues that only followers of Jesus will be equipped to speak into. However, there are lots of other issues for which this is simply not the case. Moses’ big challenge was one of organisational structure, and Jethro had the insight to see the solution. A good idea is a good idea, whether the person who had the idea is a Christian or not.

I have met Christians and Christian leaders who are very sceptical about looking to the business community for good practices, but the lesson from Moses and Jethro are to take good advice from wherever it comes.

Here are a few books that I have found valuable from various sources:

4. It Is Good to Share the Load

The heart of Jethro’s advice to Moses was that he couldn’t do everything on his own.

When you lead something by attempting to do it all on your own, then you have capped the growth of your church or organisation to your own capacity. There will come a point when you can no longer keep up with all the demands that come your way. What happens then?

Jethro suggested that Moses raise up lots of new leaders who could share in the task and take some of the burden off Moses as the senior leader. It is crucial that we do the same in our churches (for more tips on how to do this, check out this podcast episode).

This can be a particularly challenging thing if you are (or perceive yourself to be) a star-performer who can do things to a level that few other people could match. When Moses handed over responsibility, the judges that he appointed may not have resolved the cases as well as Moses himself, and when you hand over tasks they may only be done at 70% of the standard that you would do them, at least initially.

But by raising up other leaders, you are giving space for them to grow, and in time they may start to come close to (or even exceed) the standard that you had reached, and at the same time your time and focus has been freed up for other things.

5. It Is Good to Recognise Leadership Capacity

When Jethro was advising Moses to create other judges who could work under his authority, he did not suggest giving the same level of responsibility to each of them.

Some of them were appointed to be chiefs of thousands, others of hundreds, still others of fifties, and finally some chiefs of tens.

Having authority to lead 1000 people is a very different thing to leading 100 or 50 or 10. Different skill sets and personal temperaments are required, and in order to get the best out of the leaders that you have in your church, it is important to find the setting that best matches their leadership capacity and style.

  • Leaders of 10s.Leading ten people is about caring for people well and building deep relationships with them. A lot of this kind of leadership happens in the home and over food, and it means making people feel like part of the family. This type of leader is often the ideal person to run a midweek community group.
  • Leaders of 50s.To lead 50 people means going wide as well as deep in terms of relationships. You need to be good at investing in a lot of people at once (and comfortable with not being able to invest in them quite as deeply as leaders of 10s can). This is often the kind of leader who fits the traditional local church pastor mold.
  • Leaders of 100s.Although leading 100 people is not that many more than leading 50, the nature of this kind of leadership is very different. Leaders of 100s have reached the point where they cannot lead through their own relationships with everybody in the group, but need to rely on their team and lead out in a much more public way through teaching and organised meetings. This is the type of leadership that many church leaders today operate in.
  • Leaders of 1000s.A leader of thousands cannot be personally involved in even a fraction of what is going on. Such leaders set strategic vision and invest heavily in building their leaders and leaders-of-leaders, and in creating systems to see their vision come to pass. This kind of leader may be running one of the larger churches around, or more likely will be spearheading a movement of churches.

I am sure you can think of leaders that would be ideal in each of these capacities, and I equally sure that you can imagine how counterproductive it could be if they were operating on the wrong scale.

It is sometimes not as easy to discern what our own leadership capacity is , but it is worth taking the time to reflect on this and to discuss it with others to ensure that we each end up doing the kind of thing that we are best equipped for.

6. It Is Good to Stay Involved

Though Moses had handed on responsibility for judging the people, he didn’t disappear entirely. He created a system so that the appointed judges could deal with the routine cases, but if anything was too big or complex for them to handle then they could refer the case on to Moses.

In doing this, Moses built the mechanism so that the new leaders were supported in their role, Moses’ own expertise was still put to use, and the cases were decided as accurately as possible.

Raising up new leaders is not the same as abdicating responsibility, and it is important that as you give somebody a new role, you are willing to stand with them and provide whatever support they need. Sometimes this means that bringing in a new leader doesn’t even initially reduce your own workload, though this will usually change over time as the new leader becomes more assured and competent in their role.

7. It Is Good to Apply Wise Advice

Most of us get tons of good advice.

We have lots of people speaking into our lives, making great suggestions for how we could develop things. We read books. We see countless tweets. We listen to podcasts. We subscribe to blogs. There are lots of brilliant ideas out there about how we could move things forward.

Sometimes the sheer quantity of advice can become so paralysing that we don’t end up implementing any of it.

In verse 24, we are told that, “Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said.”

What made the difference for Moses wasn’t just that he received good advice, but that he actually listened to it and implemented it in his own situation.

My challenge to you, then, is to think of one piece of advice that you have been given this week (either from this blog post or something else you have read or a conversation or whatever) and actually put it into practice and see what happens.

It’s good to be doers as well as hearers.