In 1970, Robert Greenleaf published his article, “the Servant as Leader.” From this article and further writings, Greenleaf became known as the modern founder of the philosophy of Servant Leadership. Greenleaf would continue to write and speak on a variety of topics and interests concerning leadership and culture over the next 20 years before his death in 1990. The Center for Servant Leadership web-site states of Greenleaf, “Greenleaf always claimed that although he was informed by the Judeo-Christian ethic (he became a Quaker in mid-life), servant leadership was for people of all faiths and all institutions, secular and religious. He knew that he was not a perfect servant-leader, but it was his ideal, and the arc of his life bent in that direction.”
In several of his writings, he writes that he is not a theologian, or at least, a trained theologian. In many of his writings he describes himself as a Quaker who has great respect for religion. In some of his works he endorses the importance of seminaries in training pastors who have influence on culture through their churches. His Christian background seems very important in his life and work.
With all of his religious background, I was surprised by his approach and interpretation of Exodus 18 as he applied it to organizational theory. He uses an interpretation of Exodus 18 to blame Moses (and therefore, in some ways God) for the classic organizational leadership style of top down, authoritarian leadership. He writes in his discussion of Spirituality as Leadership in the collection, Seeker and Servant (p. 57), “Is it possible that the ultimate cause [of Moses hitting the rock rather than speaking to it and God punishing him] was that stupid advice that Moses accepted from Jethro? Anybody who is set up as the single chief over a vast hierarchy (or even a small one) is vulnerable to the illusion that he or she is God!”
He continues, “’How would you organize it?’ the faithful often ask, ‘Not that way, ‘is my firm reply. Anyone who is placed in the position of unchecked power over others is vulnerable to the corrupting of that power and may fall victim to the illusion that one is God. No one, absolutely no one, should be given unchecked power over others.”
He states in his article, The Institution as Servant (Servant Leadership, p. 97-98), “In the history of organizational ideas, primus inter pares came later, but the notion of a single chief was too firmly entrenched. Too many people were comfortable with it. Unchecked power was still accepted. And the mediocrity of institutions had not yet been challenged the way the revolution of expectations has challenged it today.” He continues,
“It may be that we have stayed with Jethro’s advice so long because people have wanted order and they have been willing to pay the price of concentrating power in one person’s hands as the only way they knew to get it. Now the costs of this choice are looming too large and it is imperative that we must have what we cannot have it we stay with Jethro’s advice.
The abuse of power is curbed if the holder of power is surrounded by equals who are strong, and if there is close oversight by a monitoring group, trustees who are not involved in the daily use of power.
There are several kinds of power. One is coercive power, used principally to destroy. Not much that endures can be built with it. Even presumably autocratic institutions like businesses are learning that the value of coercive power is inverse to its use. Leadership by persuasion and example is the way to build– everywhere.”
In another article in On Becoming a Servant Leader, Greenleaf opines, “How did our society get to be so bureaucratic? I believe that it started with a man called Jethro who was the first management consultant of record, mentioned in the Book of Exodus.” He shares of discussing Moses’ leadership style and his not making it into the Promised Land with a rabbi friend. Greenleaf questions,
“The Lord’s reasons for sacking Moses seem to me rather specious, the kind of reasons many of us have invented when we are going to do something unpleasant to somebody and prefer not to give our real reasons. Could it be, I asked the rabbi, that the Lord’s real criticism of Moses that led to the substitution of another leader was that Moses had taken this stupid advice from Jethro and that the unfortunate bureaucratic consequences were already evident in the tribes of Israel? This, I suggested, and not the reason the Lord gave Moses, was the cause of the Lord’s dissatisfaction. The long-term result, of course, for the Western world and ultimately the whole world, is that the world has been stuck with a lousy organization theory for three thousand years.”
Over the years, I have read many books on leadership. In every other instance I can remember, when Moses is discussed as a leader and someone who delegates authority, he is used as a positive example of humility and leadership, not blamed for abuse and pride, or wrong organizational theory as Greenleaf suggests.
For instance, in his classic text, Be the Leader You Were Meant to Be, Leroy Eims writes of Moses’ response to Jethro in Exodus 18 (p. 91), “One of the most amazing things in this record was the fact that Moses had the good sense to take that advice. Pride could have kept him from it. He could have said, ‘Who do you think you are, telling me what to do? Don’t you know who I am? I am Moses, the man who has spoken to God Himself face to face. If I want advice I’ll go right to the top and get it-I’ll go to God Himself.”
In my favorite book on spiritual leadership (Spiritual Leadership, p. 139), Oswald Sanders writers concerning Exodus 18, “One of the great biblical illustrations of the principle of delegation is the story of Jethro, father-in-law to Moses, recorded in Exodus 18.” He later states,
“Then Jethro proposed a two-part plan. Moses would continue to teach spiritual principles and exercise legislative leadership. He would also decide the hard cases at court. But much of his work would be delegated to competent, trustworthy subordinates. Jethro spoke wisely, for if Moses had succumbed under the strain, he would have left chaos behind-no one trained to lead, no one in charge of anything. Failure to make provision for the succession of leadership has spelled ruin for many missions and churches. Moses followed Jethro’s advice and realized several benefits.”
Henry and Richard Blackaby write in their book, Spiritual Leadership (p. 209),
“The quantity of work leaders can accomplish is in direct proportion to their ability to delegate work to others. Leaders who refuse to delegate limit their productivity to the amount of work they can accomplish themselves.” Further, using the example of Moses in Exodus 18 they state, “There are certain things that leaders cannot delegate. Leaders have the responsibility to hear from God and to guide their organizations into his will. The onus is on the leader to see that people are equipped to accomplish their tasks. Therefore they must delegate everything they can so they have the time to focus on these crucial responsibilities.”
Finally, in Feeding and Leading, an excellent Christian leadership and Church administration work by Ken Gangel (which I wish would be updated), Gangel uses Exodus 18 to discuss many principles of delegation. Under the heading ‘delegation is essential to survival’ he writes (p.177), “In all the history of management science on the subject of delegation there appears no more poignant phrase than verse 18. ‘The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone.’ We hear a great deal today about stress and the workaholic tendencies of many Christian leaders. The quickest way to insure both stress and workaholism is to fail at delegation.” Gangel then further talks about the purposes and practices of delegation, all referencing Exodus 18.
I mention these examples not so much to teach about the importance of delegation in leadership, but to show how several “leadership experts” use Exodus 18 as a positive, even essential, example that leaders must follow to be effective. At no time do they speak of Moses as trying to keep power himself, or thinking himself to be God and not listening to others. I do not understand in Greenleaf’s writings why someone as learned and “churched” as Greenleaf blames Moses for a wrong organizational theory. In fact, Moses fulfills many of the servant leadership principles described in Greenleaf’s writings.
Here are a few misunderstandings of Exodus 18 that I see in the writings of Robert Greenleaf.
- Greenleaf writes as if Moses was accountable to no one. Big mistake. Moses was directly accountable to God for his actions. We might say that God was Moses’ board of directors or trustees. We see this in that Moses paid the price of not getting into the Promised Land with the rest of the nation because Moses did not treat God as holy when he hit the rock, rather than speaking to the rock. See footnote 3.
- Moses did not appoint himself to be the leader of the nation; God called him to be the leader of the nation. Moses was very reluctant as the leader. He was so reluctant the God assigned Aaron, his brother, to help him with the leadership. In that sense, Moses was not a solo leader. See Exodus 4:27 – 30.
- In Greenleaf’s emphasis of being “first among equals” there still has to be a leader who bears the responsibility, at least in specific areas of leadership. Moses did not assume he was better than others, but he submitted to God’s call on his life. He willingly submitted to the questioning of the people, specifically Aaron and Miriam, when they questioned his leadership. However, God did not appreciate these questions and struck Miriam with leprosy. After this, Moses actually pleads for God to heal Miriam, his sister. See Numbers 12:1-15. Notice also that Moses is called in this passage (Numbers 12:3) the most humble man on the planet. This is certainly not how Greenleaf characterizes him.
- It is unfathomable to me that Greenleaf criticizes Moses for authoritarian leadership when he gave up a great amount of power when agreeing to follow the advice of Jethro. Many other capable men were brought into the organizational structure once Moses followed Jethro’s plan. This fits well into the organizational theory of servant leadership. He delegated power. Moses did not keep all power for himself, but gave many decisions and much authority away. This was not only so he could spend more time with his family, but also so that decisions would be made more quickly for the people.
- In so many ways, Moses was a quintessential servant leader according to the writings of Greenleaf. Moses knew what he was trying to do. As if describing Moses, Greenleaf writes, “A mark of leaders, an attribute that puts them in a position to show the way for others, is that they are better than most at pointing the direction.” Because God had directly commanded Moses, Moses knew exactly what he was trying to accomplish and where he was leading the people. He showed his calling, competency and commitment through His willingness to traverse the desert to lead, and put himself in harm’s way as he went back to Egypt. As well, he spent at least two 40 day periods of time on Mount Sinai so that he would accurately and powerfully bring the law of God to the people. God affirmed His call of Moses by doing powerful miracles through him, even holding people accountable who rejected Moses’ leadership. The people were not often good followers, as shown by their need to wander for forty years in the wilderness because of their unbelief, but Moses was a wonderful (not perfect) example of servant leadership.
So many other servant leadership principles and applications can be seen in the life and ministry of Moses. Why Greenleaf does not take the time to speak more fully about this, leaves me confused. Greenleaf’s view seems to come from his biased liberal understanding of Scripture which has led him to misunderstand Exodus 18 and not give Moses the credit he is due for the leading the nation of Israel and following the ways of God.
Blackaby, Henry and Richard, Spiritual Leadership, Broadman and Homan Publishers, Nashville, Tennessee, 2001.
Eims, Leroy; Be the Leader You Were Meant to Be; Victor Books, Wheaton, Illinois; Twenty-first printing, 1986, 1975. p. 91
Gangel, Kenneth O., Feeding and Leading, Victor Books, Wheaton, Illinois; 1989.
Greenleaf, Robert K., Seeker and Servant, ed. Fraker and Spears, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, California, 1996.
Greenleaf, Robert K., On Becoming a Servant Leader, ed. Frick and Spears; Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, California, 1996.
Greenleaf, Robert K., Servant Leadership, 25th Anniversary Edition, ed. Spears, Paulist Press, Mahwah, New Jersey, 2002.
Sanders, J. Oswald, Spiritual Leadership, Moody Publishers, Chicago, Illinois, 2007.
 He describes himself not as a theologian in places such as Servant Leadership, The Institution as Servant, p. 93 and Servant Leadership, Servant Leadership in Churches, 237; in On Becoming a Servant Leader, Building the Ethic of Strength in Business, p. 168. He also postulates this in Seeker and Servant, pages 9 and 51. In On Becoming a Servant Leader, the Individual as Leader (p. 336), he writes, “In my role as my own theologian, I do not want to define or explain it. There is, in my theology, a mystery before which I simply stand in awe. At the threshold of the mystery, I ask no questions and seek no explanations. I simply bow before the mystery, and what it wants to say to me comes as gently as doves as I achieve the quiet. Spirit is behind the threshold of the mystery.” This quote, along with others, reveals much about his own liberal Quaker understanding of truth and Scripture. This background of his theological viewpoint helps us understand some of his theological assumptions in his writings.
 It is interesting to note that in Greenleaf’s collection, On Becoming a Servant Leader, he writes of Exodus 18, “This is an interesting account. Jethro is the first management consultant on record and made the first formal statement of organization theory. Incidentally, not much basic organization theory has been added to this statement.” (p. 88) He speaks of this in discussing Jethro’s role as a consultant and confidante, making the point that outside sources often have insight we cannot see ourselves, but he gives no critique of this management scheme at that time.
 Wow, talk about reading your own thoughts into a passage! God is clear as to why Moses did not get to enter into the Promised Land. Moses had disobeyed God’s specific command when he struck the rock to bring forth water rather than speaking to the rock as God had commanded. See Numbers 20:8-13; also Numbers 27:12; Deuteronomy 32:51. Moses does seem to put some blame on the disobedience of the people in the wilderness for his not entering (Deuteronomy 1:37, 3:26), but this has nothing to do to how Moses managed the people.
 Servant Leadership, The Servant as Leader, p. 29. He talks about this in many places in his writings, ‘What are you trying to do?’ is one of the easiest to ask and most difficult to answer of questions.”
 Servant Leadership, The Servant as Leader, p. 29.