What the Bible Says About Leadership and Delegation

For my first few years out of college I worked as a salesman in the publishing industry. I didn’t have anyone reporting to me. It was just me, a telephone, and an order pad. I didn’t even have a computer.

Handoff to Todd Newell

Then, in 1981 I became a marketing director for the same publishing company. Honestly, my boss should not have hired me. I had zero marketing experience. We just happened to click. (Not only did we click, but we went on to work together for seventeen years.)

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I suddenly had five people reporting to me, including an assistant.

No one taught me how to delegate. In fact, the first day on the job, my advertising manager burst into my office. She informed me that a print ad for our biggest new book of the year was due by the end of the day. It never occurred to me that I could ask someone else to write this. I rolled up my sleeves and started typing—literally—on an IBM Selectric Typewriter.

That first year on the job, I vacillated between micro-managing everything and completely abdicating my role. It would be years before I would learn the art of delegation. Along the way, I made about every mistake you can make.

Last week, Gail (my wife) and I were talking about a friend who was overwhelmed with his work. Gail had just read Exodus 18. She said, “Moses had the same problem. His father-in-law Jethro was the first leadership consultant. In his very first session, he discussed the concept of delegation with his new ‘client’.”

I re-read the passage for myself. I was struck with how simple and practical Jethro’s advice was. It occurred to me that many leaders would do well to heed his sage advice. First, some historical background.

Moses had just led the Israelites out of Egypt after 400 years of slavery. He was journeying toward Israel, their ancient homeland. In the midst of the Sinai desert he found himself laboring from early morning until late at night, attempting to resolve the myriad conflicts that arose (see Exodus 18:13–16). He had unintentionally become a workaholic.

His father-in-law, Jethro, a priest of Midian (see Exodus 18:1), saw that Moses’ workload was not sustainable and he was headed for trouble. He wisely pulled Moses aside, celebrated what God had done through him (see Exodus 18:9–12), then gave him some invaluable counsel regarding the concept of delegation. He articulated five principles that are as relevant today as they were then.

  1. Admit that working non-stop is unsustainable. Jethro didn’t pull any punches. He said matter-of-factly:

    The thing that you do is not good. Both you and these people who are with you will surely wear yourselves out. For this thing is too much for you; you are not able to perform it by yourself” (vv. 18:17, 18)

    Something would eventually break down. You can’t work twelve-hour days, six days a week, and survive. Something will eventually give: your health, your sanity, your family, your career, or your legacy. Worse, it even wears your people out. For your sake—and theirs—you need to admit the truth. Your strategy is not working.

  2. Understand your unique calling. Jethro saw something very important. That while Moses could perhaps do many things well, he had a unique calling where he alone added significant value. He exhorted Moses, saying:

    Listen now to my voice; I will give you counsel, and God will be with you: Stand before God for the people, so that you may bring the difficulties to God. And you shall teach them the statutes and the laws, and show them the way in which they must walk and the work they must do” (vv. 18:9, 20)

    Moses needed to offload those things that others could do, so he could focus on those things that only he could do. The same is true for you. Where is it that you add value—something that you are uniquely called and qualified to do? How can you delegate the rest?

  3. Select qualified leaders to assist you. This is where Jethro gets practical. He gently rebuked Moses: “You’re not the only one who can do this job. You just need to find some leaders you can trust to help share the load. There’s no reason you should bear this alone.” He admonished,

    Moreover you shall select from all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, [and] hating covetousness” (v. 18:1a)

    Notice that the focus is on character. Your people can gain knowledge and experience, they can learn skills and develop their gifts, but you must start with a foundation of godly character. When you have this, it is much easier to delegate.

  4. Give these leaders responsibility and authority. Jethro was very practical. He understood that a leader’s span-of-control was about ten people. He established a simple organizational hierarchy with different levels of responsibility. He provided an outline:

    … and place such over them to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. And let them judge the people at all times” (vv. 18: 21b–22a).

  5. This isn’t rocket science. Nor is it a bureaucracy. These various management levels were not designed to impede decision-making but to facilitate it. The key is in giving your people authority. Will they make mistakes? Absolutely. Get over it. This is part of the price you pay to develop leaders.

  6. Only do those things which others cannot do. Jethro advocated that Moses manage by exception. He said,

    Then it will be that every great matter they shall bring to you, but every small matter they themselves shall judge. So it will be easier for you, for they will bear the burden with you” (v. 18:22b)

    Dawson Trotman, the founder of The Navigators once said “Never do anything of importance that others can do or will do when there is so much of importance to do that others cannot do or will not do.” This is invaluable advice for every leader. Where can you uniquely add value? This needs to be your focus. You need to let everything else go.

Jethro concluded his session with Moses by saying:

If you do this thing, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all this people will also go to their place in peace.”

Note that Jethro promises two benefits: Moses will endure (this strategy is sustainable), and the people will be at peace (there will be fewer conflicts).

I realize that this doesn’t answer every question about delegation (e.g., what you do if you don’t have anyone to delegate to), but I hope to address those issues in a future post. In the meantime, what can you learn from Jethro?

Question: If you are a leader, how would your people rate your ability to delegate? What is at stake in whether or not you delegate?
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  • http://www.leadershipfreak.wordpress.com Dan Rockwell

    Michael,

    I'm sad to say it took me longer than a year to learn about delegating, narrowing focus, and maximizing my strengths.

    What's at stake? Beyond health, joy, stability… A life of maximum impact. If we aren't doing something beyond ourselves we are too small. If we can achieve the dream alone it's not a dream.

    I wrote "Don't narrow the dream, expand the team" because I realized I was aiming too low.
    http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/2010/02/03/d

    I enjoy your contribution to the community,

    Regards,

    Leadership Freak
    Dan Rockwell

    PS. I'm trying to remember if I coined "don't narrow the dream, expand the team." You know how it is when you read or hear something and as time passes it becomes your idea… Do you know? Thanks

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I love the phrase, “Don't narrow the dream, expand the team.” Brilliant. (The rule I follow is this: I cite the author three times, then I claim the idea as my own!)

      • http://www.leadershipfreak.wordpress.com Dan Rockwell

        the three strikes rule…love it

    • Geoff Webb

      Nice one, Dan – I'll give you credit for the quote…and I love the picture that goes with your post!

      My recent post How to Attract Great Followers

      • http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com Dan Rockwell

        Hey Geoff,

        I went to your blog and subscribed… I can tell you've been at this longer than I have.

        My recent post Follow your passion

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  • http://intensedebate.com/people/ronedmondson ronedmondson

    This is a great post Mike. I always love it when we think alike. I wrote previously about "The Jethro Model of Leadership" and I have in my collection of random notes the starting of another post about Biblical delegation starting with God's delegation process. Thanks for inspiring me to finish!

    Good stuff as always. Was this one written from 30,000 feet?

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Ron. Yes, I wrote this one from the airplane as we were flying to the West Coast. Amazing.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/success2you John Richardson

    Boy is this a timely post, Michael. Delegation is really about trust. You have to be able to trust the people you give tasks to. The great leaders I have worked with have the ability to see the potential in people and help them grow. They take the time to train their staff and delegate authority. They actually get to go home at night.

    The ones that choose not to trust others find themselves overworked, stressed out, and always looking behind their backs. You'll find them working nights and weekends and having sleepless nights. I think a lot of problems come down to a "Curse of Knowledge," a term coined in the book, Made to Stick, by Chip & Dan Heath. The leader is really good at something, but doesn't realize that others do not have the specific knowledge or vocabulary that they do. Communication breaks down and instead of training others, the leader takes on the task themselves.

    I see this a lot in the technology field. Most people can get good at a task quickly, if they are given step by step instructions and a little hands on instruction. Unfortunately, giving someone rights to a server or network without instruction can lead to disaster, so many leaders, in fear, refuse to delegate and take on burden after burden. It comes down to training and trust or fear and isolation.

    I think your number five above is the key… do only those things that others cannot do.

    Thanks for your 30,000 foot insight!
    My recent post The Inclusive Checklist

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/srivera srivera

    Great Post!
    Thanks a lot for sharing. I pray that I can internalize and put it in practice!
    My recent post

  • http://twitter.com/ftras @ftras

    Excellent post, and so true! Would you say that a great struggle for delegating is finding those leaders that are "on board" with you? In other words, can they can be trusted to make decisions in your place that you are comfortable with?

    I suppose that's why you got that first position- you "clicked" with your boss and he must have felt that he could trust your judgment to make decisions. 8^)

    Good words to read- I am passing it on.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      As a leader, I think you have to create alignment. It doesn’t just happen. Thanks.

  • http://www.yuzzi.com Rick Yuzzi

    Great post, and great advice from God's word. Delegating is easier when you have good people. It's hard sometimes to let go of something you've done for a long time, and even harder if you have a lack of confidence in those you would delegate to; so, developing and guiding those under you to handle increased responsibility is key. Also, don't delegate only the things that you want to get rid of. It's important as a leader to leverage your people's strengths, which means at times handling some of the mundane yourself. This also demonstrates to your team that you are willing to pitch in where needed.
    My recent post Tebow’s Super Bowl ad not Super

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      One of the things I discovered along the way is that there are actually people who like doing stuff I consider mundane. For example, keeping the books. I hate that, but there are people who relish it. The same can be said of almost every task.

  • http://www.jodyfransch.com Jody T Fransch

    Nice post Mike! This is exactly why I love reading the Bible so much, it's packed with gems like this which apply to everyday life…we just have to extract the lessons and apply them accordingly.
    My recent post 7 Questions to Ask About 2009

  • Jeff

    Great post. Very timely. Struggling with this myself. Appreciate how you shared that you vacillated between two extremes. As an inexperienced marketing director (believe it or not), I can relate. Thanks so much!
    My recent post Starting with the Man in the Mirror

  • Brad

    Thanks for the post Mike. I think another important point is that in order to delegate, you must be willing to let your people fail. Many leaders (myself included) can fall into the "nobody will do this as well or as quickly as I can, so I might as well just do it" trap. Taken in isolation this may not be bad every once in a while, but when compounded over time it can lead to non-delegative burnout.

    We want "excellence" (read: perfection) and excellence can become the very thing that drives us to burnout. A better attitude is to be the best stewards we can possibly be, and willing to accept that some things will have to just be "good enough". Colossians 3:23-24 is the theme verse for our organization this year:

    "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving."

  • Carol York

    Exodus 18 was my reading last night in YouVersion! I'm in a unique position of managing a project without having any actual management rights over the people involved. The developers report to one manager, and myself and the other QA folks all report to our Director. Everyone looks to me for answers and information, but if someone wants to sit down on the job, I have no formal authority to do anything about it. It can be a real challenge. It's hard to delegate to folks who don't "report" to me, because they think I"m just pawning off my work on them unfairly. I've gotten better at it over time, and found ways to make it work. Looking forward to your article on what to do when you don't have anyone to delegate to!

  • http://www.facebook.com/kevin.spear Kevin Spear

    Timely advice, and so crucial in children's ministry as well. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Teresa Nord

    This is the third time the Moses / Jethro lesson has hit me this week – — Think someone is trying to tell me something? :)

    GREAT post. I am a leadership freak – and I also LOVE the quote "don't narrow the dream – expand the team".

    • http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com Dan Rockwell

      Hey Teresa,

      Leadership Freaks rock!! I think 3 times and you're out!

      Dan
      My recent post Follow your passion

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I would judge by the evidence that Someone is trying to get a message to you. ;-)

  • Geoff Webb

    I love the quarterback picture (even though I'm an Army fan ;) ). As leaders we definitely need to specialize in the delivery – like quarterbacks do. Sure, every once in a while they give it away but most of the time they're giving it to someone else (like a receiver or a running back) so that person can do what they do best. You can learn a lot from watching football!
    http://geoffreywebb.wordpress.com/2009/12/14/lead

    Personally I struggle with delegating and need to work at "only doing the things that only I can do."

    My recent post How to Attract Great Followers

  • http://twitter.com/piersoncci @piersoncci

    Great post, thanks! Why am I often surprised that God has provided such leadership wisdom in his word? If I would only spend more time looking for it! Thanks for expounding on the "Jethro Principle of Delegation"!

  • obihaive

    Great advice. Thank you.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/patriciazell patriciazell

    Since I am not a leader of an organization, I look more at prioritizing than at delegating. Keeping balanced is so important for all of us. I take time for myself because, if I burn out or get sick, I will not be of use to anyone. When we're young, we think we can do it all–as we grow older, we tend to look more at the quality rather than the quanity. All the while, though, nothing beats asking God for knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. His faithfulness is what wins the day!

    My recent post #29 BECOMING A SON OF GOD: THE BAPTISM OF THE HOLY SPIRIT (1)

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/patriciazell patriciazell

    Since I am not a leader of an organization, I look more at prioritizing than at delegating. Keeping balanced is so important for all of us. I take time for myself because, if I burn out or get sick, I will not be of use to anyone. When we're young, we think we can do it all–as we grow older, we tend to look more at the quality rather than the quanity. All the while, though, nothing beats asking God for knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. His faithfulness is what wins the day!

    My recent post #29 BECOMING A SON OF GOD: THE BAPTISM OF THE HOLY SPIRIT (1)

  • http://www.cooperland.info Dewaine

    How simple, but oh so true. Thank you for this. I really needed to hear this today.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Kevin_Martineau Kevin_Martineau

    This post was a good smack in the side of the head for me. I know that I am very weak in the area of delegation and I need to do something about that. You have given me some good food for thought in this post!
    My recent post Sermon Synopsis 2/7 – A disciple loves every other disciple

  • http://www.flowingfaith.blogspot.com Mari-Anna Stalnacke

    Brillant! I would also say that you have a wonderful help mate in Gail!

    "Only do those things which others cannot do" seems also to fit in discerning your vocation. Too often we settle down to mundane jobs just because we are not using our full God-given potential. To find our unique calling requires to aim high, dream big and trust God with our everything. My favorite Martin Luther quote is "Don't pray for calling that equals your strength. Pray for strength than equals your calling." And learning to delegate and discern a la Jethro is a great way to start!

    Thanks for always delivering wow moments for us.
    My recent post Don't Panic! Pray!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Yes, Gail is indeed a wonderful helper. She is like having a one-person cheerleader squad. I am blessed.

  • http://www.epiccalling.blogspot.com Matt Bowman

    Weird Michael. Last week I did a series of posts on Exodus 18 called LQ (Leadership Quotient) focusing in on the qualities that Jethro advised Moses to look for. Feel free to check it out at http://www.epiccalling.blogspot.com.

    Good stuff as always from you Michael. Thanks

    Matt

    My recent post

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Awesome, Matt. I will look it up. Thanks.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/melody.dubois Melody DuBois

    Speaking as both a mom and a leader (or wait…are those the same thing?) — the underlying issues of "control" and "fear of failure" often prevent me from taking the "delegation risk." And under that, perfectionism. (Sadly, a family trait that I all-too-often perpetuate!)

    In a quirky way, the movie "Meet The Robinsons" has given our family a useful model for "re-picturing" failure (as a byproduct of risk, and an opportunity to learn and grow). Consequently, "Yay! You failed" is becoming a more frequent, and healthy, family response to sincere but less-than-stellar performance. Your post made me realize that this same attitude could also be useful for a leader who needs to grow in effective delegating.

  • http://www.twitter.com/danieldecker Daniel Decker

    I needed this post! Thank you. Delegation has been my nemesis for a long time but over the last two years I've been extremely intentional about 1) trying to let go 2) equipping myself with the right people to task and let things go to. By no means am I saying I am there yet but working towards it daily.

    For me, being a small biz owner it was a tough transition to delegation. I started out 10 years ago with just me which meant I wore many hats for several years. I wanted to delegate but never felt I had the resources to do it initially (financially to pay someone). When I got past that flawed barrier of limited thinking and starting INVESTING $ in others so that I could delegate, it freed me up to do more of the stuff that only I could do and as a result… the finances easily improved thus allowing me to continue to pay for support that I could delegate more to.

    Delegation enables compounded growth, impact and residual benefits far beyond what any one of us can do alone. I'm just trying to do it more! :)

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  • http://thedigitalsanctuary.org/ Cynthia

    Exodus 18 is the cornerstone of leadership development. And I always draw a close parallel from it to the organic nature of our human body. In the beginning, all cells are stem cells; then the cells begin to multiply and this allows them to specialize. As their numbers increase they go from operating as generalists to becoming specialists. The brain (ie leader/headship) does not do everything….. each group of cells performs a specific function, yet they are all on the same mission (to keep the body going) and orchestrated together in a unity.

    Furthermore, this is not just an Old Testament model. Although Jesus spoke to crowds, he selected 12 individuals to personally disciple and to build as his "team" so that they could spread out and accomplish as a group what a single individual could not. He gave them authority and responsibility. Since He could have modeled anything, it's interesting that he chose to demonstrate the same pattern seen in the Old Testament, mobilizing others to accomplish the work rather than creating a model where there is one central figurehead and a mass of "observers" – a pattern that is rarely sustainable.

    Thanks so much, Michael, for this insightful post….. as usual.
    My recent post Do You Get Relevant Magazine’s Neue Quarterly?

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  • Diane Marie Shaw

    Great Post Michael. I served as an Administrative Secretary to the pastor of a large church for eleven years. He understands this principle and has a great team of people under him. The delicate issue I had to deal with, almost daily, was directing the congregation to those the pastor placed on his team to minister to the congregation. Everyone wanted to see the pastor believing he was the only one who could help them. It was a delicate balance of not causing offense when I redirected them and knowing when they should meet the pastor, he never wanted people to feel he was untouchable. Over the years I did pretty well with this, but I know there were times I offended. Training the congregation to understand that the pastor of a church of over 1,000 people could not meet with everyone who had a need but that he had people on staff who could meet those needs was a constant. From the pulpit pastor frequently refers to his trained staff and how they are there to serve them.
    I have used the scripture in Exodus when explaining that pastor's main purpose was to spend time with God to receive from Him what he needed to teach the people. Some got it, some didn't.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/dfoster7597 dfoster7597

    Fantastic post Mike. I've shared this scripture with others before but did not do it justice like you just did. You nailed it! Thanks for the great outline and reminder. I'll be sharing this and using this in the future.

  • http://www.mills-scofield.com Deb Mills-Scofield

    2 other interesting management lessons in the Bible (among many more)
    1. Nehemiah – talk about leadership and management!!!
    2. Joseph with Pharaoh – centralized gov't control in what had been a very highly decentralized society – reason? keep people fed – result? kept people fed but led to Pharaoh having powers and reach he didn't have before that made enslaving the Jews a lot easier (as a Messianic Jew, I'm particularly aware of the 2nd, 3rd order effects of these types of decisions)

  • http://beautybydesignonline.com Alyssa

    This is a post / article I absolutely needed to read as a mom, entrepreneur, and ministry leader I definitely need to delegate more than I do.
    My recent post Is it True Love?

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  • Randall

    Great post Michael. A couple years ago I took a new job that was created due to the failure of the previous supervisor. The previous supervisor was not let go. They were placed as my deputy. For several months I struggled with delegation as tasks were not completed on time or as I wanted. I found I was doing more and more myself. The more I did the worse my deputy became. I realized that things would never get better unless I delegated and followed up. Things are beginning to turn around now that I'm providing clear, timely, and measurable expectations.

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  • http://randallrice.blogspot.com Randy Rice

    Great post, Michael. This is my weakest point as a leader. Being a solo entrepreneur in this economy, it's hard to pay for the help I need, but I think this just highlights the need. Even when I had people working with me, I fell into the trap of perfection and doing too much myself because I could not stand to deal with inferior work (in my perfectionist opinion). I am now looking into the idea of college interns, not just for extra hands, but to model what a Kingdom-oriented business looks like.
    My recent post Oklahoma City Test Automation Training Workshop – May 13 and 14, 2010

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  • eyeBrand

    Awesome insight. Practical. Biblical. Relevant in today's times in more ways than one.____Thank you.

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  • http://infoesource.com/blog Ocha

    When searching for examples of delegation in the bible, I came across this post. Perfect! I went and read Exodus 18 and it so applies to a situation in the company where I am employed. I will have to share this with those whom are in need of this understanding while applying it to my own life and work.

  • Thozama Pamla

    I am so glad a read this now. Funny I recently read this verse but now God is revealing it to me through you. Thank you. I however feel bad when delegating sometimes. 

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  • Dora Harris

     Awesome! Reminder that there is only one God, and in ministry or in business no man is an island we need each other to make the dream work, great principle to follow.
    Awesome! Reminder that there is only one God, and in ministry or in business no man is an island we need each other to make the dream work, great principle to follow.

  • http://www.edenlifemag.com/2012/06/biblical-leadership/ Moyo Mamora

    I love how you broke down that Scripture to extract the revelation on leadership. One important thing is that Moses was humble. His attitude towards Jethro was not- “What right do you have to teach me…I brought these people out”. Jethro probably never lead half as many people Moses lead out of Israel. 

  • Billiejoabbott

    I loved this it was so helpful thanks .

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  • Courtney Anderson

    Hey Michael
    Great notes and thoughts on this topic. Right now, coming across this was like a diamond in the rough. I was searching for more biblical direction on delegating and how to let go and trust in doing so. This is so simple. And true that people will make mistakes so get over it.
    I look forward to a future post which will address the next questions of “what if you don’t have people to delegate too” and perhaps how do you find people to delegate too.
    We are a Canadian NGO that operates in Nigeria, West Africa, building and running children’s homes for orphans and vulnerable children. The process of setting up each home and project phase needs people to take on responsibility and authority as those of us working with the Foundation for years can not continue to spread ourselves so thin. Again, this post was great and was read at a time in need of encouragement and advice! Thanks.
    Courtney Anderson
    Projects Director
    The Wanted Children Foundation
    http://www.thewantedchildren.com