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.

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.)

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?