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Joseph: A Level 5 Leader?



What enables Joseph to make the transition from a narcissistic teenager who can’t relate to his brothers to a leader who gains the trust of powerful people where ever he goes?

The Joseph whom his brothers despise is a fellow who wants the world to revolve around him. Joseph’s first dreams depict his brothers’ sheaves in the field bowing down to his sheaf. In a second dream the sun, the moon and the stars are bowing down to him. Note, the Hebrew for bowing down can imply worship. Joseph sees himself as God. Things begin to change when Joseph finds that instead of worshiping him, his brothers throw him in pit to die in the desert.

It’s only with the beginning of Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt that he shows evidence having given up the dream of being a god. How do we know? Because only then does he begin to speak about God. Joseph won’t sleep with his master’s wife because, he says, it would be a “sin before God (Gen. 39:9). When he interprets the dreams of the king’s courtiers and later of Pharaoh himself, Joseph is careful to say that his abilities come from God. To Pharaoh, Joseph says, “Not I! God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare (Gen. 41:17). Likewise when Joseph reconciles with his brothers he says, “Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that you sold me here; for God did send me before you to preserve life” (Gen. 45:5).

Theological beliefs aside, these acknowledgments of God indicate a profound development in Joseph’s understanding of his place in the world. When he accepts that he is not the center of the universe, he can turn his enormous talents to the art of making himself useful to others—and that enables him to become number 2 in Egypt. Joseph begins to succeed only when he can harness his brilliance for service rather than self-aggrandizement. Though Joseph remained the number 1 number 2, it’s useful to compare his mature character to some of today’s most successful CEO’s. In Good to Great, Jim Collins writes about the importance of what he calls Level 5 leaders in companies that make the transition from good to great.

Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It’s not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious—but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.  … Level 5 leaders are a study in duality: modest and willful, humble and fearless. … The good-to-great leaders never wanted to become larger-than-life heroes. They never aspired to be put on a pedestal or become unreachable icons. They were seemingly ordinary people quietly producing extraordinary results.[1]

Collins also found that in the companies he studied, CEO’s with out of control egos never took a company from good to great. Whether or not these level 5 leaders were born humble or learned humility after some hard knocks, the characteristics Collins describes are reminiscent of Joseph after his rise to power in Egypt. 

Bottom line: You’ll get further when you learn to accept that the world doesn’t revolve around you!


[1] Collins, Jim (2011-07-19). Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t (Kindle Locations 352-354, 380-381, 490-491). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.


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