Leadership Examples of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph

The Patriarchs of Israel believed God when others did not. Christians today can follow many of their examples. 


In many ways, Abraham was an entrepreneurial leader. Born in Ur in southeast Mesopotamia in the second millennium BC, Abraham had a wide variety of skills and a strong work ethic. He could have been very successful in Ur. God, however, had other plans. Terah, Abram’s father, took his entire family, including Abram and his wife, hundreds of miles northwest to Haran in upper Mesopotamia (Genesis 11:31). After Terah’s death, God called the 75 year old Abram to take his entire household, scores of people and many possessions, to Canaan, 700 miles to the southwest. Genesis 12-24 recounts the rest of Abraham’s life, and in these chapters we see a wealthy rancher, a diplomat, a military leader, and a faithful servant of God.


Jehovah’s plan was to bring a great people out of Abraham that would bless the whole world. He intended to put these people in Canaan, the most fruitful part of the great land bridge between Europe, Asia, and Africa, and build them into a “kingdom of priests” to shine God’s light to all of His creation.

Abraham’s entrepreneurial style of leadership served him well during a time of great transition in his life and in the work of God. He was an innovator, literally blazing new trails through the desert, going where his people had not gone before, to serve his Lord. He motivated his household to go from Haran to Canaan, but also impelled them to fight and win a war against kings. One can object that in a patriarchal society in the Ancient Near East, his family and servants had little choice. This is false, as many episodes of desertion and even parricide in history show. Abram saw how things should be, his descendents raised into a mighty nation blessed by God in Canaan, and made it so.


During more of few nights of hardship, Abram might have asked himself “Is my vision accurate? Did I really hear the voice of God telling me to go to Canaan?” Certainly if he was a 21st century American, he would have. The entrepreneur cannot succeed without a sound vision, so Christian leaders today must be sure that we share the vision of God. Abram did not take any unnecessary risks, but the whole venture was risky. Thieves and enemies abounded and travel was hard. Likewise, many entrepreneurs today have difficulty evaluating risks and motivating others to face them. Having moved as an adult from Ur to Haran, he had the skills to succeed. Many would-be entrepreneurs do not.


Entrepreneurial leaders have some of the greatest opportunities of all…they can dream a dream and make it come true. Abraham set forces in motion, fathering the people of God, which shape the world today, 4000 years later. Entrepreneurs such as Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers have changed the way we live. Others like William Carey and Bill Bright changed the way we think of ministry. The opportunities available to an entrepreneur are limited mostly by his imagination.


It is easy to be a dreamer and not a doer. It is easy to be dismissed as a crackpot, as Edison and the Wrights were, and fall away in discouragement. It is easy for others to lose hope and depart.


The grandson of Abraham, Jacob can be thought of as a pragmatic leader. He did not blaze trails, lead armies or found a nation like his grandfather did. Instead, aside from a two decade sojourn in Haran with Laban, he lived most of his life as a farmer and rancher in the land of Canaan. Nonetheless, Jacob used his situation to accomplish his goals, for good and for bad. Genesis 25-35, 46-50 describes his life.


Entrepreneurial leaders are best in times of great transition, while pragmatic ones are best in day to day operations. For every visionary, a society needs many pragmatists to get the day to day jobs done. Pragmatic leaders are good at solving problems, and so they are commonly used to turn around organizations or ministries which are failing. Jacob saw problems, Esau had Isaac’s blessing and the birthright of the firstborn, and he wanted them. So Jacob and his mother Rebecca figured a way to swindle Esau out of both. Not morally good, but certainly pragmatic. Pragmatic leaders are good at encouraging and motivating. They are organized enough to make sure that their followers get their work done.


God had promised that Jacob would get the birthright and blessing from Esau, and Jacob, pragmatically figuring that the ends justified the means, robbed Esau of it. This “ends justify the means” mentality is a major weakness of pragmatic leadership. Such leaders tend to manipulate others, step on peoples’ feelings, and compromise their values to get ahead. They may sacrifice quality for completion. Together, these can cause them to lose followers. These leaders may appreciate existing policies and procedures as a way to get things done, or they may feel boxed in by them. Either way, they may jettison policies and procedures which would be useful, or use policies and procedures which should be jettisoned.


There is great need for effective, moral pragmatic leaders in the world. Entrepreneurs often are no good at maintaining the organizations they set up, and the pragmatists are the perfect ones to do it. Less idealistic than the “idea men”, pragmatic leaders can make healthy compromises and can fix some problems very quickly. In our complex, modern world, such leaders keep the trucks rolling, the crops growing, and the gospel spreading. The opportunities are truly endless.


The tendency to compromise, to believe that the ends justify the means, and to misuse others have already been discussed. If others feel misused, whether or not they actually have been, they are likely to rebel, either actively or passively against the leader. Either way, it will be hard to get the job done or even remain on as a leader. Further, pragmatic leaders can be discouraged after years of handling emergencies sometimes and dealing with the same day to day routine at others. Over a 40 year career, many of the same problems will arise again and again. Others may not appreciate his work. Lacking the thrill of victory (or the agony of defeat) experienced by the entrepreneur, the pragmatist can become dull and sometimes even wonder if all his effort is worth it.


Joseph was the great-grandson of Abraham and favored son of Jacob. Disliked by his brothers, he was sold as a slave and unjustly thrown in prison by his master. Eventually by his faithfulness to the Lord he was raised to the rank of Prime Minister of Ancient Egypt, second only to the Pharaoh himself in power in the land. Joseph’s skills were instrumental in investing wisely during Egypt’s years of bumper crop, and then saving Egypt and the surrounding nations from starvation during the terrible famine that followed. Joseph led through problem solving and long range planning. Genesis 37-45 tells his story.


Decision making leaders are adept at boiling difficult problems down to their most basic factors, communicating these factors to enhance understanding, and devising solutions. They are also skilled at delegating smaller problems to those at the level who can solve them the best. These leaders are often skilled administrators and are willing to make tough choices. Part of these administrative skills involve being diplomatic, able to persuade others in a way that is pleasing to the other person. Joseph the slave and prisoner standing before the “god-king” of Egypt needed every diplomatic skill he possessed. Because the best decisions are made in the right context, decision making leaders also tend to do well at long range planning. By understanding the strategic (big picture and long term) situation rather than only the tactical (small picture, short term) one, they are better able to lead any organization where it needs to go.


No one makes perfect decisions, and decision making and strategic leaders often take blame for choices that turn out bad. Such leaders are sometimes forced to make decisions or devise plans with inadequate information and insufficient time. Strategic leaders can learn to rely on their own abilities rather than on God’s leading. Even when they do follow the Lord faithfully, they can be seen by others as less than spiritual because of their methods or because others don’t believe in planning at all. When a plan is in motion, they may not want to change, even when a change is in order.


God’s plans are strategic, extending over all mankind, throughout the universe, and lasting for eternity. The greatest advances are made by those who know where they are going, in the short term and in the long. The starvation of Egypt could not have been averted with a last minute, off the cuff choice. By building slowly and taking the right steps along the way, fortunes are made, businesses are built, and churches thrive. The redwood grows slowly and deliberately but gains great strength and height. It survives for centuries. Grass, even bamboo, grows quickly but soon it withers.


Any difficult decision will have impassioned stakeholders on all sides of the issue, and someone will be upset by any choice. Alienating followers can cause the leader to lose support and ultimately endanger his position as a leader. Especially in our era of “the customer (or shareholder or other stakeholder) is always right”, leaders anger their followers at their own professional peril. All leaders have blind spots and some decision making/planning leaders may be tempted to not take the good counsel of others. Failing to make others stakeholders in the decision or long range plan can further alienate them and raise opponents.


Abraham, Jacob and Joseph are good examples of leadership in the Bible. They served the Lord faithfully and greatly impacted their world, and ours, as a result. By studying them, we can discover things to do, and not to do, in our God-given roles.

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4 thoughts on “Leadership Examples of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph

  1. First of all I want to say awesome blog!

    I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you do not mind.
    I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind
    before writing. I have had a tough time clearing my mind in getting
    my thoughts out. I truly do enjoy writing but it just seems like the
    first 10 to 15 minutes are wasted just trying to figure out how to begin. Any ideas or hints?
    Many thanks!

  2. Where in the bible is abraham teaching israel,or guiding them?

  3. Abram did not lead Israel during his lifetime; he was the father of Israel. He led his family, his servants and their families, and ultimately his tribe. This tribe grew and became the nation of Israel. His example has guided and inspired the subsequent leaders of Israel for millennia.

  4. Abraham actions, nor his immediate family, nor his name did not contribute to building of the national of Israel. God did make a promise to Abraham but God chose Jacob’s line to start Israel. For all intents and purposes, Jacob was the father of Israel.

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