Today we take a look at one of the greatest servant leaders in the Bible: Joshua. In this Bible study we’ll highlight a few of the servant leadership principles that helped enable him to “have good success.” Like the other posts in this series, these principles were important during the time of Joshua, but they are also important to us and our ability to lead well today.
It can be hard to step into the shoes of a great leader. Joshua did not have it easy – he had to take over the leadership role of Moses, one of the greatest leaders of all-time. Fortunately, he did a great job, and his life demonstrates several leadership principles for us.
Before we get started, it’s always a great idea to read the book of Joshua to better understand the story. The book of Joshua is a longer one, however, so if you just want a recap check out this video on Joshua from the Bible Project:
1) Be Strong and Courageous
It can be tempting to think of a servant leader as timid, quiet, and unassertive. This is not the case. Putting others first does not equal being passive or insecure. If anything, it requires strength and courage.
In the first chapter of Joshua, we get to witness a conversation God has with Joshua. He commissions Joshua to lead the people and to lead them well. Three times he calls Joshua to be “strong and courageous.” The task Joshua has will not be easy or safe, and he cannot do it alone. But God has good news in 1:9:
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”
We are wired to put our own survival and our own needs and desires first, but God calls us to something different. He calls us to serve, especially as leaders. This starts with trusting in the Lord, because when you believe that God is with you and watching over you, then you don’t have to worry about yourself. God is with you, He will protect and provide for you.
This frees you up to be strong and courageous, to lead others in a way that supports them and enables them to thrive.
2) Follow God’s Word
God’s charge to Joshua in the first few verses has quite a few important servant leadership principles. It makes sense, given the fact that God is calling Joshua to lead in a godly way. The principle to follow the law comes from Joshua 1:7
Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go.
If you had to focus on one thing to make you a better servant leader, then this would be the thing. The Bible is more than a list of do’s and don’ts. It tells a story that reveals the heart of God for His people. The better we know that story, the better our hearts can reflect that of God’s.
It can be tempting to pick and choose what we follow, but God calls Joshua (and us) to be careful to do “according to all the law” and to “not turn from it to the right hand or to the left.” It is in the nature of man to try and replace God’s wisdom with our own wisdom. This thinking consistently leads to tragedy in the Bible and in our modern world.
Not only did Joshua read the law himself, he also read the entire thing to the people in Joshua 8:30-35. He knew that the law would bring good success, and so he ensured that the people of Israel were equipped to follow it as well. Verse 8:35 speaks to this really well:
There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners who lived among them.
So if you want to be a great servant leader, then meditate on the word of God. Seek to understand it, know it, and teach it. For when you do, you invite God to transform your heart and equip you to love and serve others well.
3) Prepare the Next Generation of Leaders
This concept gets introduced early in Joshua 1:5, when God tells Joshua, “Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you.” One of the reasons Joshua was successful as a leader was because he spent so much time with Moses and was equipped to take his place.
We know Joshua carried on this tradition because of different passages throughout the rest of the story. For instance, in Joshua 4, the people set up 12 large stones to commemorate their safe crossing of the Jordan River. Here is what Joshua said to the people of Israel, starting in vs 21:
“When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever.”
Joshua takes care to ensure there is a reminder and a reason for everyone to teach the next generation about God’s goodness and love.
Later in the story, when Joshua is old and knows his days are numbered, he gives the people of Israel a charge that might sound familiar. This comes from Joshua 23:6 and says,
Therefore, be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left.
Joshua gives the people the exact same charge that God gave him when he had to replace Moses. He has not forgotten the words of God, nor has he neglected to pass those words on to others. We know that he passed the torch successfully as well, because Joshua 24:21 says this,
Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work that the Lord did for Israel.
Future generations would fall away from God, but we know the next generation of leaders, those who outlived Joshua, would continue to walk in the way of the Lord.
Self-centered leaders don’t care about the next generation, they just want to preserve their own power for as long as they can. The best servant leaders, however, consistently seek to multiply and train their replacements.
4) Give all the Glory to God
Most leaders want their people to appreciate them. Some leaders, however, make the mistake of glorifying themselves to get that appreciation. The greatest leaders, however, recognize the source of true success. Instead of taking glory for themselves, they give it to God.
Servant leaders don’t talk about themselves very much, and they don’t need to brag about their accomplishments. They focus on serving God first, then their people, and then they themselves go last.
This is certainly the behavior we see from Joshua. Look at the words of Joshua 23:3 and 23:10,
And you have seen all that the Lord your God has done to all these nations for your sake, for it is the Lord your God who has fought for you…One man of you puts to flight a thousand, since it is the Lord your God who fights for you, just as he promised you.
Joshua was the leader of the people, but he knew all the credit for their victory belonged to God. God has fought for the people, and that made all the difference.
There is an interesting narrative that we see recurring through the Bible. When prideful people attempt to take glory for themselves, it consistently ends in pain and suffering for them. Adam and Eve are great examples of this – they took from the tree, seeking wisdom and glory for themselves, but It ended in tragedy. This story repeats itself over and over throughout the Bible.
But every once in awhile we get a different version of the story. Joshua gives God the glory for their victories, Solomon asks God for wisdom instead of riches and long life, and ultimately Jesus humbles himself to become a servant. In all of these cases, when people give God the glory that God deserves, God responds by exalting the humble servant leader.
In the case of Joshua, we see this occur in Joshua 4:14
On that day the Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel, and they stood in awe of him just as they had stood in awe of Moses, all the days of his life.
Joshua did not need to give himself glory to gain the respect of others. He chose to give God the glory, and because of that God exalted Joshua in the site of the people.
In the same way, we should not look to our own glory or fight for people to give us credit. Instead, we should give God the glory in all things, and then allow him to exalt us. His judgment and exaltation means more than the opinion of every other human combined, and we can rest in his grace and love to lead us to the ultimate glory that is to come.
5) Leaders keep their promises (even when others do not)
There is an odd story in Joshua 9 about the Gibeonite people. God had called the people of Israel to destroy everyone living in the land of Canaan because they were wicked, and the Gibeonites were part of the land of Canaan.
Unlike the other people groups, the Gibeonites feared the works of God and did not want to fight Israel. They sought after a peace treaty, but went about it in a “cunning” way. They dressed like travelers who had just finished a long journey, and then appeared before the leaders of Israel.
They asked for help, protection, and peace. The Israelite leaders agreed and made a covenant with them to let them live.
After a few days, the truth came out. Israelites were angry – they had been tricked! They wanted to take out Gibeon!
Despite the Gibeonite deception, Joshua chose to keep his promise. Joshua 9:19-20 says this,
But all the leaders said to all the congregation, “We have sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel, and now we may not touch them. This we will do to them: let them live, lest wrath be upon us, because of the oath that we swore to them.”
It can be tempting to think that we only need to honor our promises and covenants when the other people do the same. Great servant leaders, however, maintain their integrity even when others do not. If someone else uses deception and you decide to do the same, you’re actually following their example instead of leading with your own.
There is no better example of this than Jesus. He consistently demonstrated love and forgiveness to people, but he was rejected and alone during his crucifixion. Despite everyone turning away from him, he chose to stay the course and accomplish his mission.
His words on the cross in Luke 23:34 demonstrate his commitment to his people and his promises:
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The promise Joshua made to the Gibeonite people was upheld for generations. Israel even helps protect the Gibeonites from other Canaanites in Joshua 10.
Great servant leaders do what is right, even when it is inconvenient. This means they maintain integrity and keep their promises, even when others do not.
6) Take the Side of the Lord
There is a fascinating little story towards the end of Joshua 5. Just before the people advanced on Jericho, right before their first battle to take possession of the land, Joshua runs into an intimidating figure:
When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?”And the commander of the Lord‘s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.
I find this story interesting because, so often, we tend to ask God for His support or to back our plans. We have a tendency to believe the world revolves around us, but a great servant leader knows this is not the case.
Instead of asking God to take our side, we should ask if we are taking the side of the Lord. God is just and righteous, full of grace and mercy. There is no situation where He will not be right, and so if we want to lead others well we should start by seeking to take the side of the Lord.
This means our will should align with His will. This means when we read Scripture, we should read it with a heart to understand what God is communicating rather than looking for it to say what we want it to say. This means we should worship God, because He is the one who deserves the glory.
And when we take the side of the Lord, we know we take the side that leads to life and victory.
7) Choose and Act
I’ve seen many leaders start off great. They give their people a vision, they inspire everyone, and get people excited for the future.
But then, as time goes on, they don’t actually support the vision. Does any of this sound familiar to you?
“I know we talked about developing that product more, but we don’t actually have budget for that, sorry!”
“I know we said that integrity was a core value, but we might need to cut some corners here to deliver.”
“Our people come first, and we will take great care of them…although we do need to let some go.”
People love to receive vision. It is inspiring to get a picture of where you’re going. But on the other hand, it is really devastating to realize that the leadership who cast the vision actually has no intention of acting in a way that will deliver or support that vision.
Fortunately, Joshua gives us an alternative. All throughout the book of Joshua, the man chooses to follow the Lord’s will and calls others to do the same. He then backs his decisions up with action.
Joshua 24:14-15 includes a very famous verse that is often quoted on the walls of Christian homes. It reads like this:
“Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
In these verses, Joshua demonstrates two important aspects of leadership. First, he makes a choice and acts on it that day. Making choices is hard work, especially when other people depend on you. Sometimes our fear of making the wrong choice prevents us from making any choice at all, but this delay can sometimes be more damaging than making the wrong choice.
The second aspect, of course, is to act on that choice. It’s not enough to make the decision, you need to start implementing it right away. As Joshua said, he and his house will serve the Lord. They made their choice, and they acted upon it that day.
And so, if you want to be a great leader, you must be willing to make decisions. Not everything will be as clear cut as choosing to serve the Lord. When tough decisions present themselves, you should pray for them, consider them, seek wise counsel, and then choose. Once the choice has been made, it’s time to act!
Even if you make the wrong choice, you won’t know until you start acting upon it. If you realize you have made the wrong decision, you can always change course and learn from your mistakes. The sooner you get moving, the sooner you will be able to recognize the best path forward.
Like everyone else, Joshua was not perfect. His love for God and determination to know and follow God’s word, however, enabled him to be a great leader. He helped the people take possession of the Promised land, and even more importantly, led them all to commit to following and honoring God.
There is a lot we can learn from Joshua, and the timeless servant leadership principles he demonstrated can help make us better leaders today.