Leading Change: Lessons on Leadership Transition from Joshua, Son of Nun

Joshua summoned all Israel, their elders and heads, their judges and officers, and said to them, “I am now old and well advanced in years…”

Jeremiah 23.2

Leaders lead, of course. They also leave… at least eventually. How can leaders leave well? 

Secular organisations and churches alike are beginning to think more carefully about leadership transition, the process by which an established executive or pastor passes the baton to another. While preparing for a sermon on Joshua 23, I found Joshua’s final charge to Israel a resource for thinking about leadership transition in our own day. Here are a few lessons…

1. Leaders Transition—They Do Not Just Leave

This first point states the obvious, since the very idea behind “leadership transition” is that good leaders set the organisation or church in order before they walk out the door. This wisdom is not something the latest business gurus have discovered—leadership transition is a concept ancient and biblical.

As a leader, Joshua is self-aware. He knows his time has come to an end. In that sober recognition he prepares Israel for the change. 

His example is important because leadership transition is often stalled or even prevented because some leaders cannot or will not let go of the reigns or imagine a future in which they are absent. One of the most damaging limitations of a leader’s vision is surely his or her inability to envision the organisation or nation or company without being at the helm. Transition will happen, but only in an abrupt and jarring fashion if leaders hold on and refuse to relinquish, even after the ballots are counted or after the doctor has said “hey, you are too old for this!” or after the board has passed a vote of “no confidence.” We see today examples of leaders who change the rules to ensure they stay in post, or rig elections or claim election fraud, or fire those who withhold 100% devotion. If I am a leader, and I cannot see an Andy-less future for my movement or ministry or organisation, then maybe things have become too Andy-centred. But good leaders transition; they partner with others in a process that ushers someone else into their posts. This requires leaders to recognise when it is time to step down, or—as in Joshua’s case—when one’s time is simply up. 

2. Good Leadership Generates other Leaders

Even when a leader recognizes that it is time to leave his or her post, the transition will splutter and implode if there is no one to pass the baton to. Good leadership requires an ongoing investment in raising up other leaders. Note this brief account of Jeremiah 23.2—“Joshua summoned all Israel, their elders and their heads, their judges and their officers…” We learn here that Joshua has carefully appointed and developed leaders all throughout the land. As the curtain falls on his own vocation, he can scan the audience of “all Israel” before him and identify a large host of leaders who may be ready to step up into the next chapter. 

But something unique and interesting is happening in this leadership transition: Joshua does not actually name a successor.

Is this a failed transition? Or is this a different type of transition?

3. We Do Not Always Have to Replace Charismatic Leaders with Other Charismatic Leaders

Thus far in the biblical story, leadership has been entrusted to key individuals. At first it was father-figures, the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (with Joseph playing a major role). Eventually God called Moses. When Moses died, there was a clear transition as the baton passed to Joshua, widely known and already established. 

Now that it is Joshua’s turn to pass that baton, who do we have rising to the occasion? No emerging star or wunderkind appears on the scene. What we have is a leadership collective: the “elders,” “heads,” “judges,” and “officers” of Israel. 

Shocking, but here it is—there are times when it is okay to pass the baton to a plurality of leaders, not to one charismatic and bigger-than-life personality

There are times that God raises up a Moses, a Joshua, an Abraham Lincoln, a William Wilberforce, an Amy Carmichael, a Mother Teresa, a Martin Luther, and a Martin Luther King, Jr. Then there are times when the baton passes to elders, heads, judges, officers—folks who collectively picked up the pieces and carry on the work even if they did not make the headlines. 

When God wants a specific, charismatic leader, he can identify and raise one up, as he did eventually with Israel’s judges. But the departure of a long-established and well-known leader may compel God’s people to look more directly to him as their leader (the opening of the book of Judges seems to prove the point). 

The case study of leadership transition found in Joshua 23 beckons us to reconsider our expectations and appointment processes. If no one appears on the scene during the leadership transition, look more carefully at the faces already gathered around—maybe the next leader is a leadership collective… and maybe that includes you.

Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash.