Perhaps the most neglected development principle of becoming a good leader is that of first being a good follower. We see this important biblical pattern with Eli and Samuel, Elijah and Elisha, Jesus and his disciples, Paul and Timothy, and Moses and Joshua. Joshua became a remarkable leader after he was a remarkable follower.
What qualities are required to be a good follower like Joshua?
Joshua started out as Moses’ assistant. “So Moses and his assistant Joshua set out, and Moses climbed up the mountain of God” (Exodus 24:13). He wasn’t a follower in the passive sense of the word. He was a follower in that he was an active servant.
Joshua didn’t choose to be Moses’ assistant. He was chosen by God and Moses. He understood the importance of his role and was content to be the assistant. His role was needed and significant in and of itself. In humility he sought to add value and make a difference as a follower. “Inside the Tent of Meeting, the Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Afterward Moses would return to the camp, but the young man who assisted him, Joshua son of Nun, would remain behind in the Tent of Meeting” (Exodus 33:11). We never see Joshua aspiring to replace Moses or seeking to climb a ladder of success or pursue a path in leadership. Don’t ask people to follow you until you’ve humbly followed someone else.
Joshua was committed to Moses’ vision as the leader. He served and was committed to Moses because that was his assignment from God. A successful follower buys into the leader’s vision and this overcomes the egocentric drive to be the leader.
The mindset of a learner is being teachable. A learner observes, listens, and analyzes. Joshua watched as Moses took him up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments from God (Exodus 24:13). He observed Moses’ righteous indignation when Moses smashed the two tablets (Exodus 32:17–19), and Joshua was witness to the holy communion Moses shared with the Lord as he guarded the tent of meeting (Exodus 33:11). He was given privileged access to Moses’ special relationship to the Lord and soaked it all up because he had the mindset of a learner.
In Joshua 1:7, we find the Lord telling Joshua, “Be careful to obey all the instructions Moses gave you....” Joshua submitted to the Lord and Moses’ leadership and when Moses passed away, it was Joshua’s time to lead. We find him continuing to follow all the instructions he received and learned from Moses.
Unlike Moses who was raised as royalty Joshua started out as a slave in Egypt and came from a long line of slaves. He was born in the tribe of Ephraim making him a descendant of Joseph (1 Chronicles 7:26–27; Numbers 1:10; 7:48). Eventually Joshua would be leading a nation of slaves. He understood and related to those he would lead. The most effective leaders are those who understand what it is like to be like the followers they are trying to lead.
Joshua spent almost 45 years faithfully and loyally following and serving as Moses’ assistant. As someone once said, “Don’t expect God to make you a lighthouse somewhere else, if you can’t be a candle where you are.” We need to be faithful servants where God has us right now. If we want a bigger sphere of responsibility we must be faithful to what God has already entrusted to us.
In the end Joshua was chosen to succeed Moses because he exhibited all these godly qualities. “The Lord replied, ‘Take Joshua son of Nun, who has the Spirit in him, and lay your hands on him’” (Numbers 27:18). Remarkable leaders are remarkable followers first. Let’s think less about becoming a remarkable leader and more about becoming a remarkable follower.