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Moses & Monkeys

The 18th chapter of Exodus is set against a dramatic backdrop. God is miraculously working in favor of the helpless Israelite refugees wandering in the desert. Water is springing out of rocks, food is falling from the sky, and Moses, God’s chosen leader for this moment, is defeating foreign armies just by raising a wooden staff in the air; yet his leadership is in total disarray. He is strung out, laboring day and night trying to hold his people together while they’re on the verge of mutiny due to unmet needs. Along comes the wise old father-in-law, Jethro, to point out the obvious; “Um Moses, it looks like you could use some help. See all these people standing around? For God’s sake son, choose some of the best ones and share the load.” Every leader understands the importance of delegation, at least in theory; yet as with so many things, the devil is in the details. 


Novice delegators like Exodus 18 Moses can easily forget that even after they’ve designed their org chart, aligned their resources, and recruited great people, most of their work is still ahead of them. One of the better things ever written on the topic of delegation was an article that first appeared in the Harvard Business Review in 1974 called “Who’s got the monkey” by management guru Bill Oncken. In it, he entertainingly describes those seemingly benign moments in the workday when “monkeys” (a metaphor for problems and/or “next moves”) become poised to make a leap from an employee onto their boss’s back. This usually happens when an employee starts a conversation with, “Sorry to disturb you but we have a problem.” How their boss responds will determine if the employee leaves the interaction with a renewed sense of responsibility for the monkey in question or if they leave feeling absolved of any animal care duties until further notice. Naive or controlling leaders can unwittingly collect an unruly mob of monkeys, leaving little time for the real work of leadership as well as a frustrated, bored and unempowered staff. Oncken’s prescription is for managers and leaders to establish strict ground rules to avoid unwanted monkey transfers while ultimately helping their people develop their primate parenting skills. Through increased self-awareness, many leaders can master the art of monkey taming with relative ease, but for others, it’s not so simple. Certain leaders may have self-imposed barriers to becoming better delegators related to their mindset and underlying assumptions (what another leadership guru, Ron Heifetz, termed “adaptive challenges”). For example, some leaders might believe that their people are simply not up to the challenge, or that any mistakes will lead to grave and intolerable consequences, or perhaps they have a need to be needed and so have difficulty distancing themselves from tasks that others could be doing. These leaders should test their assumptions and do some soul-searching perhaps with the help of a coach or they will quickly become the bottleneck for their organization’s success.


The Bible doesn’t indicate if delegation posed a difficult leadership challenge for Moses (it seems public speaking was his big hang up), but through the narrative, we can see him blossom into a delegation superstar. By the end of Exodus, appointed judges are settling disputes in the lower courts, priests are bringing order to religious life, artists and craftsmen are pouring themselves into the building of the tabernacle, and we find Moses doing the real work of a leader. He is spending his days listening intently to God’s instructions, he’s carefully inspecting the work of others, and he’s investing in Joshua, the next generation of leadership.


Reflection Questions

How much of your time is spent doing things that others could be doing?

What ground rules and guard rails could you establish to keep monkeys with their rightful owners?

What could you be doing with your time if there weren’t so many monkeys hanging around? 

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