Changing your Management Style: Lessons from the Life of Jethro

Read about Jethro’s principle of management that involves eight fundamental changes.

Hermenio B. Cabusog J r. , PhD, is a lecturer on management at Bukidnon State University, Philippines,
and serves as a pastor in Inobulan, Philippines.

Armed with a degree in theology and serving as a volunteer pastor at my home church in Inobulan in Northern Mindanao in the Philip­pines, I needed a paying job. I found one at the local state university as a part-time lecturer. It was a perfect setting: living in my hometown, min­istering to my local church, and a teaching job for my living expenses. Shortly thereafter, however, the university indicated that I must have a graduate degree to continue my teaching job. With no other option, I commenced a master’s degree in management—somewhat of a detour from my theological pursuits. But soon I discovered that theology can influence other areas of study. I began to use Jethro’s paradigm on change management in my man­agement studies (Exod. 18). Soon I realized that long before Weber’s bureaucratic and Taylor’s systematic management approaches,1 Jethro placed before Moses an organi­zational management plan whose efficiency led Israel during the 40 years of wandering in the desert.

Jethro’s principle of management is a simple illustration of change man­agement. Jethro told his son-in-law, Moses, that what he was doing was not good either for his health or for managing such a vast company of people through the desert. So he told Moses to be the people’s representative before God, teach the people the way to live, and select capable men as leaders over groups of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens (see vv. 17–26). Jethro’s change- management approach starts by identifying the source, then complet­ing the form of organizational change. Jethro’s approach involves eight fundamental changes.

Changing the source of change

The changes called for by the Jethro principle begin with a strong chief executive officer (CEO). Strong leadership from the CEO and his or her associates makes effective changes. God used Moses’ 40 years of self-exile as a source of change for Israel; but during the Exodus, Jethro stepped in. Moses needed Jethro to tell him that what he was doing was not advisable (v. 17). In most cases, external forces are the best agents of change; it took a Midianite to change the entire Israelite organization.

Outsider change agents must be worthy of respect, authority, and wisdom. Respect develops from an intimate relationship over time; in the case of Jethro and Moses, a father- and son-in-law relationship of more than 40 years built such respect.2 Jethro’s authority and wisdom grew from his experience in managing his own people as a father and priest (Exod. 2:16).3 Wisdom must be expressed in a clear, simple, and easy-to-apply­and-follow process. Because Jethro had the qualities of respect, author­ity, and wisdom, Moses listened to Jethro and followed his advice (Exod. 18:24).

Changing the attitude

With the source of change iden­tified, a change of attitude follows. Changes start with the leadership. A change of attitude will not hap­pen when the leader is of the view that all is well—like Moses, seated comfortably, counseling people from morning until evening (v. 13) not realizing that the current system was not good until Jethro told him (v. 17). Leaders must realize that what seems good for now will not always be good. Location will also be a factor regarding the effective­ness of a method. What was good in the valleys of Egypt was not necessarily applicable in the desert of Sinai.

Embracing new ways and changes of attitude are not easy unless a clear line is drawn between the old and the new, where lead­ers can clearly see that a change will bring about a new and better mind-set. Jethro told Moses that the old ways of highly centralized governance would stress and wear him out (v. 18), and hence he should consider ways of participative organization.

Changing the behavior

The right attitude precedes the right behavior. When Moses realized that something was wrong with his organizational setup, Jethro told Moses to listen to him (v. 19).

Sound reasons for every change must be communicated well in the organization.4 Leaders must act to see, feel, and hear the need for change in their organizations. Moses did hear and was able to con­firm that there really was something wrong in his organization.

Changing the position

At the burning bush (Exod. 3), God asked Moses to go to Pharaoh as His representative to demand freedom for the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage. Now in the wilderness, Moses became a mediator between God and the Hebrew people. So Jethro told Moses to change his position and be the people’s representative to God (Exod. 18:19). Moses’ position was now clarified and established, allowing him to do new things with his position. Leadership positions must vary according to the environ­ment. Prior to Jethro’s visit, Moses saw himself as the center point of the organization, so that everyone had to come to him. After Jethro’s intervention, God was seen as the center point while Moses and the other leaders became rings around that point—the Saturn model of organization, with each ring of people managing things among themselves. In this way, leaders bear less stress. Below are the two leadership models (see vv. 24–26).

Changing the culture

Imposing cultural change is a challenge for every leader. However, Jethro provided a simple way of bringing about change. He told Moses to teach and show the people the way to live—their culture (v. 20). A teaching strategy must be simple, and the subject matter must be basic and well defined. Having too many things to teach complicates the process and diminishes learning. A minimum of subject matters, taught by example, results in organizational learning, which leads to cultural changes.

According to Jethro, decrees and laws were the two subject matters to start with (v. 20). When leaders live by what they teach, followers can easily follow what they see, and cultural change through learning occurs.

Changing the people

Resisters of cultural change must be excluded, as their resis­tance to change might destroy the new agenda that organizational change demands. Remove such resisters even if they are well known and had satisfactorily performed in the past5—people such as Korah, Kohath, Dathan, and Abiram (Num. 16:1–4). New people are easily taught and can easily adopt a new culture.

The employees need two char­acteristics: (1) fear of God, and (2) trustworthiness and hate of dishon­est gain. Jethro’s new leadership process started at God and moved to Moses and then to leadership at various group levels as illustrated in the new Saturn model.

Changing the roles

The population of 600,000 men fit to fight, excluding women and children, required extraordinary leadership.6 Leading this vast num­ber without any help or sharing of responsibility would wear out Moses. Jethro’s idea of assigning judges­ leaders of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens is a call for a role change. Each group, from thousands to tens, was empowered to handle cases they could manage while leaving the very difficult ones to the inner layers of leadership, with God at the center. Sharing the responsibil­ity and accountability among the people in the organization lightens the burdens of the leaders, giving them more opportunities for creativ­ity. Leaders with less stress become more efficient in performance. 

Changing the structure

Some of today’s systematic approaches to management were practiced long ago by Jethro and Moses. Moses’ sole-centric orga­nizational form, whose movement from the outside to the inside then back to the outside, was replaced by a Saturn structure with God at the center, surrounded with layers of leadership, whose movement was from the inside to the outside then back to the inside.

The pastor as the modern Moses

Pastors experience frequent moves in their calling; transferring from one place to another. This dynamic pastoral work requires Jethro’s wisdom. Pastors must adapt to changes either from better to worse or worse to better situations. Change management is the key. As Peter Drucker remarked, “Every organization has to prepare for the abandonment of everything it does.”7

Change management is a neces­sity. Our church calls for revival, and we must respond to it. We must be like the believers of the early church, learning new things with humble and teachable spirits. When changes are hard and seem impossible to implement, we need to understand that “Christ came to change this order of things.”8 Jesus Himself gave an example: He changed His methods of ministry as it drew to its end.9 Thus, we, too, must be pre­pared to change our organization and methods of labor in order to effectively complete the task given to us. Jethro’s method has much to teach us as we lead the community of faith toward its eschatological goal.



1 Khoo Kheng-hor, Sun Tzu and Management (Malaysia: Pelanduk Publications, 1992), 177, 178.

2 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, trans. W. Whiston (London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1878), 136. (5.2.3.)

3 S. H. Horn, Seventh-day Adventist Dictionary, rev. ed. (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1979), s.v. “Jethro.”

4 Jack Welch and Suzy Welch, Winning (New York: Harper Business, 2005), 145.

5 Welch and Welch, Winning, 141, 142.

6 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 75.

7 Peter Drucker, Classic Drucker (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2006), 142.

8 Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lesson (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1941), 366.

9 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), 485.

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Hermenio B. Cabusog J r. , PhD, is a lecturer on management at Bukidnon State University, Philippines,
and serves as a pastor in Inobulan, Philippines.

February 2012

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