We often think of Yosef as a tribe of leadership, rivaling, or even at times, surpassing Yehudah. After all, Yosef’s dreams describe both political and economic superiority over his brothers.
But Yosef’s supremacy was fleeting; it did not last beyond Yosef’s own life, and the mantle seemed to naturally revert to Yehudah. While there are many explanations for this, I’d like to offer another.
In the Jewish world, a true leader is someone who is particular to always serve G-d. His ambitions put the divine goals first, and this leader must be especially careful not to make his own desires supplant those of Hashem.
Yosef, at least not the grown-up version, was not egotistical in this way. From the time of being in Potiphar’s house, Yosef was a dedicated servant. He put Potiphar’s interests first, and then, when serving in prison, Yosef helped the prison run better. And his final posting, as Pharoah’s lieutenant, was the pinnacle of Yosef’s career. Not only did he save Egypt from the famine, but in the process he managed to enslave all the Egyptians to Pharoah!
It is this last that might have eliminated the possibility of Yosef being the future leader of the Jewish people. When selling grain back to the Egyptians Yosef was doing Pharoah a wonderful – and unnecessary – favor. But there is no hint that Yosef sought guidance from his father, or from Hashem directly. Instead, Yosef decided to take the opportunity to enslave an entire nation just because it was the best thing he could do for his terrestrial master. It does not seem to occur to Yosef that mass enslavement is not a Jewish ideal, and that his duties to Hashem required him to act in Hashem’s interests first and foremost.
Unlike the classic hero, Yosef did not suffer from an excess of arrogance or egotism. In the end he was always a lieutenant, not a leader. And if Yosef had a fault, it was that he became so good at serving his terrestrial masters that he neglected to always put G-d first.
P.S. Menachem Leibtag suggests that Yosef’s actions were rewarded, midoh kneged midoh, by the Egyptians enslaving the Jews in turn – an act for which they were not punished.