The Essence of Leadership
Adapted from Hebrew by Braha Bender
What do you think makes a great national leader? Were you to ask people what qualities make for a powerful leadership, you would probably receive a wide variety of responses.
"Well, a powerful national leader has to be a powerful politician," some might say. They would define a great leader by his ability to maneuver his way through a complex political system. Others might say that what makes a great leader is his ability to move the public with his words. A convincing public speaker, they would claim, rules the people the way no one else can. Many would affirm that becoming the leader of a nation is not easy and must be diligently worked towards from a very young age. And what about those who claw and scratch their way to the top, easily willing to shove anyone out of their way who would come between them and the crown? Many individuals of this caliber appear to succeed. Could cold-blooded ruthlessness be one of the defining qualities of leadership?
To our surprise we find that the recipe for leadership described in the Torah points us in a completely different direction.
One of the most powerful leaders in the history of the world was Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses Our Teacher), whose extraordinary leadership of the Jewish people is acknowledged by every monotheistic religion on the planet. The man who led the Jewish exodus from Egypt, received the Torah on Mount Sinai, and led the Jews through the desert for forty years undoubtedly holds the title as the most important leader the Jewish people ever had.
But Moshe's leadership had strange beginnings. When Moshe's leadership of the Jewish people first began, it wasn't just that Moshe was not the people's choice, it was that most of them didn't even know he existed. No political campaign or dramatic uprising led to his popularity and empowerment. Rather, Moshe arrived in Egypt to begin leading the Jewish people directly from his long period of exile in Midian.
"But they will not believe me," queried Moshe to the Almighty when elected to take upon himself the yoke of leadership (Exodus 4:1). Moshe was well aware of the fact that nobody in Egypt even knew his name, let alone the extraordinary spiritual level that the Almighty had determined qualified him for leadership. Apparently, according to the Almighty, that didn't make a difference.
Perhaps Moshe's political prowess was so impressive that his unknown status wasn't enough to impede his rise to power. But a overview of the text describing Moshe's political interactions does not depict him as such. For example, his first meeting with prime political opponent Pharaoh was not concluded with the slick diplomatic finesse maintained by the politicians of today. No pleasantries layered in multiple shades of meaning smoothed over ragged political spar and parry. In fact, the text doesn't leave much to the imagination: "And he left Pharaoh's presence in a burning anger" (Exodus 11:8).
Maybe Moshe was such a powerful speaker that neither political prowess nor a lengthy campaign were necessary. He would just walk right in to Egypt, capture the hearts of the people with his eloquence and charisma, and take the day. There is only one problem with that theory about Moshe's rise to power, though. The physical reality was that Moshe was speech impaired.
The text refers to Moshe as, "Heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue" (Exodus 4:10). Inspiring public opinion with powerful speeches was simply not within Moshe's purview. Apparently, however, this was exactly what the Almighty had in mind. The Midrash explains that G-d blighted Moshe with a speech impediment in order to ensure that later generations would not claim that the Jewish people were blindly manipulated by the wily ways of a charismatic speaker.
The Purpose of Leadership
Our conception of the qualities that create a powerful national leader differs almost entirely from the Torah's description of the qualities displayed by quintessential national leader Moshe Rabbeinu. Moshe was neither a smooth politician nor a skilled speaker. He certainly had not aspired towards leadership or worked towards it from a young age. As we will discover later on, he did not even want to be a leader in the first place. Why does such a wide disparity exist between what we expect from a leader today and the qualities that made up the historic leadership of Moshe centuries ago?
The disparity results from entirely different concepts of what the purpose and essence of leading a nation is all about. According to the Torah, it is not the leader's personal skills or strengths that lead to success in leading his people, but the degree to which he walks in the ways of the Almighty. As such, the humility to receive guidance from on high is the primary determining factor in whether or not he will merit success in leading his nation. Moshe, the humblest of all men, possesses that and many other qualities that made him one of the most powerful, successful national leaders in the history of the world.
Walking in the Ways of the Almighty
For example, the beginning of Moshe's tenure in Midian began with him saving a group of young women, the daughters of Yisro (Jethro), from the abuse of several local thugs. Moshe was in the disadvantaged position of being the "new guy on the block". Certainly nobody had asked him to interfere with local gang culture in order to help a group of hapless shepherdesses. But Moshe's profound sense of compassion would not allow him watch from the sidelines as such a travesty took place. Stepping in as a leader, Moshe put a stop to the injustices being perpetrated without consideration for his personal wellbeing.
Moshe's compassion extended to animals as much as to human beings. His compassion for a baby lamb led him to follow the animal deep in to the wilderness so that it would not get hurt by straying away from the flock. It was during this walk to find the straying animal that he happened upon a cave wherein waited for him his first encounter with the Almighty as He appeared to Moshe in the burning bush. "H' is good to all, His mercies are on all his works" (Psalms 145:9) When it came to mercy and compassion, Moshe walked in the ways of the Almighty.
Another characteristic that qualified Moshe for the leadership of the Jewish people was his willingness to stand up in their defense – even in the face of G-d Himself: "My Lord, why have You done evil to this people...?" (Exodus 5:22); "Why H' should Your anger flare up against Your people...?" (Exodus 32:11). Later, when the Jewish people had behaved so destructively that G-d informs Moshe of His intention to destroy every Jewish person save Moshe himself, the leader's response is, "And now if You would but forgive their sin! – but if not, erase me now from Your book that You have written" (Exodus 32:32). Moshe's loyalty to his nation is so great that were they to be destroyed, he demands from G-d to be destroyed with them. He stakes his life to save theirs.
Leadership Without Ego
The quality Moshe is best known for is the extraordinary humility he possessed. No man or woman after him ever achieved the degree of humility Moshe attained. It was his humility that led him to initially refuse the yoke of leadership, proposing to the Almighty that the leadership of the Jewish people would be better suited to his older brother Aharon (Aaron)!
Imagine: the Jewish people had been entrenched in torturous slavery for some two hundred years. Hundreds of eyes were lifted to the heavens in anticipation of the long-awaited redemption. The leader who led the redemption would win unimaginable prestige and here was G-d Himself informing Moshe that he was the one to do it!
Despite all this, the humble Moshe could not conceive of himself playing the staring role: "Please, my Lord, send through whomever You will send!," he protested to the Almighty (Exodus 4:13). The reason he finally accepted the yoke of leadership upon himself was not a capitulation to his natural human desire for his own honor, but in order to honor the commandment of G-d.
Moshe's leadership did not emerge from a well-oiled set of skills external to his inherent personality. Moshe's leadership was just another expression of that which defined him: his relationship with G-d. It was his relationship with G-d that endowed him with the qualities that characterized him as a leader and led to the leadership career that not only served his own nation with unparalleled success but permanently altered the course of world history.