Giniel de Villiers drove over 5,000 miles to win the prestigious Dakar Rally. That trophy would not be sitting in the de Villiers home today if Giniel hadn’t been a great driver.
But it also wouldn’t be sitting there if Giniel’s Volkswagon hadn’t been primed and ready beneath him. Great as Giniel de Villiers may be, if it hadn’t been for the car, he couldn’t have won the race. When it comes to racing, looking good on paper doesn’t cut it.
The same applies to management. Excellent executives succeed thanks to the resources at their disposal. Transforming theory into action means more than being a great driver; it means making full use of the vehicle. Knowing and appreciating their resources is what gives managers the ability to achieve.
The difference between de Villiers’ resources and the executive’s resources is that the executives resources are not made of chrome and gasoline. The executive’s resources are far more sophisticated. They think, they feel, and they have all sorts of unique talents and sensitivities – they are human beings.
Management or Leadership?
Taking full “advantage” of human resources requires ascending from manager to leader, from commander to facilitator. A leader is a person who transforms a group of disparate individuals into a team. Her own personal goals and visions become the shared goals of all her staff members. They don’t feel that they are working for her. They’re working with her. Great leaders make their staff sense that the success of the leader and the success of the team are one.
In the eleventh century Jewish classic, the Kuzari, the Khazar King inadvertently asks the Friend about leadership.
“Who is a saintly person?,” asks the Khazar.
The Friend responds, “A saintly person is one who is concerned with his country. He provides all its citizens with their every provision and need. He leads them justly, does not oppress any one of them, and does not give to any one of them more than his rightful share. Thus, in his time of need they will come to his aid, and will rush to respond to him when he calls out to them. He can command them, and they will carry his command; he can admonish them and they will accept his admonishment.”
What is the secret to this kind of leadership? To ascend from manager to leader several important steps must be taken. However, there is one thing that comes before anything else. Even if every other condition is met, if this magical ingredient is missing, leadership will never be obtained.
The most fundamental and defining quality of leadership is humility. When staff members see that their manager does not hoard all the credit for herself, but instead attributes success to their skills and efforts, they begin to appreciate her leadership. They begin to turn her into their leader.
However, without this essential humility, her role remains managerial alone. Next time she tries to get her staff to move on a new set of objectives, she feels the difference. Even if her staff adheres to her exact instructions, their heart won’t be in it. As long as she remains blinded to the value of humility-based leadership instead of superficial, bossy control tactics, she will never draw upon her resources’ full potential.
Why? There’s a magic in humility. The humble person draws others like moths to the light. A leader’s humility draws her subordinates admiration, but more importantly, it earns their respect. It projects the message that when success arrives, every contributor will own a meaningful part of it. The humble leader conveys the message that without the strengths of her team she would be incapable of reaching her goals.
By appreciating the individual strengths of her staff and rallying these skills towards the targets she has determined for them, a great leader gives each team member a sense of value and purpose. But it’s not a line; she knows that she isn’t the only important one or even the most important one. Managerial skills are not meaningful without a team’s shared efforts towards success. Excellent leaders are humble enough to recognize this.
Humility is the key that distinguishes the men from the boys, the respected leader from the many harried, hapless managers who wish that they could succeed like he does.
Judaism’s First CEO
The Jewish People emerged from Egypt in need of a manager who could channel their disparate strengths into the common goal of nationhood. Going from over two hundred years of Egyptian slavery to an autonomous life of Torah in Israel would not be easy. In many ways it was an unstable time. Though surrounded by the shock of miracles, the Jews travelled from location to location under desert conditions that they often found threatening. Success would demand the skillful management of a wide range of personalities, needs, and challenges as the group coalesced from slaves into free men.
It was a monumental task that demanded far more than superficial management. Mere directives would not be enough to handle the material and spiritual issues faced by the Jewish People. They needed a leader to bring them together and bring them forward. It’s no secret that Moshe (Moses) was the man for the job.
Yet Moshe’s success in leading the Jewish People from Egypt to Sinai and Israel took place directly in proportion to his humility. The Torah attests, “Now this man Moshe was exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth.” (BaMidbar-Numbers 12:3) In fact, the greater the humility, the greater the leadership. The greater the leadership, the greater the potential success.
During his years of leading the Jewish People through the desert, did Moshe enjoy uninterrupted peace from his unruly flock? Not at all. His rightfulness as leader, his integrity in handling national funds, and his political agenda were all brought into question at various times. The reason these oppositional factions did not succeed at drawing large numbers to their vindictive cause was because the Jewish People had been eyewitness to their leader Moshe’s extraordinary humility on so many occasions. Perhaps more importantly, also thanks to his humility, no occasion of Jewish rebellion or even spite got in the way of Moshe’s dedication and clear-sightedness on behalf of his people.
For example, after the sin of the golden calf, the Almighty proposed obliterating the entire Jewish People: “I will destroy them and obliterate their name from beneath the heavens, and I will make you into a nation mightier and more numerous than they.” (Devarim-Deuteronomy 9:14)
Doesn’t absolute power corrupt absolutely? What power could have been more absolute than Moshe’s at that moment? G-d Himself was promising to make Moshe greater than anyone had ever been! Yet Moshe’s response said it all: “And now, if You forgive their sin… But if not, erase me now from Your book, which You have written.” (Shmos-Exodus 32:32)
Moshe was not interested in power, he was interested in his people. Can you name a manager you know who would give up the biggest promotion imaginable for the sake of a bunch of ingrates? Only a truly humble individual would withstand such a test. Moshe showed us all how it’s done.
Humility and Transparency
Another example of Moshe’s humility came to light in his commitment to transparent accountability as leader. In Parashas Pekudei, Moshe reported the sum total of donations that had recently been contributed towards the building of the Mishkan. Midrash Tanchuma takes us behind the scenes:
Said Moshe, ‘I know Israel is argumentative and critical. I am creating a detailed report of the expenses associated with the construction of the Mishkan.’
He began drawing up the report of the expenses… As he was in the midst of calculating and going over every single thing that was done in its order within the Mishkan, he forgot 1,775 shekels that had been used to make the hooks for the pillars, and they were not to be seen.
He stood, confounded, and said, ‘Now the hands of Israel will find this against me, to say that I took them,’ and he repeated going over every single thing done in the construction of the Mishkan. The Holy One, Blessed Be He, immediately illuminated his eyes, and he fixed his eyes and saw that they had been made into hooks for the pillars.
He began responding to them in a clear voice, ‘And out of the one thousand seven hundred and seventy five [shekels] he made hooks for the pillars…’ (Shmos-Exodus 38:28) At that very hour Israel was appeased, and who brought them to this? [Moshe did] by sitting and doing an accounting…”
The humble man does not demand the public’s respect for his elevated character. Rather, he behaves like any other decent human being. Just as any decent person would be expected to provide an accounting of expenses upon completion of a project, so Moshe did as an expression of his humility. Bear in mind that this is Moshe the prophet, the one who spoke with G-d face to face. The one who served as G-d’s messenger to produce ten plagues, lead the Jewish People out of Egypt, split the sea, and receive the Torah on Mount Sinai… The list goes on and on. Moshe was not just your everyday common man. Does it seem a little picayune to check out his expense sheet? Moshe didn’t think so.
Humility keeps the communication between leaders and citizens at eye level. Moshe wasn’t condescending to come down to the level of the people. Instead, Moshe genuinely did not perceive his honor as superior to that of anyone else.
Ironically, that was exactly what made Moshe so great. It turns out, as Pirkey Avos attests, that “whoever flees from honor, honor chases after him”. This isn’t because of some mysterious spiritual mechanism. It’s because true humility earns our respect without saying a word.
Though we are not all executives or national figures, we are all leaders. Those of us who are parents play leadership roles within our family structures. All adults are leaders within their own personal lives. Our failures as leaders often trace back to where and when we have failed to develop and exercise humility.
Humility is the foundation of all the qualities that form a powerful and meaningful leadership. At her core, the truly humble person does not take credit for any success because she or is fully in touch with the fact that her every strength is a gift from the Creator. This empowers her to achieve far more than she ever could have done without that awareness.
Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman Girondi, popularly known as Nachmanides or the Ramban, wrote in his famous and deeply moving letter to his son:
“…For one who arrogantly [perceives himself and behaves as though he is] superior to other creations rebels against the majesty of heaven, for he glorifies himself with the royal garments of the Almighty, Blessed Be He, as it says, ‘The Almighty reigns, He is clothed in glory.’ And with what would the heart of man be haughty? If it is with wealth, the Almighty bestows and impoverishes. And if with honor, after all it is to the Almighty, as it says, ‘And the wealth and the honor are before You,’ and how would he glorify himself with the honor of his Maker? And if he glorifies himself with wisdom, [the Almighty] removes language from [even] the reliable and the reasoning of elders He takes. It turns out that all are equal before the Context [of existence, the Almighty], for in His wrath He makes lowly the arrogant and in His willingness He elevates the lowly. Therefore, make yourself lowly and the Context will elevate you.”
It’s not humility to bow your head before those who are greater than you. If they’re greater than you, what do you have to feel superior about? Humility shines most brightly when great men meet even those inferior to them at eye level. When a person takes this approach to her staff or to members of her home whom by all rights ought to treat her with respect, that’s when the motor really gets running in the Dakar Rally. That’s when everyone begins to wake up.
Humility is like rainwater. It makes things grows. Where there is humility, there is relationship. There is communication. There is an atmosphere of safety, which breeds creative thinking and problem-solving. Humility means listening. As we learned from Moshe, humility also means speaking up in the right way. As King Solomon put it in Mishley (Proverbs 3:34), “…The humble, he evokes grace.”