Moses, the Torah tells us (Numbers 12:3), “was a very humble man.” And it’s just as well that humility was one of his defining characteristics. Leading the Israelites in the wilderness, he endured 40 years of complaints, rebellion, and gossip about his personal life, only to be told that he would not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. To add insult to injury, when we gather at the Seder to retell the story, Moses is hardly mentioned. (His name appears only once in the Haggadah, within a biblical verse cited by a midrash.)
During the political turmoil of the past year or so, an old adage has repeatedly come to mind: “a community gets the leaders it deserves” (possibly a reworking of Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous claim that “in a democracy we get the government we deserve”). Assuming this is true, what would we need to change to produce a better cadre of leaders?
We live in uncertain times, and there is an understandable tendency for people to gravitate towards strong, charismatic leaders, despite the well-known risks. But over-reliance on messianic leaders can become a convenient excuse for neglecting personal responsibility. Perhaps a generation or two ago it was reasonable to accept that there was little an ordinary individual could do to influence major world events. Steven Covey, author of the 1980s best-seller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, emphasised the importance of recognising the difference between your “circle of concern” and your “circle of influence” and focusing your efforts in the latter, much smaller sphere.
But, in the digital age, when even the leader of the free world conducts diplomatic business on Twitter, everyone is potentially connected to everyone else, and the boundary between Covey’s two spheres seems much more permeable.
In Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Clay Shirky showed that people now spend less of their time passively consuming media. We are still glued to screens, but often in active ways, creating memes, blogs and status updates. Yes, a huge proportion of Internet traffic is devoted to cat pictures, pornography, and gambling; but there are also incredible feats of collaboration, like Wikipedia (which required 100 million hours of “cognitive surplus” to create), or open source software, such as Linux.
In our interconnected age, cynically sitting on the sidelines of public or communal life should no longer be seen as our default mode, but should be an active choice. If we are unhappy with the quality of our leaders, we can collaborate with others to make changes.
At the time of the MPs’ expense scandals, the idea came up at a Shabbat meal that people should get together with 10 or 20 friends and draw up lists of the cleverest, wisest people they knew. People who were nominated and were also known to be of great integrity, would be encouraged to pursue a leadership role, whether aiming for high political office or a more modest position, perhaps within the Jewish community. The more such a person was genuinely taken by surprise and humbly resisted the call, the more convinced the committee would be that they had chosen the right person.
As far as I know, no one took this idea any further. After all, my friends have other concerns apart from MPs’ duck houses. But I think there is also widespread reluctance either to put oneself forward for a leadership role or to wish it upon a friend. Leaders face many challenges, some specific to our age and some — complaints, gossip, and potential rebellion — that were already familiar to Moses.
I am privileged to serve on the faculty of a unique programme for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim clergy and lay leaders. Faith in Leadership’s “Senior Faith Leadership Programme”, run in partnership with the University of Cambridge, is not about inter-faith relations per se. Over the course of three intense residential modules, delivered in the inspiring setting of St George’s House, Windsor Castle, it enables participants to develop their leadership skills in the company of their counterparts from the other two communities. Strong bonds of trust, and indeed friendship, are formed, sometimes between the most unlikely pairings.
One session involves each participant giving a short talk about his or her work. After two minutes (whether or not they have finished speaking!), we give them a standing ovation. It works a charm. Moses, after all, was the most humble of leaders. But the rest of us could do with some heartfelt applause from time to time.
Dr Tamra Wright is Director of Academic Studies at the London School of Jewish Studies