Moses the great leader knew his failings

Despite all the criticism, Moses displayed some of the key elements of great leadership


In considering who we are as Jews — our genetic, cultural, and racial imprint — much has been said. Is there, though, something intrinsic in our constitution that creates a particular national disquiet? I find that, as a people, we are unsettled; we constantly pick apart situations in order to get to the core of the matter, and we are persistently striving to be better. Leadership sits on so many of us easily. Following, on the other hand, comes to many of us unnaturally.

Much has been said about “Moshe Rabbeinu” (literally “Moses, our teacher”) as a leader. The Torah itself, at the end of Moses’s life, tells us that there never was and there never will be another prophet like Moses amongst Israel (Deuteronomy 34:10). Moses was hand-picked by God for his leadership role and yet, even from the first moment, not only does he question his position, but the people question his right to authority and leadership.

Moses’s leadership was scrutinised every step of the way. This is despite his selection by God to lead the people, his fulfilment of the mission to secure their release from slavery to freedom, leading them from the Land of Egypt to the edge of the Promised Land and his unparalleled relationship with God. Many maintain a critical stance even today. Is this fair?

Over the past few months, I have been privileged to be a participant in the 10th-anniversary cohort of the Cambridge University Senior Faith Leadership Programme. Although the focus of our activity is on learning about leadership qualities and developing leadership styles, the work that most intrigues me during our seminars is the subtle undercurrent of interfaith conversations and a field of study called Scriptural Reasoning.

Scriptural Reasoning, for those not familiar with its composition, is an opportunity to respectfully yet thoroughly analyse our own, as well as others’, seminal scriptural passages. In our case, there were representatives of the three Abrahamic faiths looking, sequentially, at passages from the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Koran. The passages are usually focused on some thematic commonality, such as food or prayer; as described variously throughout the respective texts.

There is so much you can learn about a person and, through this particular exercise, of a person’s religious outlook by how they deal with text. The Muslims in our group spoke of the “Prophet Moses” as one of the great prophets, and felt not only that it would be unacceptable to criticise him, but that he was worthy of our respect based on his relationship with God. On the other hand, the Christians in our group, seemed to view Moses as an imperfect leader who set the stage for the subsequent perfect leadership they saw in Jesus.

It seemed to be our lot alone, as the Jewish participants, to look to our leaders and find both fault and favour with them in the context of the challenges they faced.

In another article in this week’s JC , Dr Tamra Wright highlights Moses’s defining trait of humility. I would argue that Moses wasn’t just a humble man but that, perhaps, as one raised on the periphery of the Israelite nation, he was able to view his people in an objective light and already knew of their skill in picking apart their leaders.

He understood their restlessness, their need for every individual to succeed and lead — at times, at the expense of others. Could that have been a consideration when taking up his leadership position?

For my part, this is just conjecture. Yet, despite all the critiques, Moses displayed some of the key elements of great leadership. Criticism aside, it is worth learning from his extraordinary abilities as a leader.

In management theorist Peter F. Drucker’s pivotal 2004 essay entitled What Makes an Effective Executive? (Harvard Business Review’s 10 Must-Reads on Leadership, HBR Press 2011), Drucker lists eight practices that every executive followed in order to be effective in his or her role.

✡ They asked: “What needs to be done?’’ Moses asked that as he left Pharaoh’s palace “to go out among his [Israelite] brethren and he witnessed their suffering” (Exodus 2:11).

✡ They asked: “What is right for this enterprise?” Moses questions this of God a number of times. Despite his protests to the contrary (ibid. 4:1, 4:10), the answer he receives from God (4:11) is that “you, Moses, are right for this enterprise”. As often as Moses contests this, he moves ahead with his role.

✡ They develop an action plan. This one is a bit of a conundrum. I have always wondered if, apart from plagues one, four and seven, the other plagues were known to Moses prior to their actual immediate initiation on God’s command? Perhaps, in this instance and many others, the action plan was to follow and trust in God.

✡ They took responsibility for decisions. Moses takes responsibility not just for his own decisions but also for the misdeeds of the people. After the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses offers to have his name erased from the entire Torah (ibid 32:32), if that will save the people from annihilation.

They took responsibility for communicating. Moses, more than any other leader, takes the initiative in communicating. Often, what he communicates to the people is the harsh word of God, but he also communicates the words of the Torah — both Written and Oral — to the people so effectively that we still adhere to them to this day (Deuteronomy 32:44-47, for example).

They were focused on opportunities rather than a problem. In the incident of the Twelve Spies in Numbers 13, a literal read in verse two of the phrase “send for yourself spies” gives rise to an interpretation by 11th-century commentator Rashi that God told Moses not to let the princes of the Twelve Tribes reconnoitre the land. Moses sees their visit to the land as an opportunity to offer stability and a view of the future home to the people. Though the results are devastating and the nation was condemned by God to spend the next 39 years wandering the desert, Moses listened to what the people wanted and gave them the opportunity to see the endeavour through.

They ran productive meetings. Moses’s meetings must have been quite intense, especially the exquisite and delicate negotiation with God over the terms of re-engagement and forgiveness following the calamitous episode of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32-34). One would imagine that he came prepared with an agenda, perhaps even a list?

They thought and said ‘we’ rather than ‘I’. The ultimate declaration of dedication and commitment was a rousing and inclusive “we will do and we will listen” (ibid. 24:7), elicited by the people in response to Moses’s celebration of their achievement in receiving the commandments given at Mount Sinai (ibid. Chaps 20-23).

Leaders, according to Drucker, are not born, but made. Their personalities vary wildly, but as we investigate Moses for his extraordinary qualities as well as his shortcomings — both on a national and a personal level — I think it is important to focus on this.

Effective leaders and effective people all have one thing in common: they get the right things done.

Ilana Epstein is the Rebbetzen at Cockfosters & N Southgate United Synagogue and Head of Project Development in the United Synagogue’s Living & Learning Department.

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