The passage (Num 27: 12-23) in which G-d tells Moses to prepare for death, and Moses, in response, asks G-d to appoint a successor, is full of interest for what it tells us about leadership. Indeed when Moses is confronted with his own mortality, his first response is not to think about himself at all but about the succession. That is a mark of a true leader. The great leaders care about the cause they serve more than about themselves. Hence even as they lead, they prepare others to lead, so that, in Moses’ own words here: “the Lord’s people will not be like a flock without a shepherd.”
Each line of this passage warrants close listening, but let us focus on just one. Moses says:
May the Lord, G-d of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the community who will go out in front of them and come back in front of them, who will bring them out and bring them back, so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd. (27: 16-17)
The italicized words seem to say the same thing twice. If a leader goes out and comes back in front of the people, then surely it follows that he is leading them out and bringing them in. Why the repetition?
Rashi interprets the two phrases as referring to different things. The first, “who will go out in front of them and come back in front of them”, means a leader who leads from the front, who will not send his people into battle while staying behind in safety himself. Rashi points to a verse (I Samuel 18: 16) in which the Torah says: “All Israel and Judah loved David because he went out and came back in front of them”. The watchword of Israel’s military leaders has always been Acharai, “After me”.
To the second phrase, “who will bring them out and bring them back” he gives two different explanations. The first is that it means, “who will lead them [to victory] through his merits”. The second is extraordinary. Moses, says Rashi, was protesting to G-d: “Do not do to my successor what you did to me, denying me the chance to lead the people into the land.” Let Joshua, unlike me, reach his destination.
Thus far Rashi. However, there is another possible explanation. A leader must lead from the front. But a leader must also understand the pace at which those he leads can go. It is not leadership if the leader is so far ahead of those he leads that when he turns his head round, he discovers that there is no one following. A leader must go out in front and come back in front. But he must also “lead the people out and bring them back”, meaning, he must take people with him. He must make sure that they are keeping up with him.
A leader must have vision, but also realism. He or she must think the impossible but know the possible. Because a leader is often a figure of great ability, he or she can sometimes forget that not everyone can travel as fast as he can. A leader can be too far ahead of his times.
That is not a failing in some forms of leadership. The great prophets were often centuries ahead of their times. That is what made them prophets. There are secular examples. The great artists were ahead of their times. Beethoven’s late quartets were almost unintelligible for a century. The first Impressionist exhibition was panned by the critics. It is said that Van Gogh did not sell a single painting (some say he sold one) in his lifetime. The audience at the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring expressed their disapproval by catcalls and whistles.
An artist may be ahead of his time; a prophet must be ahead of his time. That is because they are not leaders of people. They are leaders of ideas. Often they are reclusive. Only a few of their contemporaries understand what they are trying to do, but that is enough. Eventually, long after their lifetime, their ideas penetrate a wider circle. But a leader in the mould of Moses must connect with people. That is why he prayed to G-d for a leader who would go out in front, but only at such a pace as to bring people with him.
It is a point made with great insight by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. In their book Leadership on the Line (and Heifetz’s earlier book, Leadership without Easy Answers) they distinguish between two kinds of challenge, technical and adaptive, and the different kinds of leadership they call for.
A technical challenge arises when you face a problem of a kind that has a relatively simple solution. You are ill, so you go to a doctor to diagnose the disease and prescribe a cure. Your car breaks down, so you need a mechanic to identify the fault and put it right. Something is broken; it needs fixing: that is the standard form of a technical challenge.
But sometimes the people affected by a problem are the problem. For some illnesses, no drug will suffice to bring a cure. Instead the person concerned may have to change his entire lifestyle. For some failing companies, no quick fix by management will suffice. What may have to change is the entire corporate culture. Problems of this kind, where the people involved have to change, call for adaptive leadership – and that is leadership of the most difficult kind.
The reason is that people resist change. For that reason, they will resist any solution that implies that they must change. With tenacity and passion, they will see the problem as something outside themselves. They will blame this factor or that. They will opt for one technical cure after another, only to find that they all fail – because the cause was not external but internal: within the persons concerned.
Personal change – change within the self – is almost unbearably stressful. It is, in fact, a form of bereavement. That is why adaptive leaders are rarely popular. People criticize them, get angry with them, try to replace them. Adaptive leadership needs courage. But Heifetz and Linsky’s point goes deeper. Adaptive leadership also needs deep and active patience. People are slow to change, and a leader – who by definition understands the need for change – may become impatient and try to force the pace faster than the people can go.
That is why some of the greatest leaders get assassinated. In retrospect they are seen as heroes. But at the time, they were often regarded as traitors, betrayers. What makes Heifetz and Linsky almost unique is that they regard assassination as a failure of leadership. They admire Martin Luther King and Yitzhak Rabin, yet they also argue that they should have recognized the danger signals from their own side; they should have slowed the pace, lowered the flame, stepped back; perhaps they should have found ways of handing the problem back to the people. They were driving people faster than they could go.
That is what Moses was saying. Let the Israelites be led by one who will “go out in front of them and come back in front of them”, leading from the front; but also one who will “bring them out and bring them back”, meaning one who will carry the people with him, not going so fast that they cannot keep up.
For that is what Moses learned in the episode of the spies. He was ready to enter the promised land. The people were not. The result was catastrophic. This was not his fault. He had faith; the people had all too little. He was right; they were wrong. But he was also wise enough to realize that for a leader to be right and the people wrong, is no consolation whatsoever. A leader must go at the people’s pace. He must educate them; prepare them for the challenges ahead; listen to their grievances; give them courage; lift their sights – and also be prepared to slow down if they are unable to accelerate. He or she must be impatient and patient all at once: a difficult balancing act. But there is no choice. A leader must not go on ahead so far and fast that he finds himself alone.
I found G-d first as a mystery when I was very young.
What fascinated me was the Torah scroll.
Credo – The Times - June 2010
I am sometimes asked, Where did I find G-d? The answer is surely different for each of us, and this is mine.
I found G-d, first, as a mystery when I was very young. For the first three years of my life we lived with my mother’s parents as part of a large extended family in Finsbury Park, north London. My grandfather did not serve as a rabbi but he had his own small synagogue (Jews call this a shteibel), and the services there are among my earliest memories.
What fascinated me was the Torah scroll. Clearly there was something special about it. When the ark (the cupboard in which the scrolls were kept) was opened, everyone stood. As the scroll was carried through the congregation, everyone touched it reverently with the fringes of their prayer shawls. When it had been read from, and it was bound and made ready for its return to the ark, I as the rabbi’s youngest grandson was given the privilege of putting the silver bells back onto the handles of the scroll.
Had I known the word, I would have said that the Torah scroll was holy. That fascinated me and still does. The Koran calls Jews the people of the book. That is an understatement. Jews are a people only because of the book, the record of their covenant with G-d thirty-three centuries ago at Mount Sinai. Not until much later did I understand quite how radical this is. Jews find G-d in words, a text, a document. Language is holy, because only words can connect us in our finitude with G-d in his infinity. Those early memories of the Torah scroll were my first signals of transcendence.
Another, much later, came after I completed my undergraduate degree. It was a landscape: the view from Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. In one direction you could look down on the Mount where the Temple once stood. I was standing where, almost two thousand years ago, Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues stood looking at the ruins left by the Romans when they destroyed the Second Temple. It remains, for Jews, the holiest place in the world, though all that remains is the Western Wall.
In the other direction lay the Judean hills. The sun was setting and the hills had turned a burnished gold as if they were lit by a strange, unearthly inner fire. Jews tend not to speak about “religious experiences” in the way my Christian friends did, but this was unmistakably a religious experience. I thought of King David lifting his eyes to the hills, “from whence cometh my help”. I thought of the lover in the Song of Songs: “The sound of my beloved: Look! Here he comes, leaping across the mountains, bounding over the hills.” Elsewhere you read the Bible. In Jerusalem you see, feel, touch the Bible. I felt brushed by the wings of eternity.
But mostly I found G-d in people. The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges has a story called The Approach to Al-Mutasim, in which he imagines someone coming across a stranger who has something about him – an unlikely tenderness, an exaltation – that doesn’t belong, that seems to be a reflection of someone else. “Somewhere in the world there is a man from whom this clarity, this brightness, emanates.” He searches for this mysterious presence entirely by following his reflection in others. That is how I have searched for G-d.
And that is where I have found him, in holy people and ordinary people, in lives lifted beyond themselves, in serene grace and holy argument, in acts of quiet courage and improbable reconciliation, in gentle wisdom and soaring imagination, in forgiving eyes and gestures of love. There is something in these people that cannot be explained in terms of evolution and the struggle to survive, rational behaviour and the pursuit of self interest. They have been touched by the divine presence. They have breathed the breath of G-d. When you see it, you know it.
G-d lives in people, and they are rarely the most successful or even the most overtly religious. Religion, when it leads to self-righteousness, can become a barrier separating us from G-d. Like Borges’ searcher I have spent my life looking for the G-d from whom this clarity, this brightness, emanates. And that is where I have found him: in the faces of those who bring light to the lives of others.