Lessons in Leadership

Lessons in Leadership

Too often leaders cling to power. They are so intoxicated by the privileges of their position that they become blinded to their own vulnerabilities and even oblivious of their own mortality.

Even our own Jewish history has many examples, some comparatively recent, of great leaders who failed to provide for their succession. Their deaths left a vacuum since they failed to designate their choice of a successor in a clear and unambiguous fashion. In some cases, chaos and strife ensued.

Such was not the case with the greatest of all Jewish leaders, Moses. In fact, one of the defining factors of his greatness was his concern that a proper successor to him be named.

And it is in this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, that the story of Moses’ search for an appropriate successor is narrated.

“Moses spoke to the Lord, saying, ‘Let the Lord, source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them… so that the Lord’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.” (Numbers 27:15-17)

Rashi draws our attention to the peculiar way in which Moses addresses the Almighty, “Source of breath of all flesh”. Whatever can that mean? Why does not Moses address Him as “God of the heavens and earth”, or some similar familiar appellation?

Rashi’s answer yields a very important insight into Moses’ concept of the nature of leadership. A leader must be able to tolerate the great differences that exist among individuals. Every human being is different from every other, and a leader must be able to inspire diverse individuals, even individuals with contradictory ideologies and objectives. Only the Lord Almighty, “Source of the breath of all flesh”, can identify a leader with the capacity of relating to “each and every person according to his personality.”

So Moses was not only exemplary in taking the responsibility to find and to name a successor, but he was also careful to ask for divine assistance in locating a new leader with the capacity to deal with human uniqueness and individual differences. Moses knew from his long experience that a leader who expected uniformity and conformity was doomed to failure.

But there is another aspect to leadership that Moses did not seem to ask for, but which God provided for.

God does not only respond to Moses’ request by naming Joshua as his successor. Rather, He insists that Joshua himself stand before and consult Elazar the Priest. The effective leader, nay the great leader, dare not think of himself as infallible, as the only source of intelligent leadership. Rather, he too must bow to a higher authority.

Hence “…he shall present himself to Elazar the Priest, who shall, on his behalf, seek the decision of the Urim before the Lord. By such instruction, they shall go out, and by such instruction, they shall come in… Moses did as the Lord commanded him. He took Joshua and had him stand before Elazar the Priest…” (Numbers 27:21-22)

Joshua was to be the undisputed leader of the Jewish people. Indeed, our sages see him as fulfilling the role of king. And he was chosen not just because he was a faithful disciple to his master, Moses, but because of the amazing skill he possessed to deal with a people as diverse and as fractious as the Israelites. Yet he too, from the very beginning, was made to realize that he had limitations, that he needed to depend upon others, and that, ultimately, he had to bow before “the Source of the breath of all flesh.”

Whenever I read these key passages of our Torah portion this week, I cannot help but apply their lessons to the very many leaders across a span of history who began their careers with talents equal or perhaps even superior to Joshua’s, but who ultimately failed utterly because they tried to “go at it alone.” They yielded in their hubris to their inner conviction that they knew best, and that consultation with others was a waste of time.

Failed leaders, leaders who do not look to the Elazars of their own times, are not just historical figures. B’chol dor vador, in each and every generation, ours too, leaders arise with God-given personal gifts and with great promise, but to our disappointment, they fail dismally. And, almost without exception, their failures can be traced back to their attempts to be a Joshua without an Elazar, a king without a conscience, an expert without a consultant, a wise man without an Urim, a human without God.