What Moses Can’t Teach Us About Leadership

We live in a world diminished by the absence of clear, effective, ethical leadership. Brexit, populism, fake news, the upsurge of the far right; these are all symptoms of, at best, weak and ineffectual leadership, at worst of a political class that is wilfully perverse and deceitful.

The opening chapters of Exodus are in part about leadership, about the call Moses receives to lead his people out of slavery, his response to that summons and his growth as a leader. Moses of course has one great advantage; he has God on his side. The advantage is not just that God is his religious source of inspiration giving him the confidence to succeed. God is actually, there, by his side, commanding him, telling him what to say, telling him in unmistakable words that whatever action he is about to do perform will have the desired effect.

Moses also has the advantage of being raised in Pharaoh’s palace. He speaks the language of entitlement; he knows the politics of privilege. He has the right personal qualities too. He is humble, claiming at the Burning Bush he is not worthy of the leadership role that God has commanded him to take up. He is decisive, he has no hesitation in killing the Egyptian he sees beating his fellow Israelite. And he is firm, speaking to Pharaoh in unambiguous language.

Yet for all these qualities, like anyone else, he makes mistakes. Jethro, his father in law tells him that he has to appoint other judges apart from himself. At Kadesh when the grumblings of the Israelites are more than he can take, he loses his temper. He calls them rebels and smites the rock that God has commanded him merely to speak to. And following the rebellion at Baal Peor he appears hesitant in his actions, as a result of which Pinchas gives him a lesson in the virtues of zealotry, if zealotry is indeed virtuous.

But if Moses, the divinely appointed leader, shows himself to be flawed, what hope is there for ordinary people. What hope of leadership success can there be, even for those whose choice of a political career is a selfless act of public service? We hear many calls today for strong leadership. But is that really what we need?

I have just spent four days at Limmud, an astonishingly diverse and complex Jewish educational festival. With 2,500 attendees who needed to be fed, housed and entertained, listening to sessions from more than 500 presenters all with specific technical and technological requirements. Taking place in a security environment best described as challenging, Limmud has the potential to be a logistical nightmare. Perhaps it is, to the organisers. But from the outside it all appeared to run smoothly, efficiently and enjoyably.

Yet Limmud is almost exclusively run by volunteers. There is no leader. No decision maker deciding policy, imposing an agenda, or handing down edicts. Just a large number of volunteers working across all logistical areas, coordinated by a central steering committee. Working successfully, due to a clear sense of mission and purpose.

One of the responses to the UK’s national act of collective stupidity, shorthanded as Brexit, is to establish Citizens’ Assemblies. These, it is hoped, would resolve the issues that are tearing apart the fabric of British society. By definition, there would be no leader, no Moses. Like Limmud, it would be volunteer led. And all the more enthusiastic for being so.

Should this idea ever come to fruition, Limmud’s exercise in responsible, active democracy is a good model to emulate.  As a Jewish festival, its roots lie in Moses’ leadership. But it is a response to a different world. A world in which central, personal leadership no longer seems to be desirable. One in which we are all responsible, each for the other.

© 2020 Harry Freedman Books