Monday, 20 October 2008

On Leadership, Obama, McCain and Moses

I'm interested in models of leadership,

In particular I'm immersed in the model of Moses' leadership.

On the middle Shabbat of Succot we read of the very apex of Moses' career of leadership and on Simhat Torah we read of its end.


Actually, that's not quite right.

What draws me to consider the issue of leadership, today, is a fascination with the American Presidential Election.

Leadership is a religious issue.

So what is the religious nature of leadership?

What can be learnt from the life of Moshe Rabeinu?


There is in fact a book, of course there is a book, as we would have heard this morning if we had made it to the 12th chapter of the book of Ecclesiastes – of the making of books there are no end.

Moses on Management: 50 Leadership Lessons from the Greatest Manager of All Time is written by David Baron, Lynette Padwa

Actually it's not bad.

Some of it is a little trite, but there are chapters on

  • How to bring your staff out of the slave mentality
  • Why it's essential to make your staff believers
  • Tell people the rules and the consequences of breaking them
  • Watch for burning bushes
  • Don't place a stumbling block before the blind
  • Prepare an exit strategy


That's a raft of good and important lessons, no doubt.

But when it comes to viewing Moses as a model leader I shift a little uneasily.


The first treatise on leadership I read was a book by the Jewish  socialist trade union organiser Saul Alinksy, who died in 1972.

Alinsky was a thoroughly awkward character. He wrote a book, Rules for Radicals which opened;


'What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on the how to hold on to power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-nots on how to take it away.'


You did not want to get on the wrong side of Alinsky, he would seek your public humiliation in the cause he sought to defend.

Any means was justifiable to reach what he perceived to be a justifiable end,


For Alinsky leadership meant revolution, it was aggressive, it took no prisoners.

'Work out who the problem is,' advocated Alinsky, 'isolate them, humiliate them, demonise them, bludgeon them into surrender' – these were his credos.


And while no frum yid one can definitely feel in Alinsky's writing the tough uncompromising language of leadership and revolution used in the Bible.

To an extent, Alinksy's model is Moses' model the model applied in Egypt.

The story begins with an attempted compromise.

Moses negotiates for only for a three day exeat for his people, but that doesn't work and soon the story develops its characteristic theme.

God hardens the heart of Pharoah, presumably to allow Pharoah to be a butt for the demonstration of Moses' leadership and God's great might.

Pharaoh is not to be simply defeated in his engagement with the Israelites.

He is to be crushed.


He is to see his firstborn son die and his troops drowned in the sea of Reeds.


The pestilence, the slaughter of first-born, the destruction of a people are all justifiable means en route to the Bible's most dearly held goal – the demonstration of God's love and care for the Israelite people.

In terms of the current political battles in the States this would be going all-out with negative campaigning.

Hurling the mud in the hope of some of it sticking and not really caring unduly as to the ethics of process.

This is the leadership of an Alinsky.


Moses' entire career seems cut through with this all-out-attack mentality that seeks the destruction of those who disagree with him on a regular basis.

First, of course, there is the Egyptian task master.

Moses sees the Egyptian beating an Israelite

Vayifen koh vacho – he looked one way then the other and slew the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.


This is the model of leadership that explains Moses crie de couer on Mount Sinai.

The Children of Israel have failed, they have created and turned to worship the Golden Calf and Moses calls for their destruction.

Vayichar af moshe – and Moses' anger grew

'Who is on the Lord's side?' he calls out and when the Levites come to stand next to him he orders them, 'Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.' (Ex 32)

The Rabbis attempt to explain this action as a pre-emptive strike, Moses trying to get some early killing in to stop God coming in with a plague of doubly violent death, but the sense remains that this is a hot-headed leader.

A leader to brook no failure among his people.

A leader who does not do negotiation.

In the language of the current holder of the office of President of the United States, this is the 'you are either with me or against me' school of leadership.

And if you are against me, I come with my military might to cut you down.


And while this kind of leadership may appease some.

And while it may prove successful in the short term it is a form of leadership I have grave problems with, for two reasons.

Firstly it does the leader no favours,

Secondly it does those led no favours either.


The 'with me or against me' form of leadership does the leader no favours.

In the language of leadership theorist Ronald Heifetz these kinds of leaders tend to get shot.

In the language of the Bible these kinds of leaders tend not to make it into the Promised Land.

It was of course the same hot headed quality seen in the face of the Egyptian taskmaster and in the aftermath of the Golden Calf debacle that caused Moses to strike the rock and lose his place at the front of the people who entered the Promised Land.

Leadership is a dangerous business – putting one's head above the pulpit, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Yitzhak Rabin…

Perhaps the single greatest inducement to this anti-religious violence is the tendency to divide, to create an 'us and them' attitude.

One might be able to win a couple of battles,

But the war will be lost if we set out to humiliate and ground the noses of those we oppose into their own defeat.

A leader should never allow their opponents to be demonised, dehumanised.

A good leader will find ways to bring even those who they disagree with along with them on the journey through the promised land.

All those denizens of electoral dark arts would do well to remember what could be the single greatest act of Nelson Mandela's life of extra-ordinary leadership; the moment he appeared on the pitch of the Rugby World Cup final wearing the jersey of the Springboks, the Afrikaner Sprinboks, hated by so many blacks, hating so many blacks.

The Afrikaner were not to be demonised.

'No us and them' attitude was to be allowed to develop and splinter the rainbow nation.


Good leaders do everything possible to prevent the emergence of an 'us and them' attitude for good leaders get shot when such an attitude develops.

We learn this from Mandela,

Though we have Biblical models too.

Hillel was wont to say

Havei mitalmidaiv shel Aharon (Avot 1:12)

Ohev shalom vrodef shalom

A person should be like Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace.

כיצד היה אהרן אוהב שלום [1]

How would Aaron pursue peace?

When he heard of a dispute, he would go to one party and then the other  pointing out areas of agreement, cooling the dispute, making peace.

And when there was a person who was sinning, failing, he would go to them and makdim lo shalom, lead out with the hand of peace and spend time with that person and the more gentleness and peacefulness that Aaron would advance, say the Rabbis the more the person would begin to feel ashamed and feel 'Oh, if he only knew, he wouldn't let himself be seen with me,' but Aaron would persist until the person turned in their ways and mitkarev letorah – and was drawn to Torah.

This is religious leadership.

Rabbinic leadership.


From the sublime to the parochial.

This is a message we do well to hear in the context of those issues that divide us in this community.

We are, as a community, struggling over the issue of the role of women in providing religious leadership during prayer services.

And struggle we may, and disagree we may, but we must never allow an 'us and them' attitude to develop.

As leader of this community, I will do all I can to ensure that this 'us and them' attitude never develops.

And if it means we lack consistency, clarity so be it.

For this is a better model of leadership than the point scoring knockabout of American politics or the heated 'with me or against me' of Moses.


The great leader, says, Ronald Heifetz, doesn't offer black and white solutions to complex problems.

They reframe, direct attention, occasionally tweak up the pressure, occasionally go round, like Aaron, making peace and building bridges across – in political terms – opposite sides of the house.


The great leader leads with a pragmatism forged not by a wishy-washy inability to make up their own mind, but rather forged by an awareness of the dangers of leading.

And this, indeed, Moses did get absolutely right.

When God called on Moses, Moses was reticent, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?" (Ex. 3:11)

The Midrash has Moses remind God that He promised personally to take the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt – 'I will go down with you to Egypt and I will take you out', and now God suggests that this stuttering nobody does the job.[2]

Do you really want me? Says Moses

With my temper, my hot-headed inability to suffer fools, disagreement, failure, even in myself?!

That's good to see in a leader.


One who wants to lead, one who finds themselves in a position of leading needs to remember who is the boss.

Who is the real leader.

And it's not me, and it's not John McCaim, Barack Obama or even Moshe Rabeinu.


A leader looking out over a crowd of acolytes is forbidden from thinking that this is their doing, the fruits of their might and their power.

The Talmud[3] calls on one who sees a crowd of Israelites to make the blessing

'Baruch Hacham Razim' – Blessed be the one who knows secrets'

Who can look out over this crowd of fragile human lives, each encoding the image of God, and know what each is thinking.


This, perhaps is the greatest skill of a great leader.

To know that there is one who knows the secrets of every heart, and it is not  you.

This, perhaps is the greatest wish that I have for the outcome of this most interesting of elections.

That the victor will find a way to shoulder both the mighty burden of leadership, and also the necessary humility that comes from the reality of our finite human frailties.

If John McCain, Barack Obama, your Rabbi or any of us forget this, then we are all in a great deal of trouble.


Shabbat shalom,

[1] Avot d Rabbi Natan ad loc, see also perush of Ovadiah MiBartenura ad loc.

[2] Shmot rabba 3:4

[3] Brachot 58a

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