The Challenges of Leadership

Yitro By :  Marc Wolf JTS Alum (Rabbinical School) Posted On Feb 10, 2007 / 5767 | Torah Commentary

The paradigms of leadership that emerge from the Bible teach us much about the human quotient in leadership. In Who May Rule the People of God, Professor Stephen Geller of JTS writes, “No major leader is depicted without faults. Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Gideon, Samson, Samuel, Saul, David, Solomon, all are presented with faults that sometimes amount to tragic flaws”. His explanation, that “human authority is portrayed as flawed to contrast with the perfect leadership of God,” provides an insight into the biblical psyche (Jewish Religious Leadership: Image and Reality, Volume I, Jack Wertheimer, ed.). Beyond what they convey about the leaders themselves, though, there is more that these texts say about the nature of effective leadership itself.

This week we encounter Moses at a pivotal point in his leadership. Since the Exodus, he has acted as the magistrate, serving as an intermediary between the people and God — literally, day in and day out. The people come to him to understand what God requires of them, and Moses, in a pastoral leadership role, responds. As a father–in–law who must realize how little time Moses is spending with his family — and frighteningly prophetic for our modern rabbis — Yitro advocates that Moses change his style of leadership. “But Moses’ father–in–law said to him, ‘The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone’ ” (Exodus 18:17).

Yitro’s solution is to create a hierarchy of leadership. He instructs Moses to select “capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill–gotten gain.” Yitro tells Moses to teach the “ordinances and laws” and “the way where they must walk” to act in his stead. Surely, there are cases that Moses should see himself, but many others can be managed by these “chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens” (Exodus 18:20–21). They share the burden of leadership and ease the load on Moses (and maybe he can have dinner with his family once in a while).

There are numerous lessons we can learn from this passage about the nature of effective leadership — most notably about the burden of leadership. Although we read that the Israelites came out of Egypt on eagles’ wings, we can assume from the tensions that surface that Moses felt as if he carried them out on his shoulders. From the models in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers, Ron Heifetz would define Moses as exhibiting an “ethic of responsibility.” These leaders, however, frequently suffer from stress and loneliness, “Because those who lead take responsibility for the holding environment of the enterprise. They themselves are not expected to be held. They do the holding, often quite alone” (250). Moses lived this loneliness; Yitro recognized it while offering his advice. Moses responds, implementing Yitro’s suggestions and shares his burden of leadership and allows others to stand in the breach with him.

Moses seems to have chosen a cadre of leaders who could have — and probably should have — been tapped as leaders for the people. He teaches them what they need to know, the requisite skill set. But is this an effective model of leadership? For an insight, and possible critique of Yitro’s solution, we look to a similar text in the book of Numbers, chapter 11.

In yet another of the chronic moments when the children of Israel are complaining, Moses cries out to God, “Why have You dealt ill with Your servant, and why have I not enjoyed Your favor, that You have laid the burden of all this people upon me?” (Exodus 11:11). The weight of the burden of leadership is palpable to Moses. This time, he does not need Yitro to recognize it. He continues, “I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me” (Exodus 11:14). The similarity of the phraseology seems intentional. In both cases, the demands on Moses are characterized by the Hebrew word kaved — heavy. In both cases, there is recognition that it is not possible to do it alone — also echoed in the Hebrew.

The similarities demand we note the differences that come in the response.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for Me seventy of Israel’s elders of whom you have experience as elders and officers of the people, and bring them to the Tent of Meeting and let them take their place there with you. I will come down and speak with you there, and I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it upon them that they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone.

Here, God defines how leadership is to be transferred. Moses is to select those who are trusted leaders. God will then take from Moses the ruah — literally, the divine spirit — that is essential to his leadership and endow the elders and officers with its power.

Translating this leadership lesson to common parlance, the stark distinction between the two stories is what the business world identifies as vision. God had a vision for the people. Moses lived it and led by it. For the elders and officers to become partners, they needed to believe in that mission as Moses did, not simply be taught how to “walk the walk.” In other terms, our first story is one of management. The second is of leadership. With Yitro, Moses learned how to manage his workload, while in the second, God helped Moses to convey God’s vision and inspire people to step into the breach. With Yitro, Moses created management; God was helping Moses create leadership.

The importance of vision–inspired leadership is emphasized by Moses’ response to the episode that follows the incident of our Numbers passage. Two men, Eldad and Medad, who were not chosen to be elders are overcome by the divine spirit and begin to prophesy in the camp. Visibly vexed, Joshua calls on Moses to restrain them. However, recognizing that leadership can be exhibited even by those without defined authority, Moses responds, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them!” (Exodus 11:29). Heifetz also recognizes the importance of this stratum of leader and writes, “These people — perceived as entrepreneurs and deviants, organizers and troublemakers — provide the capacity within the system to see through the blind spots of the dominant viewpoint” (183).

We see the striking effect of the different counsel. Both Yitro and God are working to alleviate Moses’ burden and to help him share the responsibility of leadership. As in the case of Moses, in our lives, effective leadership is created through a shared vision. Translating that vision is the true mark of effective leadership. Inspired by what is sometimes a difficult mission of translating our vision, may each of us in our moments of leadership have the opportunity to declare, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets.”

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Marc Wolf

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.