The Dark Hours of Leadership
Large groups demand too much of their leaders.
Failure is another word for growth; it just doesn’t seem like it at the time. Leaders with ambitions to change others or confront convention often find themselves stymied and alone, wracked by mistakes and unsure of the future. They nurse their leadership wounds in private, struggling with alienation. Unable to motivate others to buy into their vision of the future or their commitment to change, they label themselves as failures. They feel misunderstood and suffer the strange paralysis of believing that there can be no realization of their deepest desires, that there is no one who shares their dreams. But sometimes, in the black sea of confusion, failure precipitates innovation. The leader sheds one layer of thinking that defies reality in search of another way to actualize a vision, and in that primal shedding discovers another, stronger leader packaged inside the first. Like Russian matryoshka dolls that hold hidden treasures within them, leaders with resilience learn to manage themselves differently with every anguished encounter, revealing a more robust and determined version of themselves than they knew possible. In order to do this, they must be able to acknowledge that the transition they are in and the breakdown in authority they are beginning to experience do not represent failure. It is a place of painful experimentation.
On the surface, Moses confronted leadership failure throughout his tenure. He was rejected continuously by the people he was committed to serve. Early on, Moses’ eyes took in dilemmas that he subsequently positioned himself to confront. Thus, after successfully killing an Egyptian taskmaster who beat a Jew, we are somewhat surprised to see that Moses’ next leadership activity met with unmasked contempt.
When he went out the next day, he saw two Hebrews fighting, so he said to the offender, “Why do you strike your fellow?” He retorted, “Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Moses was frightened and thought: Then the matter is known. (Ex. 2:13–14)
Naturally, there is irony in a stranger who just killed a man asking others to refrain from violence, yet what stuns the reader most is the way in which the angry Hebrew captured, in very few words, the sentiment that characterized all of Moses’ subsequent leadership: who made you chief and ruler over us? It foreshadows the challenges, doubts, and anxieties that surfaced in Moses’ leadership in nearly every narrative in Numbers. It was the question people kept asking of him and perhaps the question he kept asking of himself. Even when this question had a divine answer, it did not stop the Israelites from asking variations of it for the next four decades of Moses’ leadership. Not regarded as a trusted insider by the Hebrews, Moses was identified by Yitro’s daughters as an Egyptian man. Later, as we saw, when he had a child with Yitro’s daughter Tzipora, he summed up his acute emotionally disjointed background in the name he gave his son, Gershom: “I have been a stranger in a foreign land” (Ex. 2:22). We are unsure as to what land Moses was referring, but it almost makes no difference. The existential crisis and the alienation of the leader emerged with all of its accompanying anguish. Moses had no people, no tribe, no nation to call his own. Helper to all, he became friend to none.
These words foreshadowed the resistance to his leadership that he experienced over his lifetime. From a populist standpoint, Moses failed from the outset. And yet, Moses had the gift of articulating his humility and his wretchedness. Rather than withholding his feelings of failure, he articulated them in language both lyrical and depressing. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, Moses gave voice to his inner darkness, signaling God for assistance in resolving the most intimate crises of faith in his followship. Too often, the independent streak in leaders prevents them from getting the help they need to overcome helplessness. Rejection is a harsh admission for anyone. For the leader, it is harder still.
Moses was born to greatness and, according to Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir), his birth is recorded with the very words used to frame the pristine world God created in Genesis – “ki tov hu” – “and it was good.” He was good, his mother observed. He would one day make life good. He was somehow different from others from the start. He never suffered enslavement, and midrashim of his time in Pharaoh’s palace chronicle a star-studded lineup of scholars who inducted him into the world of universal ideas. He was born to parents who are not named in the text; rather, each is described only as a Levite. He then went to live in the house of Pharaoh and, as a fugitive, went to Midian to live in the house of Yitro, a priest. His early biography fails to name those who raised him: his mother, his father, his sister, Pharaoh’s daughter, and Pharaoh himself. Martin Buber observes that the names are not significant; rather, the text notes that he was exposed to one model of leader after another: Levite, pharaoh, priest. Moses’ early days of personal development were quickly followed by three acts that merited him future leadership greatness: killing an oppressive taskmaster, breaking up a conflict between two Hebrews, and assisting young women who were harassed by shepherds. These acts shaped the person who would merit a vision of a burning bush and a redemptive future for his people.
John Maxwell, in Developing the Leader Within You, contends that leadership is developed, not discovered. Maxwell’s highest-level leader embodies four qualities. Three are developed over time; one is innate. This type of leader –
• is born with leadership qualities.
• has seen leadership modeled throughout his life.
• has learned added leadership through training.
• has the self-discipline to become a great leader.1John C. Maxwell, Developing the Leader Within You (Nashville, tn: Nelson Business, 1993), ix.
In Moses, we see all four.
Yet his leadership would continue to compound the difference between himself and his future followers. In a contemporary reading of “kevad peh anokhi ” – “I am heavy of speech” – Moses complained to God that he could never lead the people because he was unable to make small talk. He was preoccupied with heavy, weighty matters. He lacked sympathy for the petty concerns of the small-minded, a problem that would continue to haunt him in days of Israelite thirst and hunger. In a striking midrash on the death of Moses in Deuteronomy 34, the sages identified one small word that highlighted his inability to access the favor of the Israelites: “And the Israelites bewailed Moses in the steppes of Moab for thirty days” (Deut. 34:8). Mourning the death of Aaron, who was regarded as a leader of the people, the Bible says of the Israelites, “All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days” (Num. 20:29). The small addition of the word “all” indicated to the sages that Aaron was a popular, beloved leader while Moses was an important, but tolerated one.
Leaders who are prepared to take people to a place they have not been before face the pushing away of love for the sake of purpose. In a compromise position, the last verse of the book of Esther reads, “For Mordecai the Jew ranked next to King Ahaseurus and was highly regarded by the multitude of his brethren [rov eĥav]; he sought the good of his people and interceded for the welfare of his kindred” (Est. 10:3). Although Mordecai worked for the good of his people, he was regarded highly by most of his brothers, but not by all of them, if we interpret “rov” as the majority rather than the many. Commentators here acknowledge that leaders are never fully loved by the people they serve, even beneficent and altruistic leaders. The mere position of authority over others makes one subject to dislike and criticism, feelings Moses contended with continuously.
As a visionary, however, Moses incrementally advanced in the direction of his dreams in chapter after chapter, book after book. Distracting and difficult to manage, the Israelites may have presented obstacles to this progression, but never really waylaid Moses from his singular focus. Leaders often complain that they could accomplish their goals if only those they served would simply get out of the way. Serving people often involves helping them get out of their own way and pushing them to achieve something that they continually resist. Perhaps no other leader in recorded history faced this irony more than Moses. Herman Wouk, at ninety-seven, published a book called The Lawgiver, a novel about Moses. Wouk, who is a fictional character in his own novel, is asked to write a screenplay about Moses for a movie and is told that he is the right person because he understands Moses. Wouk objects and barks in reply: “Nobody [emphasis in the original] understands Moses.” To this, the pushy agent replies, “See, I’m right. You’re the man for the movie. Who else understands that nobody understands Moses?”2Herman Wouk, The Lawgiver (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012), 14.
From his earliest days as a justice fighter from the window of Pharaoh’s palace, Moses stepped into difficult situations that others avoided. The repeated term “vayaar,” to look, in Moses’ narratives, helps us understand his capacity to turn towards rather than away from that which he did not understand and that which appeared beyond his control. He looked at injustice but also looked directly at a wondrous burning bush that was aflame but not consumed. This offered a remarkable symbol of leadership for Moses: something aflame with passion could make a profound impression without burning out. It provided the inspiration for resilience. Exodus 3 indicates that God specifically called Moses to leadership because he turned to look at that bush, curious rather than intimidated by the mystery: “When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’” (Ex. 3:4). God looked at Moses looking. He gained God’s respect and admiration. He earned his leadership by fighting against human injustice, on the one hand, and responding to the wonder of transcendence on the other. Unlike Abraham and a whole host of other biblical leaders and prophets who were called to greater responsibility without any textual explanation, Moses’ early days highlight a person restless with goodwill, filled with the tremors of indignation, and stopped cold by the sight of a small miracle.
God’s selection of Moses and God’s support were, of course, fundamental to Moses’ eventual success. But Moses’ failure to attract Israelites to his cause must have worn away Moses’ determination. From the very outset, Moses probed God about how he was to persuade and motivate them, anticipating rejection from Pharaoh (“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” [Ex. 3:11]) and the people (“What shall I say to them?” [Ex. 3:13]). In that sense, his role as speaker and leader was also in transition. Leading the fight against Pharaoh required different skills and language than pushing against the people’s resistance. In contrast to Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence, Moses suffered the anxiety of noninfluence: “What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me, but say: ‘The Lord did not appear to you?’” (Ex. 4:1). Moses pegged his future constituents. Their stubborn refusal to pursue freedom from slavery, their constant complaints about material deficiencies, and their mutinous arguments made the journey cumbersome and exhausting. God’s help was just that. God did not take over Moses’ role. Help lies in assisting others to their goals, not absolving them of the work or taking over with the heavy-handedness of ultimate authority. With each positive resolution to Israelite needs and complaints, Moses’ leadership was confirmed. Initially, he even skillfully managed to control his own emotions, despite the whining and bitterness of the Israelites. He was able to keep his anger in check.
Through the trials of the Exodus, Moses’ role as chief interpreter of God’s wrath in the form of the plagues created a distant hero figure for the Israelites and one who incrementally won their trust. Until the Israelites crossed the sea, they were still ostensibly led by Pharaoh as residents of his empire. But after the crossing, when they landed in a desert free of Pharaoh’s constraints, Moses became their chief advisor and the human representative of divine will. The biblical text records that only once they crossed that sea did they truly “believe in God and Moses, His servant.” But three days after their salvation through water at the Reed Sea, the Israelites complained about the bitter waters of Mara and turned to Moses for the solution. Moses was deputized by God to throw a piece of wood into the waters to sweeten them. In this act, God effectively turned Moses into the troubleshooter for a nation. One chapter later, the people brought him a hunger crisis that was resolved with the introduction of manna. Moses and Aaron heard the people grumbling but did not see their complaint directed at themselves; rather, it appeared to them that it was directed at God:
“For who are we that you should grumble against us? Since it is the Lord,” Moses continued, “who will give you flesh to eat in the evening and bread to eat in the morning to the full, because the Lord has heard the grumblings you utter against Him, what is our part? Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord!” (Ex. 16:7–8)
Although Exodus 16 presents a human confrontation, Moses reframed it as a challenge to God, rather than his own authority. He maintained his relationship with the people while prodding God to meet their demands. There is something almost uncomfortable about the way in which Moses distanced himself from God, while God, in parallel, tried to position Moses as a leader. Moses redirected the conflict, putting the blame for any dissatisfaction clearly at God’s doorstep, as if to say, “I did not bring you here. I did not create or deny your provisions.” Even as Moses shifted responsibility to God, the Israelites continued to see him as the primary – or at least the initial – address for their unhappiness. In the thick of chapter 17, Moses understood the consequences of this dilemma:
The people quarreled with Moses, “Give us water to drink,” they said; and Moses replied to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, “What shall I do with this people? Before long they will be stoning me.” (Ex. 17:2–5)
The people quarreled with Moses, pecked away at his dignity, and created a climate of dissension that Moses understood would lead to his death. He knew – even at this very early stage in the journey – that he could not provide for their needs, even the most basic of them. Moses cried out to God. God once again manufactured a temporary solution to thirst by having Moses strike a rock that brought forth water. This location, a place that should have communicated redemption, brimmed with unhappiness. “The place was named Masa U’Meriva [trial and quarrel] because they tried the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord present among us or not?” (Ex. 17:7). Their thirst is not presented as a human need for water in the desert, but rather as a human need for leadership. Could those who put the Israelites into a precarious position really provide for them?
Jack Miles, in God: A Biography, observes that the level of complaint that swirled around Moses was actually, in some ironic and curious fashion, a mirror of the fact that the Israelites followed a God who was never satisfied with their behavior. By being, in Miles’s words, impossible to please, God created the language for Israelite behavior, under the Genesis mandate that people must act in God’s image. God complained about their complaining, evidenced, Miles claims, from any reading of Numbers:
Israel complains about Moses, Moses complains about Israel, God complains about Israel, Israel complains about God, God complains about Moses, and Moses complains about God. That such a narrative should have been preserved and elevated to the status of sacred scripture and national classic was an act of the most profound literary moral originality.3Jack Miles, God: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), 133.
It is profound that the Hebrew Bible preserved complaints as sacred Scripture. Yet, in the graduate school of leadership for the Israelites’ central hero, this fact does not diminish the eventual price of conflict for Moses.
Separating Role from Self
In Leadership on the Line, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky distinguish between role and self, two distinct identities that often merge and create confusion for leaders. People who attack leaders are almost always doing so because of a role the leader plays, not because of the person behind that role. Even when the attacks are personal in nature, the essence of the attack is almost always attributable to the way in which a leader is failing his constituents, not the way a person is failing his friends.
It is easy to confuse yourself with the roles you take on in your organization and community. The world colludes in the confusion by reinforcing your professional persona. Colleagues, subordinates, and bosses treat you as if the role you play is the essence of you, the real you.4Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2002), 187–88.
Leaders fall into or sometimes even invite this trap by blurring distinctions between work and home, volunteer and professional roles, supervisor and friend. They may believe that they are compartmentalizing roles when, in actuality, they have little capacity to separate, because the leader’s identity can become a primary manifestation of self, creating loneliness and alienation from others within one’s social circle.
Even though you may put all of yourself into your role – your passion, values, and artistry – the people in your setting will be reacting to you, not primarily as a person, but as the role you take in their lives. Even when their responses to you seem very personal, you need to read them primarily as reactions to how well you are meeting their expectations. In fact, it is vital to your own stability and peace of mind that you understand this, so that you can interpret and decipher people’s criticism before internalizing it.5Heifetz and Linsky, Leadership on the Line, 18.
Even as problems were exacerbated and heightened in intensity and significance, Moses was able to manage his anger and serve as an intercessor between God and the people. Most notably, at the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses may have shattered the tablets, but he still pleaded with God to save the people God was bent on destroying.
When God offered Moses another people, he refused. In the midrash, Moses refused on the grounds of the defenselessness and helplessness of the Israelites without a leader: “If the three-legged stool has no stability, how then shall the one-legged stand?”6Exodus Rabba 42:5 and Berakhot 32a. The Israelites would have been lost, figuratively and literally, had Moses accepted God’s offer of another people.
In tenderness, and perhaps with recognition that he was spiritually at a distance from his followers, Moses pleaded with God at this juncture to make Himself known:
Moses said to the Lord, “See You say to me, ‘Lead this people forward,’ but You have not made known to me whom You will send with me. Further, You have said, ‘I have singled you out by name, and you have indeed gained My favor.’ Now if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor. Consider, too, that this nation is Your people.” (Ex. 33:12–13)
Moses begged for intimacy with God and the recognition that even after the heinous sin of idolatry, there was still a role for his leadership. If Moses had indeed been singled out for leadership, then he needed to know God. Moses was willing to accept the next stages of his calling only if God could make Himself familiar. It is not an odd request. The greater the demands placed on Moses, the more he required assurances. In days past in Egypt, Moses had the ready affirmation of the plagues; he could point to them to show that God was visibly behind the mission. But the wilderness provided too many hiding places for God. Coming on the heels of the Golden Calf incident, his request was even more poignant. Leadership had become harder, the people more recalcitrant. The meager rewards of leadership must somehow become greater, or at least more obvious. Not a friend to the people and not an intimate with God, Moses became stuck in a no-man’s land of remoteness, a distance that slowly eroded his energy to lead. God, in response, strangely granted Moses his request and allowed Moses to experience slight exposure to the Divine Presence. More than knowledge, this visibility offered the lonely leader solace.
Moses also needed to know that both God and he shared the belief that the Israelites were still God’s nation. In another midrash on Exodus 32, words were put into Moses’ mouth that do not appear in the original biblical text: “‘When they sin they are not Mine’ [said God]. ‘No,’ said Moses, ‘They are Yours, and repent of this evil against Your people.’”7Exodus Rabba 41:7. Moses, even at this low point in his leadership, held God accountable for partnering with him in the covenantal fate of the Jewish people. He would not let God off lightly.
It Is Never Enough
As Moses’ leadership unraveled in the ravages of Sinai and beyond, he came to understand the limits of his reach and capacity. The Israelites, bored of the manna and induced to cravings by those on the camp’s margins, wanted what the wilderness could not provide in steady portions: meat. This request was beyond possibility and, more than any other, it spiraled Moses into a profound descent. The Talmud understood, as mentioned earlier in the chapter on manna, that their desire was not actually meat. Their request was a test to see who could provide the impossible. Moses decided, at this point, that he could not.
Moses heard the people weeping, every clan apart, each person at the entrance of his tent. The Lord was very angry, and Moses was distressed. And Moses said to the Lord, “Why have You dealt ill with Your servant, and why have I not enjoyed Your favor, that You have laid all the burden of this people upon me? Did I conceive all these people, did I bear them that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant’ to the land that You have promised on oath to their fathers? Where am I going to get meat to give to all these people when they whine before us and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me. If You would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness.” (Num. 11:10–15)
Moses’ darkest hour began as he moved from tent to tent, acknowledging the complete despair of his people. Perhaps Moses was seeking individual affirmation by checking up on each household, wondering if liberating people from the rebellious thrush of the crowd would help minimize the newest anarchy at hand. It did not.
God’s anger at the sight of this breakdown of unity was not the same as Moses’ despair. God, again and again in the text, reciprocated the challenges to divine leadership with untempered wrath. This time, God’s anger was manifest in a glut of quails, demonstrating that providing meat was not beyond God’s capabilities, but also using the people’s desire as the instrument of their downfall. A plague swept through the camp in response to their childish, ungrateful tears and consumed thousands with quail meat still in their teeth. Numbers 11 offers us a vicious, graphic image of avarice at the hands of a God emboldened by Israelite greed.
Moses, however, did not see the request for meat as a criticism of God but as a rejection of his own leadership. Going from tent to tent and hearing the cries of his people again and again weakened his resolve and his motivation to lead. His was not the emotion of anger directed at others, but the stench of personal failure directed at himself: “Why have You dealt ill with Your servant, and why have I not enjoyed Your favor, that You have laid all the burden of this people upon me?” Moses believed that God was punishing him for a sin he could not identify, by placing the onus of leadership on his unworthy shoulders. The people were a burden he could not lift. “I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me. If You would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness.” Nowhere else in the text does Moses make this plea for death. He had reached his breaking point. He knew with greater clarity than at any other point in his leadership that he could not match the unrealistic expectations thrown at him by the Israelites’ fanciful imaginations.
In Immortal Rebels, Israel Gerber makes an assumption about this ancient conflict, offering us insight into Israelite fickleness and Moses’ change of heart:
The heady brew of freedom intensified their conflict about Moses. The people wanted complete freedom of thought and action, but, unaware of the full meaning of freedom, they blundered into painful mistakes. They did not have all the answers, they needed direction and leadership; without it their freedom was useless. The admission that they needed Moses magnified their resentment of him. Subconsciously hating themselves for their weakness, they expressed it against Moses, as if his strength and wisdom had created their own inadequacies.8Israel Gerber, Immortal Rebels (New York: Jonathan David, 1963), 180.
They did not want to need Moses as much as they did. It was an open sign of their weakness. As a result, they devised a test of his leadership that he could never pass. He was tasked with manufacturing something impossible to acquire, and with his failure, the Israelites thought to display their superiority as followers by highlighting their leader’s mistakes.
Defending One’s Honor
When put in a defensive position, Moses did not protect his honor as much as deflect attention to God. Moses did this when Korah and his supporters confronted him:
When Moses heard this he fell on his face. Then he spoke to Korah and all his company, saying, “Come morning, the Lord will make known who is His and who is holy, and will grant him access to Himself; He will grant access to the one He has chosen.” (Num. 16:4–5)
Rather than try weakly to show his credentials and spar on Korah’s terms, Moses brought God into the arena of tension. God had to make the choice as an outside evaluator. Contrast this approach with Samuel’s. When the prophet was put in the uncomfortable place of defending his integrity, he fought back:
As for me, I have grown old and grey – but my sons are still with you – and I have been your leader from my youth to this day. Here I am! Testify against me, in the presence of the Lord and in the presence of His anointed one: Whose ox have I taken or whose donkey have I taken? Whom have I defrauded and whom have I robbed? From whom have I taken a bribe to look the other way? I will return it to you. (I Sam. 12:2–3)
What possibly could have inspired Samuel to make himself so vulnerable in this highly public setting? Had his integrity been questioned? Had he been accused of personal corruption such that he felt it necessary to defend his honor in front of the people and in front of King Saul?
Samuel’s integrity was sandwiched among leaders whose corruption was the subject of public spectacle. As a child growing up in Eli’s household, he was no doubt aware that Eli’s sons were abusing the priesthood, just as Samuel was being mentored for a leadership takeover:
Now Eli’s sons were scoundrels; they paid no heed to the Lord. This is how the priests used to deal with the people: When anyone brought a sacrifice, the priest’s boy would come along with a three-pronged fork while the meat was boiling and he would thrust it into the cauldron or the kettle or the great pot or the small cooking pot and whatever the fork brought up, the priest would take from it…. [But now] even before the suet was turned into smoke, the priest’s boy would come and say to the man who was sacrificing, “Hand over some meat to roast for the priest, for he won’t accept boiled meat from you, only raw.” And if the man said to him, “Let the suet first turn into smoke, then take as much as you want,” he would reply, “No, hand it over at once or I’ll take it by force.” The sin of the young men against the Lord was very great, for the men treated the Lord’s offerings impiously. (I Sam. 2:12–17)
The text oddly goes into great detail about the subtle way in which Eli’s sons profited from sacrifices. Eli’s sons were not the only ones who participated in these crimes; his grandsons were also guilty, with leadership credibility spilling over from one generation to the next. Priests were materially supported by the people who were obligated by Jewish law to provide portions of their own harvest and sacrifices to ensure that the priesthood was sustained with dignity. The young priest was entitled to take from a sacrifice already in preparation what could reasonably be carried off with his fork, enough for the immediate benefit of his family. But these novices pressured those who came to sacrifice their animals to give them raw meat, serving themselves before serving the Lord and also taking more than was their just entitlement. This not only angered God, but also created an unpleasant experience for the worshipper who came in earnest with an expensive gift for God, only to find that the House of God was led by unworthy servants who polluted the holiness of their encounter. One can only imagine the inconvenience and trouble of the pilgrim who took the time and money to travel to this holy site only to find it riddled with the small crimes and misdemeanors of those who represented spiritual leadership.
Taking sacrifices, however, was not their only crime. When Eli finally chastised them for their behavior (only, the text records, as Eli was getting old did he hear reports of his sons’ injustices), he did not mention anything related to sacrifices, despite the textual emphasis on precisely this behavior. He criticized them for something else: “They lay with the women who performed tasks at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting” (I Sam. 2:22). It is harder to imagine this crime, public as it was at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. It strikes the reader as different in scale and impact from the fork-in-the-cauldron problem. No private location was sought for these sexual liaisons; the brazen disregard Eli’s sons demonstrated for the holy location of their crimes showed total indifference to the impact of such behaviors on the faith of their followers.
Later, Samuel’s own sons were caught up in scandal: “But his sons did not follow his ways; they were bent on gain, they accepted bribes, and they subverted justice” (I Sam. 8:3). By the time Samuel defended his honor, he had a host of crimes encircling him at the hands of those close to him: his mentor’s sons and his own. It is no surprise that he had to distinguish himself from those associated with him but not worthy of him. The people acknowledged as much.
They responded, “You have not defrauded us and you have not robbed us, and you have taken nothing from anyone.” He said to them, “The Lord then is witness and His anointed is witness to your admission this day that you have found nothing in my possession.” They responded, “He is.” (I Sam. 12:4–5)
This strange back-and-forth dialogue between a leader and his followers signals a moment in time when Samuel was advanced in years and looked back in a summative way on his leadership and his generation. He needed the public affirmation of his morality at a time when such could not be assumed of others in a similar position. In addition, Samuel was also securing a public referendum on the nobility of leadership. At a time when leaders who represented God were betraying their holy mission, Samuel understood that the people needed to make a public statement that ethics and lofty, sacred values still resided in Israelite leadership.
Hierarchical structures within religion can create an immense number of leadership problems resulting in corruption, and Samuel was wise to understand that integrity was not something to keep to oneself. When leaders regarded as moral exemplars fail to maintain their integrity, religion suffers the hypocrisy.9See the author’s chapter “Oy! Hypocrisy!” in Confronting Scandal: How Jews Can Respond When Jews Do Bad Things (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2010), 85–106 and “Jewish Leadership and Clergy Abuse” in Tempest in the Temple: Jewish Communities and Child Sex Scandals, ed. Amy Neustein (Boston: Brandeis, 2009), 60–73.
Mary Faulkner, in Supreme Authority: Understanding Power in the Catholic Church, studies sexual abuse among Catholic leaders. She identifies six factors in the hierarchical structure within the Church (but, by association with any religious system with a similar leadership structure) that lend themselves to power abuses. This occurs when –
• identification of what is working or not working is done by leaders. People’s experiences are not used to help define reality, which is assessed only from the perspective of those on top.
• what the people need is determined by the leaders. The authority figure decides what the real problem is.
• leaders are the only ones who know how to get things done. This is true even when “workers know better and more efficient ways of getting things done, but the authority figure needs to maintain authority and shuns losing face.”
• communication is one-way: from leaders to subordinates. All communication originates at the top and is passed down through the ranks. The higher-ranking figure seldom, if ever, has direct communication with members more than one level below. This maintains the illusion that the leader knows everything.
• accountability is one-way: up from people to leaders. Each level of worker is responsible to the level above regardless of the circumstance. Because the separation between highest and lowest can be quite great and communication is limited, there is a lot of room for impossible situations to develop.
• opportunity for leadership is reserved for certain types of people, often based on race, gender, or religious affiliation. Membership depends on some genetic factor or belief system that is shared among leaders and defines who is in or out.10For her full analysis, see Mary Faulkner, Supreme Authority: Understanding Power in the Catholic Church (Indianapolis: Pearson, 2003), 12–13.
Religious institutions are often susceptible to corruption in different ways than political or corporate structures. Trust in those who lead them is generally higher. Expectations are greater, and moral role-modeling is the anticipated norm. Leadership is often given more leeway and more room for mobility because of the inherent trust in religious leaders. This can sometimes create too much room for unchecked power.
Samuel shifted the dominant paradigm of leadership from priest to prophet and then eventually shepherded the process of leadership from prophet to kingship. He experienced these significant changes firsthand and understood the potential for abuse at every stage. When he protested a change of leadership and then, eventually, defended his personal honor as a leader, he was subjecting himself to the critique of hypocrisy that, no doubt, was placed at his feet. All he could do at the moment was defend himself and no one else, trying desperately to show the people that leadership does not have to fail in every instance. It could retain its integrity and a leader his dignity.
Failure in a Word
Moses, unlike Samuel, never defended himself to the people. He cried out to God and then mustered the strength to carry on the mission. But in not defending himself, he may have unwittingly internalized the anger he felt towards the people until it erupted and ended in another dark hour for his leadership: the one that would ultimately bring about his death. Moses’ death warrant was wrapped up in the culture of complaint that he carried for so many decades. The people’s repeated offenses and their corrosive scratching of the leader’s skin until they reached his heart began in Exodus 17 and were repeated in Numbers 20, foreshadowing Moses’ last failure in a place named for conflict. In Numbers, Moses again appeared at a rock to purge it once again of water, but this time he failed to follow directions. In a place renamed “argument,” he hit the rock instead of speaking to it, and God punished him by denying him entry into the Promised Land. After all these years of quarrelling and bickering, Moses succumbed to his basest self, the self that had internalized the attitudes of the people he led.
We hear the smirk and contempt in Moses’ question, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (Num. 20:10). In that one word, that act of name-calling, “hamorim,” rebels, Moses summed up years of pent-up frustration, but it was actually he who rebelled at that moment. Since the people routinely complained, there was nothing surprising or unexpected in their dissatisfaction. With that one word, Moses surfaced his feelings about his followers. He had changed to a point where God no longer felt Moses could successfully transition the Israelites to life in their new homeland. Moses lost respect for those he led. Educator Evan Wolkenstein observes that in using the word “rebels” in the text, Moses offered a label to the people that they wasted no time in living up to in the culminating chapters of Numbers. “Moses’ choice to define them according to their behavior has, it seems, only reinforced that behavior.”11Evan Wolkenstein, “Dvar Tzedek on Chukkat,” American Jewish World Service website, July 5, 2008, http://ajws.org/what_we_do/education/publications/dvar_tzedek/5768/chukkat.html.
At the moment that Moses labeled his constituents and not only their behavior, he lost what every leader needs to continue at difficult times: the faith and trust in the ultimate goodness of those one leads. For leadership to work, followers must trust their leader and leaders must trust and believe in their followers. If one side falters, the covenantal partnership dissipates. Moses let go of his belief in the goodness of the Israelites and no longer regarded their behavior as an understandable lapse under the extraordinary pressures and challenges of the journey. At that point, he lost his soul, much as his followers lost theirs. Unlike earlier inflamed dialogue, Moses no longer fought God for the sake of the people. He was resigned to them as a fetter is chained to a prisoner. He had enough. There was no longer love or affection or joy.
One of the greatest threats to effective leadership is losing faith in those you lead. The gradual breakdown of trust, the anger, and the disappointment chisel away at a leader’s energy and eventually lead to understandable paralysis. You cannot lead people you do not believe in because soon they will cease believing in you. If you have arrived at this point, you have betrayed your most fundamental role.
Violence is power. Persuasion is influence. Moses needed to influence at this point more than ever. But he failed. He chose violence. He chose to strike rather than to speak: “And the Eternal spoke to Moses and Aaron: ‘Because you believed Me not, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, you will not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them’” (Num. 20:12). Decades of patience collapsed into the word that hit the people and the rod that hit that stone, the stone signifying all that was harsh and unyielding in Moses’ life. The violence of language presaged the violence of action. And when language changes, it is time for a new leader.