Saturday, September 15, 2012

Leadership: politicians and statesmen / Parshat Vayeilech

My best wishes for a good and sweet New Year. Perhaps the most beautiful blessing I've heard comes from my friend Rabbi David Novak: "No matter where you find yourself in the... world this Rosh Hashanah, may you all have days that are rich in blessings, days that are saturated in happiness, days that are deeply fulfilling, and most importantly, days in which you know love." May you and your imbibe deeply of these blessings in the year to come. Shanah tovah u'metukah.

What do Orin Smith, John Morgridge, and Moses have in common? First, let’s note where they differ. You’ve heard of Moses. Have you heard of Smith and Morgridge? Orin Smith was CEO of Starbucks Coffee from 2000 to 2005, John Morgridge was the CEO of Cisco Systems from 1988 to 1995.

Smith and Morgridge are great leaders according to Jim Collins, author of From Good to Great. Collins characterizes a great leader as one who “channels ambition into the organization and its work, not the self, setting up successors for even greater success in the next generation.” Collins has in mind CEOs of major corporations, but could be talking about Moses. Collins further says that great leaders are a “paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will.” Moses in a nutshell.

Parshat Vayeilech is only 30 verses long. Moses draws to a close his illustrious career and writes down his Torah. From the very beginning of this address, he assures the people that although he cannot accompany them across the Jordan into Eretz Yisrael, Joshua and God will be with them. He is not abandoning them; he is preparing for their future after him,

Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel. He said to them: “I am now one hundred and twenty years old. I can no longer be active. Moreover, Adonai has said to me, ‘You shall not go across yonder Jordan.’ It is indeed your God Adonai who will cross over before you, and who will wipe out those nations from your path; and you shall dispossess them. Joshua is the one who shall cross before you, as Adonai has spoken.” (Deuteronomy 31:1-3)

There is an enormous difference between being a celebrity and being a leader, though the difference is sadly often obscured in our society. Many who enjoy the limelight are often looked upon as people with opinions to hear and wisdom to bestow. True for some, but not for most.

We need to reclaim the model of genuinely great leadership. Moses is our model: patient, loyal, determined, modest, and resilient. Even more, he is the quintessential personification of Jim Collins’ ideal CEO: “[one who] channels ambition into the organization and its work, not the self, setting up successors for even greater success in the next generation.”

The Rabbis elaborate on Moses’s determination to “[set] up successors for even greater success in the next generation.” The midrash reports that:

When Moses saw that his sons were not worthy to succeed him in the dignity of his office, he wrapped himself in his tallit and, standing up in prayer before the Holy One, said: “Master of the universe, let me know who shall come and go [in the position of leadership] before the people. Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set [the right] man over the congregation (Numbers 27:15-16). Master of the universe, the disposition of every one of them is revealed to You. The disposition of one is not at all like the disposition of another. After I depart from them [i.e. die], when You will be setting another leader over them, I beg you, set over them a leader who will put up with each and every person according to his particular disposition…”

The Holy One replied, “Moses, you have made a proper request. So I shall show you all the judges and all the prophets whom I will set up over My children from this time until the dead shall be brought back to life [in the messianic age].” … God showed him that Joshua would rise up in his stead, and Joshua would turn over his authority to Othniel, as will all subsequent leaders to their successors. Then the Holy One said to Moses: “Each of these I showed you has one disposition and one spirit. But as to what you asked for earlier, at the end of time there will be a person within whom, to be sure, there will be but one spirit, yet it will have the capacity to bear the weight of the spirits of all people -- that person is the Messiah.”

The midrash pictures Moses seeking a successor who will be devoted to the people -- each and every one of the myriad who left Egypt. Moses even understands that his own sons are neither politicians nor statesmen. They are celebrities but not leaders.

Give that the 2012 Presidential Election Season is in full swing, I will go one step further. There is a world of difference between a politician and a statesman. James Paul Clark (1854-1916, 18th governor of Arkansas) said: “A politician thinks of the next election; a statesman of the next generation.” Or, as George Pompidou (1911-1974, French Prime Minister and subsequent President of France) put it a bit more cynically, “A statesman is a politician who places himself at the service of the nation. A politician is a statesman who places the nation at his service.”

Moses is a statesman. We don’t need more politicians. We need statesmen, genuine leaders.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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