While Moses is mostly understood as a “law giver” and a “prophet,” he was also a leader. He convinced Israel to leave Egypt and to venture into an uncertain future. Stepping outside of the theology, it is instructive to look at the story of Moses as a case study in leadership.
For purposes of this exploration, “leadership” entails:
• Having a vision of an outcome
• Motivating others to join in that vision and,
• Accepting responsibility for the well being of the group.
The story of Moses is of evolving leadership. His leadership qualities are far different at the end of his story when he provides guidance to the people before they cross into the promised land, then when we first meet him as a young prince of Egypt.
What “authorizes” Leadership?
When we first encounter Moses he is an Egyptian Prince who has killed an overseer who was striking a Hebrew slave. He has a moral instinct but also an impulsive anger. He is moreover, very uncertain about his authority.
“He turned this way and that, and seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Exodus 2:12)
The reaction of the Hebrews when he tries to prevent them from fighting reflects the uncertainness about his authority.
“Who made you chief and ruler over us” (Exodus 2:14)
Leadership is not a solo performance
We do not know why God choose Moses. He was a reluctant recruit. Having fled Egypt because his status did not protect him, he seems to have leaned entirely in the opposite direction, insisting that he was not worthy of any authority.
His reaction to God’s voice from the burning bush is immediate, ,
“Who am I that should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?”
He does not accept until God tells him that his brother Aaron will be his partner.
“He shall serve as your spokesman, with you playing the role of God to him.”
The reluctant Moses accepts leadership when it will be shared.
Leadership develops through leading
Through his confrontations with Pharaoh, Moses evolves from a reluctant recruit to a strong leader.
After the plagues, Pharaoh offers to allow the Hebrews to leave, but without their herds. Moses however, is adamant; insisting not only that they have their livestock, but demanding that Pharaoh provide some of his as well.
“You yourself must provide us with sacrifices and burnt offerings to offer up to the Lord our God; (Exodus 10:25, 26)
The public perception of him as a leader has grown as well.
“Moses himself was much esteemed in the land of Egypt, among Pharaoh’s courtiers and among the people.” (Exodus 11:3)
His father-in-law Jethro reminds him of the need to share leadership.
Jethro, observing Moses sitting as sole magistrate for the people, inquired: “Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning to evening?” (Exodus 18:14)
Moses answers as if authority and responsibility were his alone. “I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.” (Exodus 18:16)
Jethro’s advice is sage:
“You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves.” (Exodus 18:19-22)
When Moses instructs the people on the construction of the Tabernacle, he encourages them to take responsibility.
“So the whole community of the Israelites left Moses’ presence. And everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit moved him came, bringing to the Lord his offerings for the work of the Tent of Meeting” (Exodus 35:20, 21)
He encourages but does not micromanage. “And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks—as the Lord had commanded, so they had done—Moses blessed them.” (Exodus 39:43)
He creates “committees”.
“Each clan was given specific responsibilities for the Tabernacle and a designated place to camp.” (Numbers 3:21-37)
He also establishes “term limits” and a place of honor for those whose terms have expired.
“This is the rule for the Levites. From twenty-five years of age up they shall participate in the work force in the service of the Tent of Meeting; but at the age of fifty they shall retire from the work force and shall serve no more. They may assist their brother Levites at the Tent of Meeting by standing guard, but they shall perform no labor.” (Numbers 8:23-26)
He even supports the emergence of prophets other than himself.
“A youth ran out and told Moses, saying “Eldad and Medad are acting the prophet in the camp!” And Joshua, son of Nun, Moses’ attendant from his youth, spoke up and said, “My Lord Moses, restrain them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you wrought up on my account? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, the Lord put his spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:26)
A flawed leader
Moses has made great progress as a leader. Unfortunately he has still not learned how to control his anger.
When the people complain about the lack of water, God gives Moses very specific instructions:
“You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water.” (Numbers 20:8)
Moses however, cannot control his anger at the people’s challenge to his authority.
“Listen you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock? And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod.” (Numbers 20:10, 11)
“But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm my sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:12)
Moses will not be permitted to enter the promised land. He is not the leader needed for this new phase of the journey.
In passing leadership, Moses urges the people to remember what he had forgotten; past bitterness can be a source of empathy rather than anger.
“You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19)
• The best leaders may be the ones who least want the job.
• Respect is earned from doing the hard work
• Leadership requires the ability to share leadership as well as a willingness to take responsibility.
Would Moses have made a good board chair?
Yes, but like every leader, far from perfect.