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Critical Leadership Lessons from Parshat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)

Photo Taken by: Chaim Botwinick

The topic of “leadership” and its impact on culture, behaviors and society is by far one of the most debated and written about organizational challenges facing 21st century institutions, communities and societies.

The concept or definition of “leadership” in its purest sense, is not about wealth, power, or supremacy. It’s about the ability and capacity of an individual or group of individuals to influence, inspire, and guide followers or other members of an organization or community in a particular direction.

More often than not, many of us confuse or mistake the concept of leadership with specific  personality traits such as charisma, magnetism, gravitas, oratory ability or with a particular management skill-set or style. To be sure, one can be an effective or an efficient manager and ensure that “the organizational trains are running on time”….but, those management attributes as valuable as they may be, do not necessarily guarantee that the person can or is able to lead effectively or inspire others (followers) to actually follow.

As a  student of organizational behavior, development and leadership, throughout my career, I have witnessed an increased number of individuals who have assumed or who have been appointed to communal  “leadership positions” but unfortunately, do not possess leadership skill-sets, personality, temperament, EQ or insight into how to lead an organization or the people who comprise that organization.  As a result,  “followership” wanes and the organization or community fails to advance or succeed in its mission.

Although there are multiple definitions of “leadership”, there are consistent and common leadership attributes or characteristics that most effective leaders possess.

For the most part, purposeful leaders are empathetic, insightful,  trusting, modest, assertive yet respectful and determined; they posses a clarity of purpose and mission; a clear sense of what their followers require; strategic thinking and they inspire their followership in very meaningful, purposeful and passionate ways.  Moreover, they exhibit tremendous  humility and a healthy sense of self.

Several of these leadership characteristics and traits are very evident and transparent  in this week’s Torah reading entitled Pinchas. The following is a brief overview of these leadership highlights, examples and potential takeaways.

Lessons in Leadership from the Parsha:

Throughout Jewish history and Tanakh, the continous ebb and flow of leadership accomplishments, successes and failures were always a fairly accurate mirror reflection of both the strengths and frailties of our human condition, of our people and society. They also represented the zeitgeist of our time and the relationship between our leaders and their followers.-

As we know, Moshe Rabbeinu, our great leader of leaders never endeavored to become HaShem’s “servant leader” and, he never expressed a desire to lead the B’nai Yisrael out of  Egypt to the Canaan (the Promised Land). Interestly enough,  on a different level, this also holds true for Moshe’s successor, Yehoshua, who from the get go challenged and questioned whether he would be the right fit to succeed Moshe in his leadership role of the Jewish people.

It is fascinating to note that both Moshe and his successor Yehoshua possessed an impressive sense of modesty, humility and a touch of leadership insecurity. They both questioned their worthiness for the task at hand and they both wrestled with the challenge of whether they would be able to measure up to the task, as presented by Hashem and by Moshe respectively.  But above all, they both possessed an unswerving and uncompromised love and deep faith in Hashem and an unswerving concern for the welfare and wellbeing of the Jewish people. It was for this reason in part that Moshe finally accepted his leadership commitment and responsibility after Hashem initially appeared to him at the burning bush

Yehoshua on the other hand was appointed (recruited) by Hashem through Moshe’s request. He also understood (according to select rabbinic commentaries)  that Hashem’s  divine presence and request was essentially channeled through the greatness of Moshe.

In both of these leaders – Moshe and Yehoshua –  we clearly see and feel a true sense of reluctance to assume their leadership roles. This reluctance was not out of disrespect, but rather due to a beautifully important example of “modesty” and “humility” – two of the top traits and characteristics of leadership.

Another significant leadership example was Moshe’s preoccupation and concern about the future of his followership, Bnai Yisrael. Moshe‘s preoccupation with leadership succession was yet another significant leadership trait and a critically important leadership chartasteritc

Moshe‘s request of Hashem to appoint his successor was a true and sincere indication of his leadership preoccupation with succession and continuity. He was concerned about the future  trajectory of  B’nai Yisrael …….as clearly indicated through the following request in the text:

” May Hashem, the God of the spirits of all flesh, choose a person over the congregation who will go out before them and come in before them, who will lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of Hashem will not be like sheep without a shepherd” …(Numbers 27:16) .

Here we see that leadership greatness is not only about the here and now, but about concern for the future. Moshe was truly the quintessential leader preoccupied with the here and now as well as with the future of the Bnai Yisrael. He put his followership first, above all else.

Drilling down a bit deeper into this Parsha from a leadership perspective, we learn from the text that Moshe was instructed by HaShem to look out over the horizon from Har Nebo (Mt. Nebo, just east of the Jordan River) in order to physically see the very land of Canaan which Hashem  prohibited him from entering. This very painful experience in human terms must have been unimaginable torture and anguish for Moshe. After 40 years of leading the Bnai Yisrael to this point, he is being told that its a “no-go”. Yet we learn that Moshe did as he was commanded – he physically viewed  Canaan from the mountain top – –  the very destination, the very land of his dreams and aspirations which he was not permitted to enter and…he as we know, finally accepted God’s demand and request. Parenthetically, at the age of 120, Moshe was laid to rest on Har Nebo – the very summit from which he viewed Canaan. The symbolism of this imagery is a powerful one; and requires further discussion, review and study.

Just imagine, you work for your entire adult life towards a specific goal; and finally when that goal is within reach, it does not materialize. All of the trials and tribulations, successes and failures which Moshe as a leader experienced, culminated with profound admonishment, retribution and disappointment. Yet Moshe, as our preeminent leader accepted Hashem‘s will and paid a very heavy price for not following HaShem’s  command as it pertained to the  drawing of water from the rock. …even though it was for his followership. The price and consequences that leaders experience, when things go awry is a reminder that at the end of the day,  leaders must be doubly diligent in their actions and decisions.

What may make this unfortunate event even more significant (from a leadership perspective), was that during this period of time, Moshe was preoccupied with the need for a successor. It is so difficult and even incomprehensible to  imagine Moshe’s  emotional state of mind at that time.  Being denied entry to Eretz Yisrael, being reminded of it by being commanded to physically view Canaan from Har Nebo... and at the same time being preoccupied not with his profound loss and  disappointment but rather with the future leadership of the Bnai Yisrael is truly what leadership is all about.

This event clearly exemplified Moshe’s tremendous leadership greatness, resolve and commitment.  A profoundly important lesson in leadership. 

In conclusion, there are so many “leadership” takeaways from Parshat Pinchas. But the one that resonates most for me is the tremendous ability to put followership first …….ahead of oneself. At the end of the day, its about the people you lead and those who entrust you with their welfare, wellbeing and direction.

This my friends can only be accomplished if the leader exemplifies and models modesty and humility as well as a level self confidence that is sincere and real.

Have an amazing Shabbat, Parshat Pinchas,

About the Author
Dr. Chaim Botwinick is currently Principal of the Hebrew Academy Community Day School in Margate FL and Executive Coach and Consultant. He served as president and CEO of the central agency for Jewish education in Baltimore and in Miami. He has published and lectured extensively on topics relating to education, strategic planing and leadership development. Dr. Botwinick is Author of “Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness”, Brown Books, 2011
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