It is “received wisdom” that successful leaders must possess a certain level of ego and degree of narcissism in order to survive the rigors of leadership. After all, who in their right mind could believe he or she has the capacity or competence to run a country? And who could possibly withstand non-stop criticism and attacks from adversaries while contending with ongoing backbiting by purported allies?
Perhaps it is because the role is so difficult and the challenges so daunting that many people like to see in their leaders the trait of exceptionalism that makes it possible to survive and thrive under such harsh conditions. They want their leaders to be strong, confident and effective in pursuing their nation’s interests, and if that necessitates an inflated ego, so be it.
But what if a nation’s leader was quite the opposite, fleeing the limelight instead of chasing after it? What if repeated attempts to recruit him were met with compelling reasons why he was, in fact, the wrong person for the job? Could such a person lacking in ego and narcissism possibly command the confidence of those he is meant to lead?
This is the situation in which we find ourselves in Parshat Shemot, as Moses repeatedly demurs when God turns to him to lead the Jewish People out of Egypt. Moses is clearly the best choice, from the Divine perspective: did he not sacrifice a life as prince of Egypt in order to avenge the life of a Hebrew slave? [ibid., 2:11-12]
Unfortunately, Moses derives the very opposite message from that same incident. When, shortly afterwards, he attempts to stop two Hebrews from fighting, his previous involvement is scorned by the Hebrews themselves: “Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Will you kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” [ibid., v. 13-14].
Moses understandably concludes that being the leader of the Jewish People will bring much heartache, so he lets God know that he is not on the market. Presaging U.S. General William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891), Moses feels as the Civil War hero did when asked about any presidential ambitions: “If drafted, I will not run; if nominated, I will not accept; if elected, I will not serve.”
Eventually, Moses’s insistence on his own lack of fitness for leadership reaches its limits, resulting in an extreme Divine reaction: “…the anger of God was kindled against Moses…” [ibid., 4:14].
The Midrash even deduces that the Almighty punishes Moses for his reluctance by removing the priesthood from his shoulders and transferring it to Aaron. “Aaron was initially slated to be the Levite and you [Moses], the Kohen, but I shall now switch the honors. I shall elevate Aaron to priest and demote Moses to Levite” [Talmud, Zevachim 102b, cited by Rashi]. But are the hesitations of Moses not expressions of great humility?
After citing several legitimate reasons for refusing the call to serve, perhaps Moses should have raised the white flag of surrender, accepting the wisdom of God’s choice. But no, he continues his protest: the people might well accept God, but they will not necessarily accept him as God’s messenger [ibid., v. 1].
The Almighty gives Moses a sign: “What is that in your hand?” Moses answers, “A staff.” God then instructs Moses to throw the staff on the ground, and it miraculously turns into a snake. “Grab it,” orders God, and as Moses does, it miraculously becomes a staff again.
I would like to suggest that in addition to its dramatic presence, this sign reflects what is at the heart of leadership. God is telling Moses: if you want the people to believe in you, the first criterion is that you must believe in yourself. Know that in your hand, Moses, is the staff of leadership, a mastery you earned when you smote the Egyptian taskmaster.
Remove the staff of leadership from yourself and it will turn into the serpent, symbol of Egyptian tyranny and hedonism. In this world, you either lead or you will be led. Now, grasp on to the tail of the serpent, and you will once again be grasping the staff of leadership. It depends on you!
Moses’s subsequent life in leadership teaches that leadership has nothing to do with ego and narcissism; rather, it has to do with demonstrating the quintessential traits of leadership, to act proactively and decisively. He does not always succeed, to be sure. But as long as he believes in himself, then God will be with him. Hopefully, the people will believe in him, as well, and indeed, one of Moses’s crowning achievements is piloting the great exodus of the Jewish People out of Egypt.
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men’s and women’s institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU.