One Leader Is Not Enough

No leader can lead alone. Nations, corporations and organizations often search for the ONE leader who will successfully address ALL of the challenges facing their group. But no such person exists or has ever existed. The search for perfection, for a single, messianic–like figure who will magically solve all of the group’s ills and lead the group to an imaginary Shangri-La, is an exercise in futility and often self-destructive. Seeking the perfect leader, more often than not, leads to an abandonment of the good – even the very good – leader, who with the right people surrounding and supporting him/her, could do an excellent job.

We see this glaringly in the current American Presidential campaign, which, following the new election year, is moving into high gear. With the exception so far of Donald Trump, a succession of candidates, particularly in the Republican Party, have risen and fallen in the polls. The pattern is invariably the same: each time there are heightened expectations about a candidate created, amplified and spun by the media to gain the public’s attention. Then, when the news cycle exhausts itself, there is a “discovery” of some “fatal flaw” in the candidate’s personality, past or present, something he/she said or did not say; something the candidate did, or did not do, that derails his or her ascent in the polls. Despite the candidate’s considerable talents and skills which they bring to the table, sooner, rather than later, the media’s obsession with or plain disinterest with the latest “flawed candidate” ends their candidacy for the nation’s highest public office. This blueprint is so familiar that one would think the public would wise-up and ignore the media roller-coaster, but on and on it goes.

Leaders are not lone rangers. Every leader is human – bringing real strengths and just as real weaknesses to their leadership role. Anyone who has ever led a successful organization knows that effective leaders surrounds themselves with a small, trustworthy leadership team made up of individuals who complement the leader’s strengths and compensate for their weaknesses.  This “guiding coalition” is necessary for the leader to take the group from where they are towards where they yearn to be, the proverbial “promised land.”

The early Torah portions of the Book of Exodus makes this leadership lesson abundantly clear. God knows that despite His Omniscience, He cannot lead the Jewish People to freedom without a human partner. Bringing a series of spectacular plagues upon the Egyptians would be a meaningless exercise of Divine power unless there was a Moses who would interpret those plagues as expressing God’s Will to free His people from bondage. God, knowing this, therefore engages Moses in an extraordinarily, lengthy dialogue at the Burning Bush to persuade him to join His leadership team. God puts up with a succession of Moses’ excuses because God knows that He cannot do it alone; that when it comes to leading human beings, one leader, even God Himself, is not enough.

Moses, in turn knows that even with God backing him, he too cannot lead without a human partner standing by his side.  When God calls upon Moses to free his people from Pharaoh’s grip, Moses has been away from Egypt for many decades. He has no standing with the Egyptian court or with the Jewish People, neither of whom know who he is (“Who am I to go to Pharaoh and will I extricate the children of Israel from Egypt?”). Being a resident Midianite for several decades means that his Egyptian language skills are undoubtedly rusty too (“I am heavy of tongue and of speech).” He knows that he needs an insider from among the Jewish People in Egypt who can secure an audience for him with the local Jewish elders to win their backing. Moses further realizes that to enter the Egyptian royal palace, he needs to be accompanied by an authentic representative of the slave-labor force in Egypt who will speak not only on his and God’s behalf, but on behalf of the Jewish slaves; otherwise, Pharaoh will not give him the time of day. Therefore it is only when God relents to send Moses’ brother, Aaron, with him, to speak on his behalf and authenticate his Divine credentials through the staff’s miraculous “signs,” that Moses agrees to undertake God’s leadership mission. Like God, Moses also knows, one leader is not enough.

Nor are two or even three. Later on the Exodus narrative, Moses will call upon other members of the nation to join his leadership team to direct efforts that he is unable to lead by himself – a brave warrior, Joshua, to lead the fight against the guerrilla force of Amalek; a master architect and builder, Bezalel, to oversee the complicated building project of the Tabernacle; his sister, Miriam to rally the women to his side after the splitting of the Sea. Moses knows that whatever his strengths as a prophetic visionary, as a caring and passionate defender of justice and as a person unafraid to speak truth to power, he needs the talents and leadership skills of these other individuals, which he does not possess, if he is to make his mission a successful one.

Rather than seek the one perfect candidate that has all the skills that we wish for in our leaders, we would be better served if we cut through the media hype and searched for individuals of character, caring and courage who recognize their own limitations and are willing and able to enlist others to co-lead. Leaders who are unafraid to share the spotlight with their colleagues and have the humility to genuinely rejoice when they succeed. Such a leader is worth seeking and pursuing. Not for naught does the Torah tell us: “And Moses was the most modest person on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3).

Shabbat shalom.

About the Author
Rabbi Nathan Laufer is former Director of Israel Programs for the Tikvah Fund and President Emeritus of the Wexner Heritage Foundation. He is the author of Rendezvous with God (Maggid Press, 2016), Leading the Passover Journey, and The Genesis of Leadership (Jewish Lights, 2005, 2006).
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