Denes Ban
Israeli tech entrepreneur-turned-investor on the weekly parshah

The Founder-CEO dilemma — talking with a rock

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When you look at today’s biggest companies you may notice an interesting common denominator: the person who founded the company took it all the way from incubation to great success.

Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and even Tencent and Alibaba in China. All of these companies had so called Founder-CEO’s.

At first glance it may seem obvious – he who dreamed it is best equipped to then grow it. However, when you look at the facts, statistics clearly show that the majority of the time this is just not the case. Most companies actually do not make it to the top because their “Founder-CEO” cannot/will not realise that they are not equipped to be the “Manager/ Executive CEO”. The tech world often refers to this as the Founder’s “King vs Rich” dilemma (i.e., do you want to be powerful or do you want to be rich?). The role of the Founder-CEO and the job of the Manager-CEO require immensely different skill sets and as maturing companies emerge from the incubation state, they often need to change their leaders because different skills are required to “start-up” than to “scale-up” (i.e. to grow).

This transition of leadership is not uncommon in other areas of life. A very obvious example can be found in politics: Winston Churchill was probably the best wartime leader, but he lost the election immediately after the end of the war. During wartime or distress, different leadership can be needed than during times of peace.

So, how does this relate to our parshah, following the Israelites in the desert? Does a “freshly FREED people” (kind of an original Start Up Nation) require a different leader than a “FREE People” (a scale up Nation)?

When you read this week’s parshah, something should strike you as odd. Although our parshah Chukat jumps forward 40 years from the start of the Exodus in Beshalach, the key items in both parshahs are connected. There are no two parshahs in the whole Torah that are so closely related to each other. Here are just a few examples: the Manna that provided the people with nourishment, the well that gave the water, and the Clouds of Glory that protected the Jews in the desert, each began in Beshalach and finished in this week’s portion (40 years later). The attack of Amalek, the complaint of the Jews regarding both food and water, and G-d’s commandment to Moses to extract water from the rock, just to name a few, are also first described in Beshalach and now again in Chukat.

The connection between the two parshahs is undeniable. However, if we look deeper into these ideas, we may be able to find a very significant DIFFERENCE in their message for us.

The narrative of the Jewish Nation that started with the Exodus in Beshalach entered a new time zone in our portion, Chukat, and with this new time zone the Jewish people also entered a new narrative. The Israelites had to be prepped for a new mode of existence for which the Jewish people had to acquire new skills and new leadership.

In short: they were no longer treated as start-ups, as children. They were about to become adults. Children exist in a state of dependency (and thus in the desert the Jewish people were fed and protected; they had the Manna, the water of the well, the protection of the Clouds of Glory, and the constant presence of their “care-taker” (Moses)). Just like a child’s needs, the Israelites’ needs in the desert were taken care of fully and abundantly. Now, however, as they were ready to enter Israel, they had to adopt a new type of existence. They needed to become independent and self-sustaining. Hence, the Manna ceased, the water of the well and the Clouds of Glory disappeared, and soon even Moses would disappear.

One of the most debated decrees in this week’s parshah is definitely the decree prohibiting Moses to enter the land of Israel for the seemingly minor mistake he committed. The mistake he made was that instead of talking to the rock, as he was commanded to do, Moses hit the rock in order to bring forth water for the people. For this “sin”, Moses was punished by not being allowed to enter the land of Israel. How could he be punished so harshly for such a seemingly minor mistake? Moreover, why was he held accountable at all for hitting the rock, considering that 40 years earlier, in Beshalach, he was commanded to hit the rock

What happened at the incident of the rock must be viewed in context. The Jewish people were now on a very different level from when they emerged from slavery, and Moses might not have seen that. Moses’ mistake was a very subtle lack of recognition that the Jewish people no longer had the attitude of dependent children (or slaves). (You know the feeling that even though you are 30 years old, to your parents you always remain a child, no matter what you do?)

The change in G-d’s command from hitting the rock to talking to it may reflect the maturation of the Jewish people. The fact that Moses missed, to even a very slight degree, this maturation may have indicated that a new kind of leader was needed. The Jewish people, who were ready to conquer the land of Israel, were not from the generation of slaves who became free but were a new generation who were born freeThis might be best illustrated by the incident with the rock: when one expects obedience, a slave might understand only the stick, but a free man understands words.

Founders often refer to their start-ups as their babies or children. Knowing when to relinquish control and let a child grow on its own is probably one of the most difficult tasks a parent takes on.

The Torah often refers to the Israelites as “Bnei Yisrael” (the Children of Israel). Moses might have taken this literally and thought of the people still as children, when they were actually ready to step into a new level of reality: taking on the responsibility of entering the land of Israel and living there with a new degree of independence.

In fact, we find that the highest level of maturity does not actually end with “independence”. There is a higher goal which is to move from dependence to independence and then finally to “interdependence” – a state where a person becomes capable of taking responsibility for not only themselves, but of others and understands that the sum of what is created with others is far greater than the sum of what each of us can accomplish on our own.

So instead of “hitting the rock” and then “talking to the rock”, we mature further to “talking with the rock” – communicating with the other and understanding another’s needs in order to create together.

About the Author
Denes Ban is the Managing Partner of OurCrowd, Israel’s leading venture capital fund. A serial entrepreneur turned serial investor, he founded and sold an HR company and co-founded PocketGuide, one of the world’s leading travel apps. Denes has lectured at Harvard, Kellogg, and INSEAD and trained thousands of CEOs and entrepreneurs around the world. After growing up without knowing he was Jewish, Denes found his way to a Yeshiva in Jerusalem and learned Torah for two consecutive years before returning to the business world. Now he uses his experiences representing Israel in Asia to share examples of what it can mean to be a Jew in the 21st c and writes a weekly blog that has spread to countless subscribers, combining the world of business, technology, philosophy, and psychology with his insights into Judaism and Zionism.
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