The passage in which God tells Moses to prepare for death, and Moses, in response, asks God to appoint a successor (see Num 27:12-23), is full of interest for what it tells us about leadership. Indeed when Moses is confronted with his own mortality, his first response is not to think about himself at all but about the succession. That is a mark of a true leader. The great leaders care about the cause they serve more than about themselves. Hence even as they lead, they prepare others to lead, so that, in Moses’ own words here: “the Lord’s people will not be like a flock without a shepherd.”
Each line of this passage warrants close listening, but let us focus on just one. Moses says:
May the Lord, God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a person over the community who will go out in front of them and come back in front of them, who will bring them out and bring them back, so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd. (Num. 27:16-17)
The italicised words seem to say the same thing twice. If a leader goes out and comes back in front of the people, then surely it follows that they are leading them out and bringing them in. Why the repetition?
Rashi interprets the two phrases as referring to different things. The first, “who will go out in front of them and come back in front of them”, means a leader who leads from the front, who will not send their people into battle while staying behind in safety. Rashi points to a verse (I Samuel 18:16) in which the Torah says: “All Israel and Judah loved David because he went out and came back in front of them”. The watchword of Israel’s military leaders has always been “Acharai”, meaning “After me”.
To the second phrase, “who will bring them out and bring them back” Rashi gives two different explanations. The first is that it means, “who will lead them [to victory] through their merits”. The second is extraordinary. Moses, says Rashi, was protesting to God: “Do not do to my successor what You did to me, denying me the chance to lead the people into the land.” Let Joshua, unlike me, reach his destination.
Thus far Rashi. However, there is another possible explanation. A leader must lead from the front. But a leader must also understand the pace at which those they lead can go. It is not leadership if the leader is so far ahead of the people that when they turns their head round, they discovers that there is no one following. A leader must go out in front and come back in front. But they must also “lead the people out and bring them back”, meaning, they must take people with them. They must make sure that they are keeping pace.
A leader must have vision, but also realism. They must think the impossible but know the possible. Because a leader is often a figure of great ability, they can sometimes forget that not everyone can travel as fast as they can. A leader can be too far ahead of their times.
That is not a failing in some forms of leadership. The great Prophets were often centuries ahead of their times. That is what made them Prophets. There are secular examples. The great artists were ahead of their times. Beethoven’s late quartets were almost unintelligible for a full century. The first Impressionist exhibition was panned by the critics. It is said that Van Gogh did not sell a single painting in his lifetime (others say he sold just one). The audience at the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring expressed their disapproval by catcalls and whistles.
An artist may be ahead of their time; a Prophet must be ahead of their time. That is because they are not leaders of people. They are leaders of ideas. Often they are reclusive. Only a few of their contemporaries understand what they are trying to do, but that is enough. Eventually, long after their lifetime, their ideas penetrate a wider circle. But a leader in the mould of Moses must connect with people. That is why Moses prayed to God for a leader who would go out in front, but only at such a pace as to bring people with him.
It is a point made with great insight by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. In their book Leadership on the Line (and Heifetz’s earlier book, Leadership without Easy Answers) they distinguish between two kinds of challenge, technical and adaptive, and the different kinds of leadership they call for.
A technical challenge arises when you face a problem of a kind that has a relatively simple solution. You are ill, so you go to a doctor to diagnose the disease and prescribe a cure. Your car breaks down, so you need a mechanic to identify the fault and put it right. Something is broken; it needs fixing: that is the standard form of a technical challenge.
But sometimes the people affected by a problem are the problem. For some illnesses, no drug will suffice to bring a cure. Instead the person concerned may have to change their entire lifestyle. For some failing companies, no quick fix by management will suffice. What may have to change is the entire corporate culture. Problems of this kind, where the people involved have to change, call for adaptive leadership – and that is leadership of the most difficult kind.
The reason is that people resist change. For that reason, they will resist any solution that implies that they must change. With tenacity and passion, they will see the problem as something outside themselves. They will blame this factor or that. They will opt for one technical cure after another, only to find that they all fail – because the cause was not external but internal: within the persons concerned.
Personal change – change within the self – is almost unbearably stressful. It is, in fact, a form of bereavement. That is why adaptive leaders are rarely popular. People criticise them, get angry with them, try to replace them. Adaptive leadership needs courage. But Heifetz and Linsky’s point goes deeper. Adaptive leadership also needs deep and active patience. People are slow to change, and a leader – who by definition understands the need for change – may become impatient and try to force the pace faster than the people can go.
That is why some of the greatest leaders get assassinated. In retrospect they are seen as heroes. But at the time, they were often regarded as traitors, betrayers. What makes Heifetz and Linsky almost unique is that they regard assassination as a failure of leadership. They admire Martin Luther King and Yitzhak Rabin, yet they also argue that they should have recognised the danger signals from their own side; they should have slowed the pace, lowered the flame, stepped back; perhaps they should have found ways of handing the problem back to the people. They were driving people faster than they could go.
That is what Moses was saying. Let the Israelites be led by one who will “go out in front of them and come back in front of them”, leading from the front; but also one who will “bring them out and bring them back”, meaning one who will carry the people along, not going so fast that they cannot keep up.
For that is what Moses learned in the episode of the spies. He was ready to enter the Promised Land. The people were not. The result was catastrophic. This was not his fault. He had faith; the people had all too little. He was right; they were wrong. But he was also wise enough to realise that for a leader to be right and the people wrong, is no consolation whatsoever. A leader must go at the people’s pace. They must educate them; prepare them for the challenges ahead; listen to their grievances; give them courage; lift their sights – and also be prepared to slow down if they are unable to accelerate. A leader must be impatient and patient all at once: a difficult balancing act. But there is no choice. For a leader must not go on ahead so far and fast that they find they are alone.