What do successful leaders need most?

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Leap of Faith

What do successful leaders need most?

Moses leading the children of Israel away from slavery
Moses leading the children of Israel away from slavery

As the Movement for Reform Judaism looks for a new CEO, we’d do well to remember Jephthah. In the Book of Judges, the great general Jephthah vows that if God helps him to defeat the enemy, then he will sacrifice whatever first comes out of his house. His victory is stunning and he returns in triumph only to be greeted by his happy daughter, a musical instrument in her hand. A leader should not make rash promises.

After many long years leading the people through the desert, when they are yet again moaning, Moses strikes a rock in anger to miraculously provide them with water. For this moment of fury God denies him the right to enter the Land of Israel. Even the greatest leaders must know how to keep their emotions in check before those whom they lead.

Very little is known of Moses’ wife Zipporah and their two sons. They simply fade from the narrative. Were they the sacrifice that leadership sometimes makes of a leader’s family? At the funeral of a great Cantor, one after another his congregants rose and told stories of his kindness, generosity and loving care. Then the Cantor’s son stood up and said: “We, his family, didn’t know this man whom you describe. He gave everything to you and when he came home to us, he had nothing left to give.” Leaders must know how to balance the stressful demands of work with the loving needs of their private lives.

At the start of the story of his life, Abraham is promised a future of blessing and greatness by God. But almost at once he seems to forget God’s promise. He travels to Egypt and there he begs his beautiful wife Sarah to pretend to be his sister, so that Pharaoh won’t kill him. Leaders should protect those under their care and not use them as pawns in a power game.

Our Bible is splendidly honest in showing us how the heroic figures who shaped Judaism were fallible humans. This year, when the 80-year-old Movement for Reform Judaism is searching for a Chief Executive to lead it into the new decade, it is good to be reminded that perfect leaders do not exist. But great leaders, like Moses, Abraham and Jephthah do.

Perhaps what successful leaders needs most is the ability to recognise their own flaws, to learn humility from their mistakes and empathy from any hardship they endure. To be a Joseph and say: “I am Joseph.”

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