Saturday, September 19, 2015

Heroism vs. Leadership

The concept of leadership is very popular at the moment.

It's a buzzword. Nearly every program and every school seeks to teach leadership skills and students proudly boast on their resumes that they are leaders. This despite the fact that true leadership is learned over time, it is earned, and it comes from people who choose to regard you as leader, not simply because you were appointed to run an organization.

Moreover, not all people are fit to be leaders, nor should this be their main goal. Our society would have us think that it is ignoble to follow; I believe this thinking is flawed.

So what is it that people can strive to obtain if not leadership?


Every man can be a hero because one can act the hero in one's own life. Heroism is demonstrated when one's life is a testament to one's ideals. Heroism can be performed on large scale or small, and can be demonstrated by the six-year-old and the eighty-year-old. Heroism is to choose rightly, correctly, with personal integrity, at a time when the stakes are high and it is difficult to do so. Heroism can be performed at the individual level.

Pop culture is currently obsessed with superheroes. Why are they deemed heroes as opposed to leaders? Because they are typically vigilantes, usually working outside of a structure (The Avengers notwithstanding). The hero is the one who both flaunts and flouts the rules and does so for the good of overarching society. Yet it is rare that this society is able or willing to actually allow the superhero to lead. That falls to other men, men who can work within the structures and strictures of society.

Leadership and heroism are different. Leadership is sustained, constant, unending, exhausting. It requires the ability to work with people, manage people, placate, appease, command and cajole people. By its very nature, it involves others- and others who may not even want to be involved in the enterprise.

Heroism, in contrast, can be all those things but often isn't. It is perhaps more commonly found in uncharacteristic acts (driven by extraordinary situations) or alternatively, in the small, everyday decisions that one makes. The decision to stay home and watch the children so that your spouse can attend an event. The decision to say something kind to an ailing, if irritating, person. Heroism takes energy, but it's a different kind of energy. Heroism can exist on the individual level- one can be a hero in everyday life without being a leader of men.

The scene with Moses at the Burning Bush is often read as that of a man who is wary and unwilling to accept the mantle of leadership. And I think there's an element of truth to that. But I think there is often a misread in the way this is taught. Moses was a hero who was totally capable of heroic action on the individual level. His concern had to do with being made a leader- someone who would have to oversee people and quite literally lead them somewhere they did not want to be led. Managing people is hard. 

Moses proved his heroism on three separate occasions. First, he protected a slave from an Egyptian overseer. Second, he sought to break up a fight between two Hebrews. And third, he protected Midianite shepherdesses from the unwanted heckling and abuse of Midianite shepherds. Clearly, this was a man who had no problem intervening when the situation warranted it. However, in all of these situations, he was acting on an individual level, doing something that was right and correct and which he was fully capable of doing on his own. In these situations, perhaps he led by example, but he did not lead a people. He was not involved in the mess of politics, hurt feelings, indignation, fear of change and frustration with standards of excellence that leading a nation entails.

Indeed, after fleeing to Midian, Moses took on a life of solitude. He spent his time shepherding the flock, going where they would go, staring out into great desert vistas. He was familiar with nature. He brooded. He thought. Overall, he saw. The Burning Bush was a test. The first thing Moses says is that he will turn aside to "see this great sight, why this Bush is not burnt." Moses is no cynic, jaded and tired by life. He could be. He's a runaway, a refugee. He could say that no good deed goes unpunished and lament his life. He could look at a burning bush with dull eyes, determine it a mirage or something not worth investigating, and continue on his path. But he does not do these things. Because Moses, a man who communes with nature, an introspective, thoughtful man, sees. 

And upon seeing, he is tasked with a vast and impossible mission. You are no longer to act the hero alone, God says him. Now, you must lead. Moses is not afraid of decisive, important, heroic action on an individual level. But he is very afraid of leading a people. All of his arguments reflect this. He begins by saying, "Who am I?" - Who am I to be given this very public job? I don't have the right qualifications. I don't know how to lead. He continues by relating objections that the nation will raise, certain that they will inquire as to what God's name is, will not believe his fantastical claim, and will not be persuaded by him because he is כבד פה which at least some interpret as not a gifted orator.

If you pick apart Moses' arguments, what you notice is that his concern is with the communal, national implications of this job. You want me to go as a vigilante, picking off men one by one in heroic, one-strike efforts? That I can do. But this- taking a teeming mass of people and leading them out of Egypt to an uncertain future? I don't have the skills for it. You've got the wrong man. Send someone else.

If you view Moses' fear as the fear of any man who has been forced to transform from a productive employee at the individual level to someone tasked with management responsibilities, other decisions he makes become clearer. For example, his seeming impatience with the people likely stems from a lack of true understanding of them. He looks at them through the eyes of one for whom life is utterly clear, the eyes of a hero- this is correct, this is incorrect- how can you not see? How can you be so blind? When he is able, he takes advice from others more qualified than himself, such as Jethro. At other times, he wishes to give up, declaring that he cannot bear this heavy burden, that the nation has sucked him dry.

And of course, there is Moses' great flaw - the incident at the rock. At least one commentary reads that scene and informs us that hitting the rock was not the problem. The problem was that Moses cried, "Listen up, you rebels!" Since he persisted in calling the nation rebels- מורדים- he was not fit to continue to lead them to the next stage of their journey. He was looking at them with eyes that could not be sufficiently compassionate. And like ר שמעון בר יוחאי, who had to learn not to burn people with his eyes, Moses must learn that sometimes developing others is more important than the destination.

All people who begin their work roles as productive individuals struggle when they are given a group of other individuals to manage. They are used to impossibly high standards which they themselves set, standards to which they expect the group to adhere. They become frustrated and irritated- both with themselves and the group- when these standards are not met. Two options appear. The first is to develop the group and the talents of the individuals within the group, even though this may mean a slower pace. The second is to charge full-tilt to reach the end goal, often with the productive individual doing the bulk of the work. The ostensible goal of Moses leading the Israelites is to get them to the Promised Land. This task is certainly made easier (and quicker) without constant complaining and squabbling. However, in his concern to get the Israelites to Israel, Moses misunderstands the true goal. The people need to reach their full potential, to be developed as much as they can be in fear and love of God. Reaching the Promised Land is the secondary goal. If Moses sees the nation's shortcomings- their rebelliousness- and cannot discover and develop their potential, does not respond with love in that moment, he is not succeeding in his most important work. God sees this and punishes him with the natural consequence- you may not enter the Promised Land. You need to think instead about the work that I am giving you to accomplish here in the wilderness. Develop these people. Help them to become the people they can be. I am relying on you...


Anonymous said...

This something that really really struck a cord with me.
So thank you very much for penning this and sharing it!

Alex said...

Perhaps this is pshat in the words "תהא בצידן ותבא עמהן"