BIBLICAL LESSONS FOR TODAY'S LEADERSHIP
What executives can learn from a holy leader
By Professor Shlomo Ben-Hur - February 2013
It's not fashionable to turn to religious leaders for managerial inspiration, nor will everyone agree that it is appropriate to assess a historical figure against modern standards of leadership. However, the story of how Moses grew to become a highly-acclaimed leader has powerful lessons for even the most secular-minded business person.
His biography sheds a light on the formative experiences of an ethical leader, while his actions demonstrate how such a leader can act under challenging circumstances. He is also an excellent example of how different and somewhat contradictory leadership styles – in his case, one of a visionary, shepherd, teacher, and servant – can be combined to create a powerful leadership model that is as applicable today as it was in biblical times.
Formative experiences matter
Moses's journey to leadership was by no means straightforward. He was born into slavery, was rescued from drowning by a Pharaoh's daughter, and was brought up in luxury as an Egyptian prince. He fled into the desert and lived as a shepherd – a role considered an abomination in Egyptian society – after killing an overseer who was whipping a slave, before eventually being chosen by God to lead a mixed group of people to the Promised Land.
Moses's upbringing and life before he became a leader illustrate that multiple experiences across cultures, classes, and lifestyles can be a good mechanism for developing empathy, credibility, and trustworthiness – especially when working with a group of people with a wide variety of backgrounds.
It's also worth noting some of the other reasons why God chose him: as well as killing the overseer, he interceded between two fighting slaves, and helped women to water their flocks when others chased them away. These were the actions of a man who could empathize with others, and was willing to put what was right ahead of what was easy. Transfer this into today's world, and you can see that considering candidates' early formative experiences, not just their work history, could help organizations get a better sense of their character.
The accidental leader
One of the most striking characteristics of Moses's story is his complete reluctance to become a leader. He told God, among other things, that he was not a good enough speaker and that he was not fit to lead. Eventually he accepted the role, but only after being convinced that he would have support from others, including his brother, tribal elders, and God himself. It could be argued that he resisted so long because he realized that a leader is only as effective as his or her support. It is also an excellent reminder that when leadership stems only from ambition, the person in charge is not a true leader but a commander. True leaders do not set out to lead, they follow – a dream, an ideal, a long-term vision for their family, organization, country, or the world. Today's organizations should take note of this and assess talent for purpose, responsibility, and loyalty, not just ego.
Leaders can combine the role of teacher and servant
Most leaders in Moses's day used an autocratic or tyrannical leadership model. Moses, however, took an approach that will be recognized by anyone familiar with modern contingency models: he was able to combine four distinct and disparate leadership roles, and balance the inherent tensions between them. He kept his feet on the ground as a shepherd, yet kept his head open to the future as a true visionary; he taught his followers, but also understood that leadership is ultimately about service.
As teacher, Moses managed conflict by exposing it or letting it emerge so that he could use it to facilitate learning. Where there was a clear violation of the moral codex, he acted decisively and with clear consequences, as when spies circulated rumors that the Promised Land was too dangerous – but always used such incidents as teaching opportunities as well.
As servant, he understood that a community is composed of individuals who each need to be supported in different ways. For example, he changed the inheritance laws to protect women who had neither fathers nor husbands; he also realized that his role was to bring his people to the Promised Land, not to enter it himself. At that point he handed his legacy to his successor, Joshua, whom he had groomed as a leader from early on.
Moses has been an inspiration for different faiths for centuries, but he has just as much to offer secular thinkers. His was able to carry within himself the tensions of his inherited background and his adoptive upbringing and, in doing so, effectively transcended them both. He balanced four different leadership styles that are still rarely found in any single leader today. With this unique combination of history and character, he personified the authentic, ethical leader.
Shlomo Ben-Hur is a professor of leadership and corporate learning at IMD business school. He directs the program Organization Learning in Action (OLA) which empowers corporate learning professionals to develop and implement successful learning strategies across their organizations. He teaches on several programs such as Breakthrough Program for Senior Executives (BPSE) and Orchestrating Winning Performance (OWP).