Moses on Transition Planning: Good Not Great

good-not-great-e1477931686826By Dr. Hal M. Lewis

In his recent article on Moses and transition, Rabbi Evan Moffic restates many important lessons for contemporary organizational leaders. He avers that the biblical narrative (Old Testament?) offers a paradigmatic example of succession in the case of Moses and Joshua.

Inspired as we should be by Moses’ willingness to embrace his successor and effectuate a seamless transition, we must not permit the ancestor-veneration impulse to obfuscate what the text itself makes clear. Instead of beginning our analysis, as Rabbi Moffic suggests, with Numbers 27:15, in which Moses “initiates the succession plan,” we should back up three verses to Numbers 27:12. There we see that Moses’ deep concern for the future of his organization (the Jewish people) only becomes evident after he learns the painful truth that he will die before completing his mission. It would be a mistake to gloss over Moses’ eleventh hour call to action or to emulate his failure to anticipate the need for succession earlier in the process.

The identification, nurturing and training of organizational ‘talent’ are key components of a leader’s job. They are not adventitious or incidental. They cannot be back-burnered until a leader’s ‘real work’ is done. This is the work of leadership. Waiting until a retirement announcement, or worse (!), to address future leadership needs is an abrogation of responsibility, a responsibility often shared by both the incumbent and her board.

While succession planning often focuses on the executive, planning for the future leadership needs of an organization, including training and succession, must be manifest at every level of the enterprise, part of the very fiber of the culture. Ongoing opportunities for training and advancement – even in small organizations – will help to attenuate the crises and unanticipated expenses associated with transitions. And more importantly, investing in those things today, sends a message that management and boards cherish the team and care about their future, individually and collectively.

Moses’ failure to make transition planning a priority before the matter reached critical proportions, has, sad to say, become a lamentable prototype for many in organizational life. The trends regarding CEO retirements and the like have been well documented for years in these pages and others. While some notable exceptions exist, far too many institutions find themselves in the functionally equivalent position that confronted Moses and the Jewish people following the unhappy news recorded in Numbers 27:12. While Moses may have had God to salvage the situation, for the rest of us, the stakes are simply too great to wait that long.

Commentators and biblical scholars have long observed that the Torah neither spins nor whitewashes the mistakes of even our most revered heroes. As Rabbi Moffic points out, there are, indeed, many aspects of Moses’ behavior towards his successor that are enviable and worthy of emulation. But not all! We would do well to learn as much from Moses’ mistakes in failing to anticipate the need for a successor, as we do from his actual leadership triumphs.

Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. A recognized expert on Jewish leadership, he has published widely in the scholarly and popular press. His books include Models and Meanings in the History of Jewish Leadership and From Sanctuary to Boardroom: A Jewish Approach to Leadership.