follow the leader

Of critics and rebels: Tales of leaders and followers

In Short

In a world rife with division, the Torah offers a great many insights for both leaders and followers, particularly in extremis

Ongoing events in Israel and the U.S. have brought renewed attention to questions of leadership and followership during times of duress. For instance, what is the nature of the leader-follower relationship during extraordinary crises? Can “in extremis leaders” (or followers) justify behaviors that are otherwise unacceptable during periods of so-called normalcy?

Further, when followers are no longer willing to put up with power-hungry and abusive leaders, what are their obligations? Is “duty” a sign of loyalty and patriotism or appeasement and complicity? Additionally, what are the responsibilities of leaders in the face of extreme resistance? Must they capitulate, or is a willingness to compromise a sign of corrosive and weak leadership?  

In the United States, the debate continues to rage among those who “know” the events of Jan. 6, 2021, to have been a deadly insurrection, and those who hold that the “protesters” were loyal Americans, inspired to “fight much harder,” by a leader they loved.

Over the past several months in Israel, we have also witnessed areas of extreme tension between leaders and followers. Accusations on both sides of the judicial reform debate include charges of unilateralism, disloyalty, even perfidy. The leadership, elected with only the slimmest of majorities, moves forward with little regard for the groundswell of domestic and international opposition.

While these present as political matters, they resonate in the corporate and nonprofit sectors as well. To this end, classical Jewish sources offer useful insights that today’s leaders and followers might wish to contemplate.  

Consider the encounter between Jethro and his son-in-law, Moses (Exodus 18). Having convinced himself that he, alone, can address the problems of the Israelites, Moses sets himself up as the chief magistrate. He sits before the people rendering decisions, “and the people stood by Moses from the morning to the evening (v. 13).” Moses is blinded by the conviction that his is the only approach. “Because the people come to me … (v. 15),” he will tell Jethro to justify his behavior. On the precipice of losing the confidence of his followers, Moses’ unmitigated attempts at consolidating power could very well have been his undoing.

Like many great leaders, however, Moses benefits from the wisdom of a close advisor, here his father-in-law. Cautioning Moses about the deleterious effects of power hoarding, Jethro challenges him, “What is this thing that you do to the people? (v. 14)” Ultimately, Moses is persuaded by his counsel. He heeds his advice and ensures his own leadership legacy. Jethro is neither rebel nor mutineer. His wisdom comes not with an ulterior motive or a desire to take down the leader. Instead, his words are driven by a genuine desire to enhance Moses’ posture and to maximize his efficacy.

In contrast, consider the case of Korah, understood to be the Bible’s quintessential insurrectionist (Numbers 16). On its face, the presenting issue is similar. Moses is accused of hoarding power, this time, according to Rashi, in the matter of the special privileges accorded the priests. Korah and his followers confront Moses and his brother, Aaron, with what appears to be a reasonable concern. “You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy … Why then do you lift yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?” (v. 3). Rashi elaborates, “If you yourself have taken the kingship you should not have selected for your brother the priesthood.”  

As Rabbi Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the North American Shalom Hartman Institute, points out, Rashi likely had some sympathy for Korah’s argument. Indeed, how many of us resist the power grabs of our contemporary leaders, particularly in purportedly democratic contexts? Recent events in Israel and the U.S. make it clear that when leaders are autocrats, followers may push back. Yet those in charge insist that “elections have consequences,” and they have no obligation to consider the opinions of their opponents.

Korah and his men “rise up” (v. 2) against Moses only to be punished in the extreme by God. This episode raises the difficult question, what is oppositional criticism and what is rebelliousness? Why is Jethro’s condemnation of Moses’ power-hoarding, praiseworthy, and Korah’s not? The answer is unclear. What can be said is, that unlike Jethro, Korah’s intent was to destroy Moses and Aaron’s leadership and to tear down the infrastructure. His were not supportive suggestions advanced to enhance performance. Rather, his actions wreaked of self-promotion and egoism. He co-opted the language of equality, but his real intent was to undermine, not elevate.  

The Torah offers additional insights into leading and following, including the story of the daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 25:10 – 30:1). In this incident, the five daughters of a deceased father are prohibited from inheriting his property. Unwilling to accept such inequity, the daughters “stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the princes, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting (v. 27:1-2).” Their request was straightforward. “Why should the name of our father be taken away from among his family, because he had no sons? Give to us therefore a possession among the brothers of our father (v. 4).”  

No animus, no attempt to undermine Moses’ leadership, and indeed, no ad hominem argumentation suggesting that Moses arrogated too much power. In fact, even when introducing themselves, the five women make it clear that they are not rebels, they carry no stain from prior insurgencies. They were motivated only by a desire to correct an injustice in the law. “Our father … was not in the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah… (v. 3).”

Moses is neither defensive nor resistant. He does not attack the women or accuse them of disloyalty. He does what a few great leaders do. He listens carefully, manifests his deep respect for their situation, and responds with openness. He is not thin-skinned, nor does he personalize their critique. He acknowledges his limitations as a leader and refers the matter to God, who makes the final ruling. “The Lord said to Moses saying, the daughters of Zelophehad speak right (27:7).” As a result of this exchange, the laws governing real estate inheritance in ancient Israel changed forever.

Another approach to the question of leaders and followers is found earlier in the Book of Numbers, in the story of Eldad and Medad (Numbers 11). As noted, Moses is often criticized for wresting power from others. In the case of Eldad and Medad, however, this is not what happened. The narrative reports that “the spirit” of Moses is now to be distributed among the seventy elders at the Tent of Meeting, thus allowing them to serve as well. “And the Lord came down … and took the spirit that was upon him and put it upon the seventy men … [W]hen the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied (v. 25).” When Joshua, Moses’ heir apparent, learned that at least two people, Eldad and Medad, refused to assemble at the Tent of Meeting, but were prophesying nonetheless, he was distressed. For him, there was only one acceptable path to leadership, and it brooked no dissent. “My lord Moses, cause them to cease,” Joshua importuned.

Moses rejected Joshua’s view, rooted as it was in insecurity. He was unthreatened by well-motivated opponents. Instead, he responds, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put His spirit upon them! (v. 29).” Moses understood that even antithetical approaches have their place in communal discourse. Demonizing those who disagree is not leadership. It is the pernicious path to autocracy.

In a world rife with division, the Torah offers a great many insights for both leaders and followers, particularly in extremis. Leaders, even the humblest (Numbers 12:3), need to remember that not all opposition is mutinous. They are well advised to distinguish between self-aggrandizing rebels, wishing to undo the enterprise, and those with legitimate concerns, designed to enhance and improve. At the same time, leaders in crisis have a duty to lead and do what they believe is right, even at the risk of infuriating their stakeholders.  

Those who follow are far more influential than they and their leaders are apt to believe. Even as they lack authority, they do not, as Barbara Kellerman of Harvard University notes, “lack power or influence.” They have an obligation to be loyal and patriotic but must avoid blind obeisance.

Balancing these tensions is an iterative and protracted process. In the Jerusalem Talmud (Arakhin 17a), there is a disagreement in which some hold that “the character of a generation parallels that of its leader.” While others argue that “the character of a leader parallels that of his or her generation.” As current circumstances are proving, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the principal consultant at Leadership For Impact LLC, an executive coaching and organizational consulting firm, specializing in nonprofit leadership. He is the immediate past president and CEO of Spertus Institute in Chicago. He has held several prominent leadership positions across the Jewish community and has published and taught about leadership in a variety of academic and popular venues.