Revisiting a Joshua-esque Model of Leadership: Response to Rabbi Kenneth Brander

by Dr. Hal M. Lewis

In his ELI talk, Rabbi Kenneth Brander argues in favor of what he calls a “Joshua-esque model of leadership,” a view that understands leadership as collaborative, rather than unilateral. While I agree that collaboration, or what I have referred to in my own research as “power sharing not power hoarding,” can be an effective approach to decision-making and problem solving, I take exception to Rabbi Brander’s facile analyses of the leadership styles of Moses and Joshua. Moses, according to Brander, was a “top-down” leader, in contradistinction to Joshua who sought to “empower others to lead with” him.

Cognizant of the well-known barb that in academe arguments are so passionate because the stakes are so small, I must nonetheless assert that if there are lessons to be learned about the value of collaboration from biblical personages then dismissing the example of Moses deprives us of a useful paradigm.

From its incipiency, Moses’ career as a leader was predicated upon a model of collaboration, in which complementary skill sets come together for the betterment of the people. Far from the blinding persona Brander tries to depict, Moses initially resists the call to leadership precisely because he feels ill equipped for the tasks at hand. Only when presented with a model of shared leadership in which his own abilities are augmented by divine assistance and the talents of his brother, Aaron, does Moses even begin to think of assuming responsibility for the nation (Exodus 6:28-30; 7:1-3).

Like many leaders, Moses struggled with the need to prove himself. But when confronted with the insights articulated by his father-in-law Jethro that all leaders are necessarily incomplete, and that no leader, however talented, can do it all (Exodus 18:13-23), Moses wisely reverses course and heeds his father-in-law’s advice (Exodus 18:24). Indeed, when he reaches the point of executing on his own, he goes even further. While Jethro’s instructions call for Moses to hand pick suitable individuals capable of assisting him, the first chapter of Deuteronomy describes that rather than do so himself, he eschews unilateral top down decision-making, and assigns the responsibility for selecting leaders directly to the polity. Thus, contra Brander, he empowers the people, creating a sense of collaboration and investment, rather than imposing his will nolens volens.

Rabbi Brander’s embrace of the “Joshua-esque model of leadership” ignores one of the most significant chapters in the history of his career, namely the episode involving Eldad and Medad (Numbers 11:25-29). When these two would-be leaders defy popular convention, and behave against type, it is Joshua, epitome of collaborative leadership according to Brander, who condemns their behavior and demands that Moses “restrain them.” Fortunately for those who treasure true collaboration in leadership, Moses is not persuaded by Joshua’s paranoia. “Are you wrought up on my account?” asks Moses. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets that the Lord put His spirit upon them.” It is Moses, not Joshua, who embodies a commitment to collaboration, recognizing that one size never fits all, that no single leader can succeed alone, and that the success of an enterprise requires a multiplicity of approaches and a diversity of leadership types. Collaboration is not cloning. As the great teacher of leadership Peter Drucker reminded his students, “Carbon copies are weak,” a lesson apparently lost on Joshua in this incident.

From Moses we learn something even more important about collaboration. Not coincidentally, the greatest Jewish leader of all time is, according to the Torah (Numbers 12:3), the most humble of all human beings. Indeed, Moses’ humility is pivotal to his success. Effective leaders know that collaboration begins with a willingness to check egos, to put the good of the enterprise above personal agendas. They acknowledge, as Bossidy and Charan make clear in their book Execution, that the best leaders get things done through other people. Long before Jim Collins lionized Level Five leaders whose humility makes the difference between good and great organizations, and long before Drucker coined the term knowledge workers to suggest that twenty-first century leaders are less likely to be specialists aspiring to know it all and do it all, and more likely to be coordinators of specialists, Moses underscored the critical link between collaboration and ego management.

Humility in a leader allows her to listen carefully to others, to admit his mistakes. A humble leader avoids haughtiness, learns from everyone regardless of place in the organizational chart. An imperious leader is unable to ask the questions necessary to uncover the truth because he is so sure he already has the answers. Arrogance prevents a leader from sharing the credit that is often seminal to the collaborative process.

Rabbi Brander speaks movingly of his wife’s efforts to collaborate with other mothers whose children faced the same fatal disease that tragically took their daughter. Her efforts provide stirring testimony to the lesson first embodied not by Joshua, but by Moses, that none of us is as smart as all of us. Whatever a Joshua-esque model of leadership might be, and with all due respect to the one whom Rashi describes as a pale imitation of his predecessor (Commentary on Numbers 27:20), humility in Jewish tradition is the Mosaic signature, and a model worth emulating for all who seek to embody a collaborative approach to leadership.

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.