Leadership in the Wilderness:
Authority and Anarchy in the Book of Numbers
Maggid Books, 2013, Jerusalem $24.95
There are many books about leadership and leadership development, most of which focus on how to be a leader. However, there are very few books that define and develop the concept of Jewish leadership as found in basic Jewish texts. Erica Brown – the scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the author of a number of books – has made a unique contribution to the conceptual meaning and implementation of Jewish leadership based on her analysis of the Book of Numbers, Bamidbar, one of the Five Books of Moses (the Torah).
Analyzing the biblical text, she teases out the meaning of leadership as exemplified by Moses, Aaron and Miriam. She offers us a definition of Jewish leadership based not only on the events experienced by the children of Israel in the desert but also on the behavior of the leaders who accompanied the Jewish people as they traveled from Egypt to the land of Israel. From the discussion of the biblical exploits to the distillation of the key concepts that separate the “leaders” from other people, Dr. Brown provides a creative interpretation of the understanding and skills that successful leaders demonstrate in their relationship with those they lead.
Throughout the book, Dr. Brown also weaves in leadership concepts from the general literature on organizational leadership and draws parallels between those ideas and the examples she cites from Bamidbar. She draws on both contemporary texts and the biblical text to create a Jewish concept of leadership and how to implement it in today’s environment.
Using the setting of the wilderness, Dr. Brown begins with a discussion of the leadership skill of understanding the situational context. Moses, as he guided the Jewish people from slavery to freedom, led them through a transition from being a mass of individuals to becoming a people with a purpose and a mission.
Leaders’ skills and abilities are tested during times of uncertainty and confusion. Often, those aspiring to be leaders today confront a situation akin to their organization being in the “wilderness,” and they face difficult and unanticipated challenges. Dr. Brown offers us three guiding principles for leaders navigating those challenges:
- Prepare for uncertainty while accepting the insecurity of transitions.
- Anticipate the breakdown of leadership.
- After a leadership transition, rebuild and reestablish trust.
After defining the “wilderness” setting, the book focuses on how leaders develop their relationship with those they lead in a way that facilitates achieving their goals. This discussion is very relevant to organizations searching for a way to fulfill their mission at a time when the staff and clients may feel confused and unable to find their way.
The strength of this book is Dr. Brown’s analysis of specific leadership challenges faced by Moses. She begins with a discussion of how leaders have to attract those who are not naturally inclined to follow them. Leaders rarely get to select their followers; more often, they inherit them, as exemplified by Moses being given responsibility for the Children of Israel. She refers to the need to welcome the nazarite – the person who removes himself from normative Jewish practice through abstaining from alcohol among other practices – back into the community. The nazarite is a metaphor for anyone who may be on the fringe, and the leader plays a key role in creating a space so such individuals can join and be welcomed into the community.
Following this discussion she examines the skills necessary for building a community or an organization. Weaving in examples in the text of Bamidbar, she shows how the children of Israel became a community through the laws, regulations, and creation of the narrative, their shared story. In the same way, organizations have their own history that is built on what their members have experienced together.
The leader attains established goals as a result of a “vision” of what needs to be accomplished. However, the vision is not sufficient: It must be shared at the appropriate time and place so that members of the community feel it is attainable. Dr. Brown wonders whether Moses would have had an easier time leading the people through the wilderness if he had shared his vision sooner. In contemporary terms, if leaders want to attain specific goals for their organizations, how do they share their vision so that it motivates the people rather than instills a feeling that it is unattainable?
Dr. Brown also addresses how people in leadership positions should respond to those who threaten their authority. She uses the example of the “spies” who were sent to explore the land of Israel before the people were to enter and how their majority report was a negation of the vision Moses presented. This analysis challenges us to think about how we respond to those who question the vision we have as community and organization leaders. This response is determined by the nature of the communication between the leader and the group, which will be more effective when trust is a key component. True leaders are prepared to take the risk of identifying problems and challenges and are willing to have difficult conversations with those whom they lead. She continues to explore the meaning of trust and how Moses formed a trusting relationship with the people during their wanderings.
Dr. Brown comes full circle and discusses the transitional phase of leadership. Moses is an example of a leader who did not have the chance to completely fulfill his role. Because he was unable to control his temper, God punished him. Moses was not allowed to enter the Land of Israel and was required to name his successor and prepare him to assume responsibility for leading the people to the Promised Land. From this example we understand that leaders need to deal with not being able to fully complete the task and have to enable someone else to lead the community or organization to reach its goal. In this situation the overriding value is the commitment to fulfill the stated goal, not the need of the individual to place him- or herself before the needs of the people.
The book is the perfect text to use in a leadership development course in Jewish organizations. Dr. Brown’s examples not only speak to the historical text but also have implications for how we carry out our responsibilities as leaders and as members or followers. The success of a leader depends very much on the people whom he or she leads. Making the investment in reading, studying, and discussing this book will not only strengthen individual leaders and followers but will also enhance their Jewish organizations.
Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.