Leadership Limmud: Beshalach and Humility

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Leadership Limmud is a bi-weekly blog post by the Schusterman Family Foundation Leadership and Talent team. It blends traditional Torah commentary with contemporary leadership lessons linked to that week's Torah parsha or upcoming holiday. We hope you enjoy!

Torah Portion Summary: The previous parashot (Torah portions) describe the ten plagues that befell Egypt when Pharaoh refused to free the Israelite slaves from bondage. In Parashat Beshalach, God finally fulfilled his promise and led the Israelites to freedom out of Egypt. They camped by the Sea of Reeds until Pharaoh directed his army to capture the fleeing slaves. The Israelites rushed from their camp and towards the Sea. Once they approached the Sea, God parted the water allowing the Israelites to cross, yet collapsed the water on the Egyptian army, drowning them all. Once all of the Israelites had safely crossed, they witnessed the destruction of the Egyptian forces and Miriam led the women in song and dance to celebrate the momentous occasion.

After the miracle at the Sea of Reeds, the Israelites began their wandering through the desert. Shortly after, they started complaining about a lack of food and water, crying out that conditions were better when they were slaves in Egypt. God caused manna (sustenance miraculously supplied as food to the Israelites by God) to appear on the ground, but still the people were not satisfied and again complained to Moses when there was not water. G-d instructed Moses to speak to a rock in order to receive water, but Moses frustrated with the Israelites' complaining struck the rock and water gushed out. While Moses alleviated the Israelites' worries, G-d was furious and punishment would later be coming.

Torah Commentary: Beshalach features stories that reveal the building blocks of Moses' developing leadership ability. On the surface, one must acknowledge the strength of a leader who is able to rally their people to flee their homes, cross a sea and continue to motivate and inspire them to follow them as they wander through a desert.

Rabbi Moshe Becker says that Moses' humility truly shines when he is confronted by the angry Israelites. While Moses was aware that he had a unique relationship with God and a special leadership role within the people of Israel, he saw these accomplishments and achievements as gifts, not entitlements, and that it was essential for him to remain humble to the rest of the Israelites. Maimonides also argued that Moses (and other prophets and righteous people) were incredibly humble because they routinely asked God for assistance through their lives. They understood that anyone's sins and shortcomings can outweigh intelligence or a strong commitment to a goal.

At the high point of Beshalach, the splitting of the Sea, Moses demonstrates when it is necessary to temporary put humility on the side and take charge of a situation. When the Egyptian army approaches and the people cry out in fear, Moses responds by assuming his mantle of leader and simply and confidently says “Have no fear! Stand by, and watch” the sea part and cross unharmed. This is a leader who is fully aware of his strength of humility, but when the moment comes he is able to lead his people confidently and effectively.

Let's get down to Tachlis (nuts and bolts): Beshalach focuses on the journey of the Israelites out of Egypt, across the Sea of Reeds and the start of their 40 years wandering in the desert. It also tells the story of Moses' leadership and knowing when to be humble and when to take charge.

What this means for leaders: Humility is a skill that can be developed, practiced and honed over time. It may seem that humility is out of fashion as so many leaders seem to become successful through narcissism and self-confidence, but John Dame and Jeffrey Gedmin argue that humility “inspires loyalty, helps to build and sustain cohesive, productive team work, and decreases staff turnover.” Viewing humility as a skill, rather than a personality trait, allows us to improve on it and this article offers ways to develop humility. One of those ways is that leaders should embrace not knowing things in order to keep oneself in a constant state of learning and asking questions. Also, a leader should always be curious and express that curiosity by continuously seeking knowledge with their colleagues; it cannot be a top-down process. Lastly, to develop humility, a leader should listen to ideas from different viewpoints and fields (including very strange ideas). Humility can be developed and when leaders practice it, they become more effective.

One of the more difficult leadership balances is holding both authority and humility, a paradox where we often expect contradicting traits from our leaders. On one hand, we believe that effective leaders display humility by bringing out the best in others, admitting their mistakes and shortcomings and giving appreciation and credit when it's due. On the other hand, we want to see leaders who appear competent, flawless, confident and decisive, and under pressure, many leaders say they feel humility to be a weakness.

To better understand this paradox, four management professors conducted research to determine the impact of humility and authority on a team's output. They found that leaders who showed appreciation for others' work and displayed humility and modesty were more effective at facilitating the exchange of information and obtaining creative results. However, leader humility was only positively regarded in teams with low power distance, the degree to which people consider the unequal distribution of power in a team acceptable (small, egalitarian teams). In teams with high power distance, teams that expect power to be unevenly distributed (leaders are expected to be dominant and powerful), humble leaders were met with doubt and team members felt unsafe to speak up and take risks. Therefore, conclusions of the study recommend a leader to match their level of humility to what team members expect, be mindful of your team values and adjust your behavior and actions accordingly.