Leadership Limmud: Shemot and Resilience

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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: This week's Torah portion, Shemot, focuses on the beginning of the Passover story: the birth and rise to leadership of Moses. The Parsha begins with Pharaoh ordering the death of all Hebrew baby boys. Moses' mother rejected this decree, laid her child in a basket and sent him floating down the river. Pharaoh's daughter found Moses in the river, took pity on the crying boy and adopted him as her own.

While Moses grew up in the luxury of Pharaoh's castle, as a young man he witnessed an Egyptian beating a Hebrew man. This enraged Moses and he struck and killed the taskmaster. Fearful of reprisal, Moses fled Egypt to the land of Midian, where he became a sheep herder and married and bore children with his wife, Tzipporah.

One day while tending his flock, Moses found a burning bush that was not being consumed. Intrigued, he approached, G-d appeared in the bush and spoke to Moses. G-d ordered Moses to return to Egypt to lead the Hebrews out of slavery and to a land that flowed with milk and honey. Moses gathered his family, returned to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and demanded the release of the Hebrews from slavery. Rather than relenting, Pharaoh doubled down and increased the workload of the enslaved Hebrews. Parashat Shemot ends with a promise from G-d: that with a strong hand and outstretched arm, G-d will deliver the Hebrews from slavery.

Torah Commentary: Shemot illustrates the evolution of Moses as a leader. At the beginning of the Parsha, we read of Moses' rash decision to strike down an Egyptian slave master, which led to Moses fleeing Egypt. These two early actions reflect Moses' under-developed leadership capabilities. However, many years later, when Moses encountered the burning bush, we see a more humble, self-conscious Moses. Rather than aggressively accepting the mantle of Jewish leadership, Moses declined four times. Moses articulated to G-d that he could not be the right person to liberate the Jewish people, as not only was he not worthy, but he had trouble speaking and a great fear that the Hebrews would not trust and follow him. With multiple reassurances and demonstrations of power, G-d convinced Moses to follow G-d's order and return to Egypt to liberate the Jewish people.

The resilience Moses demonstrated in Shemot (and in many more stories throughout the Torah) teaches us the importance of pulling ourselves off the ground, dusting off and trying again. We should not expect to be perfect the first time around, nor should we expect others to exemplify perfection on their first attempt. Leadership must be finely tuned, refined over time and developed through experience.

Let's get down to Tachlis (nuts and bolts): After growing up in Pharaoh's place, Moses killed an Egyptian taskmaster for his cruelty to a Hebrew slave. In fear, Moses fled to the land of Midian. One day while Moses tended his flock of sheep, G-d confronted him through a burning bush and enlightened Moses of his greater resiliency and need to accept his leadership role.

What this means for leaders: This Torah portion not only shows Moses' evolution as a leader, but also his transformation as a person, specifically, his developed resiliency. While attending the Mindful Leader Conference, members of the Leadership and Talent Team attended a seminar about the science of resilience and how to “bounce back better” taught by Emiliya Zhivotovskaya. Humans are naturally resilient, but as the world continues to change quickly, we need to develop new techniques to build on our natural resilience. The building block of this is to adopt a growth mindset and escape from the natural tendency to judge every action.

A growth mindset means that a person is wanting to self-improve instead of trying to prove themselves correct or constantly blaming themselves for every mistake. Leaders who do not have a growth mindset think that they are failures, not that their actions failed. This leads to individuals constantly blaming themselves and stifles productive thinking when faced with new adverse situations. A growth mindset is a prerequisite to being resilient, because in order to be resilient, one must first believe that situations are malleable and struggles can be overcome with hard work. By choosing to ask questions and learn from our actions, one can guide their mind to a path of thoughtful decision making.

This lack of a growth mindset reflected Moses' decision to flee Egypt and his initial doubt that he had the ability to lead the Jews out of Egypt. It takes Moses years (and G-d's coaching) for him to adopt a growth mindset and return to Egypt. Moses represents a resilient figure in his clashes with Pharaoh because he believed that the Hebrew's situation in Egypt was malleable and they could overcome Pharaoh's obstacles.