What Moses Teaches us About Leadership Transition
I was lucky. When I became the rabbi of my congregation, I followed a revered leader who had served the congregation for 25 years. He welcomed me graciously and lovingly, making it clear to the congregation that I was now the senior rabbi.
Many colleagues have not been as lucky. Leadership succession is delicate and complex. It evokes deep emotions and fears. It raises questions of legacy, mortality, and self-worth.
The Bible provides a rich source of guidance in addressing succession. The paradigmatic example in the Old Testament is the transition from Moses to Joshua.
Moses seems irreplaceable. He is the one who answers God’s call to bring the Israelites out of Egypt. He is the one who challenges Pharaoh, the most powerful ruler in the world. He is the one who receives the Ten Commandments atop Mount Sinai. He is the one who speaks with God panim el panim, face to face.
He is also the one who understands how critical succession is. In Numbers he addresses it head-on, asking God to “appoint a man over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the Your people will not be like sheep without a shepherd” (27:15-17).
God answers Moses by appointing Joshua his successor, instructing Moses to ordain and bless him before the people. It works. Joshua is accepted by the people, and he becomes an extraordinary leader.
What made this transition so successful? What can we learn from it?
- Moses initiates the succession plan. It is Moses who recognizes his own mortality. He knows he will not live forever. To assure the Israelites reach the Promised Land, he needs to find a successor. The success of his life’s mission depends on it.Too often leaders delay or resist succession planning. They prefer not to deal with the issue because it points to their own mortality. It can feel threatening, even if it is not. Moses chose the opposite route. So should we.
- Moses seeks guidance. Moses does not try to pick his successor alone. He turns to God. He listens for God’s wisdom. He recognizes the importance of the task—the people cannot be like sheep without a shepherd—so he seeks input from his most trusted advisor.A good leader knows he or she does not have all the answers. We listen for insight. As the Talmud puts it, “Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.”
- Moses makes his decision crystal-clear to the people. Jewish tradition believes that the Bible does not contain any unnecessary words. Every syllable of scripture teaches us something. Thus, it is no accident that the text later tells us Moses “took Joshua and had him stand before Eleazar the priest and the whole assembly. Then he laid his hands on him and ordained him” (Numbers 27:22-23).Moses ordains Joshua before the whole assembly. Everyone sees whom God and Moses have designated.
- Moses blesses Joshua. Moses does not just hand over keys to the castle and leave. He lays his hands upon Joshua’s head. He speaks words of commission into his ears and his heart. He blesses him.A blessing beats an instruction manual. A blessing means more than a stamp of approval. A blessing whispers confidence into the heart. A blessing conveys a trust deeper than a mere handshake.
I remember when, eight years ago, the president of my rabbinical seminary blessed me. He laid his hands upon my head. He whispered words into my heart. It felt as if the presence of God dwelled in-between us. It gave me more confidence than any mere document or words ever could.