Let My People Lead! A Jewish Perspective on Strengths Based Leadership

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My life is very Jewish… after undergraduate and masters degrees in Jewish studies, I’ve settled into the field of Jewish education as a Jewish Youth Engagement Professional in New York City. Recently, a new mentor recommended a phenomenal secular book on leadership skills and management styles called Strengths Based Leadership by Tom Rath, in collaboration with Gallup. The book is largely informed by “Strengths Psychology” which was founded by Don Clifton.

Essentially the thesis of the book is that there isn’t a set a mold for leadership and management; a great leader just uses what they’ve got. I believe Judaism speaks to this concept too, but most discussion of the Jewish perspective on leadership thus far has seemingly focused exclusively on definitive character traits of a leader instead.
Traditional secular views on leadership typically describe an assortment of traits of a strong leader. Back in 2012, Forbes online published an article entitled, Top 10 Qualities That Make A Great Leader by contributor Tanya Prive. Traits listed include: honesty, ability to delegate, communication, confidence, commitment, positive attitude, creativity, intuition, ability to inspire, and approachability.

Forbes is often a go-to resource for leaders and managers in the world, so for our purposes, we can look use these traits as the standard conventional model of leadership and management styles in the workplace. These same traits are quite apparent throughout the Torah, and have therefore been echoed in previous discussions of the Jewish perspective on this topic.
Moses seems to be the “golden boy” of Jewish leaders, perhaps because the Exodus story is one of the most well known biblical stories (Thank you Hollywood, and of course Charlton Heston!). Our discussion here will thus focus on him. One example of this Jewish perspective supporting the conventional view on leadership appears in the 2001 article Everything I Know About Leadership I Learned from Moses by Emuna Braverman. The article breaks down how the Exodus story, can be analyzed to reveal “Secrets of a Leader”. Braverman arrives on five traits that are exemplified by Moses’ actions: approachability and empathy, humility, belief in the message with which you are leading, and the willingness to take responsibility and lead. Throughout the article she gives concrete examples of how Moses embodies these qualities.
Rabbi Sharon Sobel, former Executive Director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Canadian Council, emphasizes a different time in Moses’ life in her 2001 D’var Torah on Parsha Yitro. She hones in on Moses’ relationship with his father-in-law Yitro . Though she points to some key traits of this Parsha as Emuna Braverman did, her conclusion is that the mentor relationship that Moses forms with his father-in-law is essential to a leader. This idea is closer to the concept of leadership explicated in Strengths Based Leadership.

According to the book, the ultimate trait of a strong leader is that there isn’t one— A great leaders knows how to work with the traits they have (even if Forbes’ Top 10 Qualities are not among them). A great leader also surrounds themself with people who have the strengths that they themselves don’t possess, and they recognize the unique needs of their followers.
Moses can teach us a lot about Strengths Based Leadership. Rabbi Sobel notes in her D’var Torah that Moses and his father-in-law had different styles of leadership due to experience. Yitro was “a wise and seasoned leader” whereas Moses was an innovative but less confident leader. Moses listened and learned from Yitro with patience and appreciation that captures Strengths Based Leadership.

The book notes that one major flaw of the workplace is that, “rarely are people recruited to an executive team because of their strengths are the best complement to those of the existing team members…..The vast majority of the time, we recruit by job function—and all but ignore individuals’ strengths.”
Perhaps it wouldn’t have made the biggest difference to Moses as a young and reluctant leader to learn from Yitro, but Moses’ penchant for surrounding himself with people with complementary abilities was crucial in another way— Moses’ speech. Hollywood depictions of Moses have really glazed over his speech issues. In Exodus 4:10 when G-d calls Moses to this leadership role, he argues that he is “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue”. G-d and Moses come to an agreement in which another person with stronger speaking skills is brought on to the team to compliment Moses’ many strengths. That team member was his brother Aaron. In keeping with Strengths Based Leadership, we learn that a leader is only as good as the team he creates.
Moses also demonstrates the third principle of Strength Based Leadership: “The most effective leaders understand their followers’ needs”. This is illustrated in the story of the Golden Calf. G-d informs Moses of the sin the Israelites have committed and tell him that they would be destroyed and replaced by the descendants of Moses himself. Moses begged G-d to spare the Israelites, though his own anger would later get the best of him when he himself witnessed their sin, Moses made an effort to understand and fight for the needs of his people and would argue with G-d for the needs of his people many times throughout his life.
When we view Moses not as a definitive example of concrete leadership traits, but as a model for utilizing whatever abilities we have, we find Strengths Based Leadership in the Torah. And Moses is just one among many great leaders of the Jewish tradition who capitalized on their own strengths and filled in the gaps to best serve the Jewish people.
Ultimately the Torah teaches us a concept tangential to Strengths Based Leadership - Tikkun Olam. We are imperfect, like the world, but if we can piece together a team of people who complement our strengths with their own and we see the needs of others, we can find success, be it in the workplace or in the world.
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