Friends- Welcome and thank you so much for being here. I especially want to thank my fellow chaplains for allowing me the privilege of addressing you this morning. When the email went out to the chaplains in our class, I jumped at the opportunity to be the speaker for this event. Now, given the quantity of verbiage we have each produced this year, you might wonder why someone would volunteer to write what amounts to yet another paper?
The answer is that I anticipate this will be my one and only opportunity in my Army War College experience to use the word “I” in a paper, with impunity, and with no hint of repercussions. I intend to use the passive voice, to go off on tangents and, potentially, never come back. I may or may not have a thesis, and I may or may not tell you what it is! My thoughts may be unanalyzed and unsupported, I am not counting the words, and I hope to end at least one paragraph with a quotation.
We have spent this year immersed in a study of strategic leadership, and I invite you to consider six lessons learned from the Biblical example of Moses. There he was, living an idyllic life in Midian with his wife and children, minding his own business, working in his father-in-law’s shepherding conglomerate, when Moses answered the call to lead the Israelites from slavery to freedom. Good thing he hadn’t read that quote from George Copley in DDE 2301, Foundations of Strategic Leadership, or he might have been discouraged?- “Great strategic leadership involves more than the innate talent and vision of the individual who is offered up to shepherd a society to safety or Victory.” Shepherd a society to safety? Moses was all over it!
Moses encountered a burning bush in the wilderness, got the Commander’s guidance, and developed his op-plan. Jewish commentators suggest that that bush had been on fire without being consumed for quite some time. Moses’ unique leadership capability lay in the fact that he was the first one to notice this phenomenon. Leadership lesson number one is- pay attention!
With support from his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam, he endured the ire of the Israelite community and risked his life to plead before the Pharaoh. Lesson number two- our leadership may not always be received with enthusiastic appreciation.
Back to Egypt and talk about your VUCA environment- blood and frogs, lice and hail! Following the 10 plagues, the Israelites escaped into the wilderness, where they continued to try Moses’ patience for the next 40 years.
Moses successfully completed the mission. However, he was an imperfect leader- just like the rest of us. As the community settles into their journey, Moses’ father-in-law appears on the scene. Chapter 18 of the Book of Exodus describes the warm embrace as the two men reunite. Jethro has with him Moses’ wife and two children. Oops! Guess Moses was leaving town without his family. Too often our families DO get left behind. They are the ones who pay the price for our service. As we read this story, let us take note of leadership lesson number three- if we are blessed to have families who support us, we owe them a huge debt of gratitude . We give lip service to their priority in our lives; let’s remember to demonstrate that commitment by our behavior.
Jethro sticks around long enough to observe Moses wearing himself out with the demands of his role, sitting to judge the people from morning until evening. It is Jethro who suggests to Moses that he cannot function as “an army of one,” that not even the greatest leader can do it all. And neither can we.
Jethro tells Moses to look for leaders who have specific strategic leader competencies- who have natural ability, who are in awe of the Divine, people of truth who are impervious to bribery and influence. Learning to delegate is the fourth important take-away from this story. And, leaders must express a commitment to values in word and in deed.
Fifth lesson- leadership requires much patience, and here, again, we can learn from Moses what NOT to do. Like Soldiers too long in the field, the Israelites have ongoing complaints about the chow. When they press him for water, Moses turns in anger to his people and denounces them as “rebels.” “Leadership,” we read, in DDE 2301, “is a relationship, a unique and special trust between the leader and followers.” Once that trust is broken, it becomes impossible to lead.
In that moment of anger, leadership shifts to Joshua. We cannot lead without a sense of caring for those in our charge. If we lose that, it is time to step aside. Guess our man Moses needed to spend a little more time with that Strategic Leadership Primer!
Despite these few flaws, however, Moses has one overriding quality that we intensely need to emulate- one final lesson for us. The book of Numbers, 12:3, describes Moses as incredibly humble. Now this is counter-intuitive. One might think that he would be justifiably proud of his accomplishment in leading the Israelites from slavery to freedom, shepherding them for 40 years in the wilderness, and bringing them to the Promised Land. Arrogance is so tempting, especially for successful leaders, yet Moses is “the most humble man who ever lived.”
Humility requires the capability of admitting our mistakes and acknowledging when we are wrong or when we simply don’t know. In Jewish tradition, acknowledging our sins is built into the calendar onthe Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year. We all need to be aware of our human imperfection.
The Talmud notes that if one person calls you an ass, you may ignore them. If two people call you an ass, you ought to seriously ponder the possibility. If you hear it from a third source, buy a saddle! Rabbi Harold Kushner expresses it thus- the four holiest words in the English language are, “I may be wrong,” and it behooves us to practice saying them.
The story is told of a Rabbi who stood before the congregation, beating his chest as he recited the confessional prayer, “I am so humble before you, Holy God.” The Cantor chimed in, “I, too, confess my unworthiness.” From the rear of the sanctuary comes the voice of the shammes, the guy who hands out the books and picks up the bulletins, “I, too, am nothing in Your presence.” The Rabbi turns to the Cantor and says, “Look who thinks he’s nothing!”
Each of us here in this First Year Residence Course can be justifiably proud of our accomplishment. This is an elite group, and there is a great temptation to be arrogant about our selection for the honor of being students in this great institution. The lesson of Moses reminds us of the need for humility.
A rabbinic sage once suggested that we should each have in our pockets two slips of paper. On one should be written, “The world was created for my sake.” On the other- “I am but dust and ashes.” The secret to wisdom, then, is knowing when we need to read each message. Sometimes we need to have utmost confidence in our own abilities. Sometimes we need to consider that we don’t have all the answers.
As we meditate on the leadership example of Moses, we appreciate the support of our families, we remember the need to develop leadership in others, a leadership that is founded on a deep commitment to values and caring, and we reflect on the need to maintain perspective on our own strengths and weaknesses.
What a gift to study with this amazing group of students and teachers. May we all be blessed in the year ahead with health, with strength, with wisdom and gratitude. Thank you so much for the humbling privilege of speaking to you this morning.
US Army War College
20 June 2012
CH (COL) Bonnie Koppell