Learning Leadership From Moses
Discussions about leadership today are often filled with wistfulness about our current lack of it. Alternatively, much of the promotional literature about leadership brims with unreflective enthusiasm about the prospects for creating more and better leaders. Institutions, including the church and the government, seem to be floundering, and in order to set things right we think we need “leadership.” Election season is upon us in the United States, although these days it seems that one election season bleeds right into the next, with little time for “governing season.” The airwaves are filled with campaign ads promising leadership that will solve our national problems. At the same time, both in the academic world and within the church, there is a growing demand for strong institutional leadership. In order to meet this demand, many universities and theological schools tout their leadership development programs, which are often heavily influenced by business management models. Regrettably, such programs are rarely shaped by deep theological reflection about leadership that is rooted in Scripture and the wisdom of the Christian tradition.
The Christian tradition has had a complex relationship with notions of leadership. The yearning for strong leaders can be a sign of insecurity and fear. And those who actively aspire to leadership are sometimes driven by egotism and an unholy desire for power. This can be a dangerous combination. Christian Scripture calls us to careful, critical reflection about our hankering to lead or be led. After all, it was “the rulers of this age”—the leaders and shapers of policy—who crucified the Lord of glory (1 Corinthians 2:8).
But skepticism about leadership, power, and the relationship between leaders and followers is not the definitive Christian answer to the question of leadership. Scripture also speaks positively about the need for leadership, and it offers numerous stories of those called to exercise it. “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7). The apostle Paul exhorted the church in Corinth, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). As these texts indicate, the testimony of the Bible does not allow us to reject the concept of leadership; on the other hand, neither does it portray leadership in terms identical to the corporate or political models familiar in our time. Thus, the challenge before us—in the Divinity School and in the church—is to think through the tasks of leadership in light of the examples that we find in the scriptural stories.
The archetypical leader in the Bible is Moses, who led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, on a long trek through the desert, to the borders of the land of promise. What might it mean for us to imitate his faith and manner of leadership? A close reading of his story suggests at least seven characteristics of faithful and wise leadership.
First, Moses’ leadership expressed the compassion of God. When God spoke to Moses from the burning bush, he declared, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them” (Exodus 3:7–8a). The suffering of the people touched God’s heart, and so he summoned Moses as the instrument of their liberation. If Moses was going to carry out the mission given to him, he had to share that pain in the heart of God. It was God’s desire to free the people from their taskmasters.
One crucial task for those whom God calls as leaders today is to discern where people are crying out under harsh taskmasters; some of them may be subtle but insidiously powerful cultural forces. True leadership is impossible without compassion for the captivity and suffering of those who are to be led. Later in the story, after the incident of the golden calf, we see the full depth of Moses’ compassionate identification with the people when he interceded with God to forgive their sin and even offered himself to be blotted out of God’s book to make atonement for them (Exodus 32:30–32). Though God rejected Moses’ offer, the episode illuminates Moses’ deep concern for his people.
Second, Moses assumed leadership not because he aspired to it, but because he was unexpectedly called. In the story of the burning bush (Exodus 3:1–10), we may imagine the awestruck Moses, up through verse 9, nodding and silently