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Everything I Know About Leadership I Learned From Moses

May 9, 2009 | by Emuna Braverman

Are you willing to stand up, look everyone in the eye, and say, "I'll make it happen"?

Hollywood did us a big favor. It ensured that everyone knows the name of the most famous leader in Jewish history. Jews and non-Jews the world over recognize that Moses was the man who led the Jewish people out of slavery into freedom.

What the movies don't show, however, are Moses' qualities that made him ly suited to this role. These are characteristics inherent in everyone that, if nurtured and nourished, can help us actualize our personal leadership potential. This power lies dormant in every human being waiting for us to capitalize on it and bring its promise to fruition.

To fully understand the requirements of leadership, as exemplified by Moses, we need to briefly step back in time.


Moses was raised in the palace. He had wealth and power. He had every material comfort imaginable. In Egyptian culture, Moses had it made. So what did he do?

Moses ... went out to his brethren and observed their burdens and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, of his brethren. He turned this way and that and saw there was no man, so he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.

In these ancient words lie the secret to modern leadership.


  1. To choose to identify with others is the first essential quality of leadership.

    Moses went out to his brethren. He identified with his people. He didn't have to, he'd made it out of the ghetto, he didn't have to go back. Indeed, it would cost him to go back, and no one would know the difference if he didn't identify with them. He could have continued to lead a totally assimilated, comfortable existence. But he didn't. He went out of his way to identify with his brothers and sisters.

    If you treat your colleagues or subordinates as real people with real lives, you will be much more successful than if you look at them as either obstacles to, or tools for, your personal success. If they feel cared about, they are much more likely to go the extra mile.

    There is a moving story in "Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work" about a manager overhearing a new employee, a single mom, explain to her young son why she couldn't buy him a baseball glove. The manager gave her a gift of one the next day and that mother is now a manager herself.

  2. In going out to his people, Moses exhibited the crucial leadership trait of humility.

    To identify with the Jews, oppressed and downtrodden, when all the power of Pharaoh's palace is yours for the taking, requires tremendous humility. Power can lead to arrogance. Moses conquered his ego when he walked out the palace doors. Only someone who is truly humble, who is willing to listen and not constantly be governed by selfish desires or interests can be an effective long-term leader.

    Recognize that everyone has something to contribute. Listen to the ideas of your coworkers. Give them credit for the good ones. If you are responsive to others, more ideas will come your way. You won't lose. An arrogant boss/peer is ultimately rejected, despised and ineffective.

  3. A corollary of the trait of humility is that you believe in the message, not the messenger.

    It's not about self-promotion. It's about helping others. It's about teaching others. It's about helping others achieve their potential. It's about the mission.

    That was Ronald Reagan's power. Whatever your personal opinion of Reagan or his politics, no one denies that he was able to re-infuse a sense of patriotism and pride in this country. Why? Because he believed in the message. In authentic leadership, the power and truth of the message need to carry the day.

  4. Moses observed the burdens of his brothers. Traditional understanding is that Moses empathized with them. Their pain was his pain.

    Did you ever notice how differently you react when your neighbor's child is bleeding and when your child is bleeding? When your neighbor is fired from his or her job or when you're fired from your job? When your colleague gets a promotion and when you get a promotion?

    For Moses, their joy was his joy also.

    Empathy is a key to strong leadership. Everyone needs to feel listened to, everyone needs to feel understood, everyone needs to feel appreciated. You can't lead people who feel alienated from you, who feel that your concerns are irrelevant to them. You can't lead when you have hundreds of pairs of shoes in your closet and people are dying of hunger. You can only lead when everyone's experiences are (almost) as real to you as your own.

  5. Moses turned this way and that and saw there was no man. In that action he displayed pragmatism, but more importantly he took responsibility.

Pragmatism is certainly a crucial component of leadership. But beyond the superficial reading of the text lies a more profound idea: Welcome the opportunity to take responsibility.

In "Ethics of our Fathers" it says: "In the place where there is no man, strive to be a man."

A leader is not necessarily someone who has the all the appropriate talent in place for the job at hand. A leader is someone who sees the job at hand and does something about it, who recognizes that the task is crucial and no one else is doing it.


Seth Godin writes in Fast Company that what holds up some companies' ability to change is "the absence of someone who is willing to stand up, look everyone in the eye, and say 'I'll make it happen.'"

He doesn't say a genius is missing, he doesn't say an MBA from Wharton is missing, he doesn't say that someone with a particular managerial talent is missing. What's missing is someone willing to take responsibility.

The defining character trait of a leader is someone who is willing to take responsibility, someone who is willing to step up to the plate because the job needs to be done.

Moses was that person. He wasn't perfect, he wasn't experienced, he stuttered when he spoke. But when he saw his people were in trouble, when he saw a job that needed to be done, he acted. He took responsibility, even at risk to his own life. Therefore the Almighty chose him to lead. It wasn't magical or supernatural. You don't have to have the charisma of a JFK or even a Bill Clinton. You just have to choose.

We demonstrate to ourselves, our partners, our children, our friends, our colleagues, our community what is important to us by our actions. It's up to us. We can actualize that latent potential. Think about it. What are you willing to risk? What are the crucial jobs that need to be done? Don't wait. Carpe diem.


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