Adaptive and technical: 2 types of leadership


In this week’s parsha, Beha’alotcha, Moses has a breakdown. It is the lowest emotional ebb of his entire career as a leader. Listen to his words to G-d:

Why have You treated Your servant so badly? Why have I found so little favor in Your sight that You lay all the burden of this people upon me? Was it I who conceived all this people? Was it I who gave birth to them all, that You should say to me, “Carry them in your lap, as a nursemaid carries a baby”? … I cannot bear all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how You treat me, kill me now, if I find any found favor in Your sight, and let me not see my own misery. (Num. 11:11-15)

The cause of his distress seems utterly disproportionate to its effect. The people have done what they so often did before. They have complained. They say:

We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost, the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic! But now our throats are dry. There is nothing at all but this manna to look at. (Num. 11:5-6)

Many times before, Moses faced this kind of complaint from the people. There are several such instances in the book of Exodus, including one almost exactly similar:

If only we had died by the L-rd’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate our fill of bread. Instead you have brought us out into this desert to starve the entire assembly to death. (Ex. 16:3)

On these earlier occasions Moses did not give expression to the kind of despair he speaks of here. Usually, when leaders face repeated challenges, they grow stronger each time. They learn how to respond, how to cope. They develop resilience, a thick skin. They formulate survival strategies. Why then does Moses seem to do the opposite, not only here but often throughout the book of Numbers?

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In the chapters that follow, Moses seems to lack the unshakeable determination he had in Exodus. At times, as in the episode of the spies, he seems surprisingly passive, leaving it to others to fight the battle. At others, he seems to lose control and becomes angry, something a leader should not do. Something has changed, but what? Why the breakdown, the burnout, the despair?

A fascinating insight is provided by the innovative work of Prof. Ronald Heifetz, co-founder and director of the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

Heifetz distinguishes between technical challenges and adaptive challenges. A technical challenge is one where you have a problem and someone else has the solution. You are ill, you go to the doctor, he diagnoses your condition and prescribes a pill. All you have to do is follow the instructions.

Adaptive challenges are different. They arise when we are part of the problem. You are ill, you go to the doctor, and he tells you: I can give you a pill, but the truth is that you are going to have to change your lifestyle. You are overweight, out of condition, you sleep too little and are exposed to too much stress. Pills won’t help you until you change the way you live.

Adaptive leadership is called for when the world is changing, circumstances are no longer what they were, and what once worked works no more. There is no quick fix for such things, no miracle pill, no simple following of instructions. We have to change. What’s more, the leader cannot do this for us. He must inspire, but we have to follow through.

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The fundamental difference between the books of Exodus and Numbers is that in Exodus, Moses is called on to exercise technical leadership. The Israelites are enslaved? G-d sends signs and wonders, ten plagues, and the Israelites go free. They need to escape from Pharaoh’s chariots? Moses lifts his staff and G-d divides the sea. They are hungry? G-d sends manna from heaven. Thirsty? G-d sends water from a rock. When they have a problem, the leader, Moses, together with G-d, provides the solution. The people do not have to exert themselves at all.

In the book of Numbers, however, the equation has changed. The Israelites have completed the first part of their journey. They have left Egypt, reached Sinai, and made a covenant with G-d. Now they are on their way to the Promised Land. Moses’ role is now different. Instead of providing technical leadership, he has to provide adaptive leadership. He has to get the people to change, to exercise responsibility, to learn to do things for themselves while trusting in G-d, instead of relying on G-d to do things for them.

It is precisely because Moses understands this that he is so devastated when he sees that the people haven’t changed at all. They are still complaining about the food, almost exactly as they did before the revelation at Mount Sinai, before their covenant with G-d, before they themselves had built the Sanctuary, their first creative endeavor together.

He has to teach them to adapt, but he senses — rightly as it transpires — that they are simply unable to change their pattern of response, the result of years of slavery. They are passive, and overly dependent. They have lost the capacity for self-motivated action. As we eventually discover, it will take a new generation, born in freedom, to develop the strengths needed for self-governance, which is the precondition of freedom.

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Adaptive leadership is intensely difficult. People resist change. They erect barriers against it. One is denial. A second is anger. A third is blame. That is why adaptive leadership is emotionally draining in the extreme. Many of the great adaptive leaders — among them Lincoln, Gandhi, John F. and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr, Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin — were assassinated. Their greatness was posthumous. Only in retrospect were they seen by their own people as heroes. At the time, they were seen by many as a threat to the status quo, to all that is comfortingly familiar.

Moses, with the insight of the greatest of the Prophets, intuitively sees all this. Hence his despair and his wish to die. It is far easier to be a technical leader than an adaptive one. It is easy to leave it to G-d, hard to realize that G-d is calling us to responsibility, to become His partners in the work of redemption.

Of course, the Torah does not leave it there. In Judaism, despair never has the last word. G-d comforts Moses, tells him to recruit seventy elders to share the burden of leadership with him, and gives him the strength to carry on. Adaptive leadership is, for Judaism, the highest form of leadership. That is what the Prophets did. Without relieving the people of their responsibility, they gave them a vision and a hope. They spoke difficult, challenging truths, and they did so with a passion that still has the power to inspire the better angels of our nature.

But with devastating honesty — never more so than in its account of Moses’ temporary breakdown — the Torah tells us that adaptive leadership is not easy, and that those who exercise it will face anger and criticism. They may come to feel that they have failed. But they have not. Moses remains the greatest leader the Jewish people has ever known, the man who almost single-handedly shaped the Israelites into a nation that never gave up or gave way to despair.

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Nowhere is the difficulty of adaptive leadership more simply summarized than in G-d’s words to Moses successor, Joshua:

Be strong and courageous, for you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them. But you must be strong and very courageous indeed to faithfully uphold all the Torah that Moses My servant commanded you .… (Joshua 1:6-7)

The first sentence speaks about military leadership. Joshua was to lead the people in their conquest of the land. The second verse speaks about spiritual leadership. Joshua was to ensure that he and the people kept faith with the covenant they had made with G-d.

The first, says the verse, demands courage, but the second demands exceptional courage. Change always does.

To fight an enemy is hard, to fight with yourself harder still. To help people find the strength to change: that is the highest leadership challenge of all.