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Transitioning Leadership

One of the most difficult tasks faced by a community is the orderly transition of power from one leader to the next. Every nation, religious group, society, organization, and family inevitably faces the challenge of how to transfer allegiance and authority from the accepted leader to the appointed successor.

In this week’s portion, the Israelites face this challenge. Nearing the end of their forty year trek from Egypt to Israel, they also anticipate the inevitable demise of Moses. In order to secure the future of the community, the legitimation of Moses’ successor must occur.

Often the most difficult and poignant task in managing transition is convincing the current leader that the time has come for him/her to step aside. How tenaciously do leaders resist retirement, often losing sight of what may be best for the community while focusing only on what they think is best for themselves. Perhaps we can learn an important lesson from the way in which the transition of leadership from Moses begins.

“Moses spoke to the Lord saying: Let the Lord…appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the Lord’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepard.” (Numbers 27:15-17)

The remarkable thing here is that it is Moses himself who determines that it is time for him to begin relinquishing power. Immediately prior to this passage, Moses is informed by God that his own life is nearing its end. Rather than engaging in protest or attempting to negotiate more time for himself, Moses asks God to appoint a successor.

We hope that transitions of leadership do not occur in the shadow of death, and we prefer retirement to removal as the metaphor for letting go of power. Yet even when the cause of transition is an impending death, there are communities and leaders which simply cannot contemplate the cycle of loss and succession, and consequently make no plans to insure the orderly ascension of legitimate leadership.

The final days of King David, for example, provide a detailed description of how not to manage transition. David is unable to define with authority how he envisions the succession to the throne, and consequently he creates chaos and competition among his wives and sons.

After Moses implores God to designate a new leader, “the Lord answered Moses: Single out Joshua…an inspired man, and lay your hand upon him. Have him stand before Eleazar the Priest and before the whole community and commission him in their sight. Invest him with some of your authority, so that the whole Israelite community may obey. But he shall present himself to Eleazar the Priest, who shall on his behalf seek the decision of the Urim before the Lord. By such instruction they shall go out and by such instruction they shall come in, he and all the Israelites, the whole community.”(27:18-21)

Although it is Moses who asks for a successor, it is God who makes the choice as to who will be the new leader. One might think that God’s designation would be adequate, yet the Torah suggests that the commissioning of Joshua must take place before the religious leadership (Eleazar) as well as the entire community. Without their acceptance of the new leader, his task would be compromised.

Yet even as Joshua receives the authorization of Moses in front of the community, the Torah suggests that the style of leadership will be different. One leader cannot be expected to mimic the model of his predecessor. Joshua, therefore, will not be able or allowed to rely on his own intuition. He will need to consult the priests who communicate with God through the Urim, or sacred lots.

As a model of assuaging anxiety during transition, this passage is exemplary. While the people know they need a leader, they also need to know that the leader is in touch with and responsive to the existing structures and history of the community. By linking Joshua’s decision making power to consultation with the religious authorities, the Torah indicates the importance of sharing power between a new leader and the organizational infrastructure which represents continuity.

Ultimately, it is Moses who lays his hands upon Joshua and confers legitimacy. In this gesture, we learn the most important lesson of managing change: the respected and recognized leader must demonstrate his support for and confidence in the chosen successor. Having done that, the retiring leader must have the grace to step aside.

Transitions can be traumatic, and change is challenging. The Torah teaches that transitions are inevitable, and that the key is to manage them in ways that support continuity, involve the consent of the community, and demonstrate the willingness on the part of the departing leader to support the new leader.

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