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Leadership and Silence

I've written elsewhere about quiet leadership, the kind that speaks with a "still, small voice" (I Kings 19:12). Today, I want to focus more specifically on silence. These thoughts have their roots in a combination of my reading of the second chapter in this week's parasha (מטות-מסעי) and of losing my voice for a few days last week.

I was surprised to find that saying less at work actually forced me to give more space to others and helped me to focus on essentials rather than get caught up in details. My frustrations at this temporary physical limitation also reminded me how much ego is involved in running meetings, asking questions, teaching, and so on. I'm tempted to recommend that everyone try leading in complete silence for a whole day, every once in a while. It's definitely good for the soul, and it's probably also good for business!

Numbers 31 includes two incidents related to leadership and silence. The first occurs at the start of the chapter (verses 1-3), when God commands Moses to wage war against the Midianites:

And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: 'Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites; afterward shalt thou be gathered unto thy people.' And Moses spoke unto the people, saying: 'Arm ye men from among you for the war, that they may go against Midian, to execute the Lord's vengeance on Midian.

Rashi comments on verse 3: "And Moses spoke unto the people, etc - Even though he heard that his death hang upon it, he did it joyously and did not delay.”

In other words, even though Moses knew that God intended to take his life immediately after he completed this assignment, he approached the task with the same commitment and enthusiasm with which he fulfilled all God's commandments.

Moses's conspicuous silence and obedience at a moment so heavy with tragic personal implications is perhaps one of his most outstanding acts of leadership. Moses was not afraid to confront God, or even to bargain with Him. But one of the things that made him a great leader was his ability to know when to speak out and when to remain silent; when to lead and when to follow.

Though there is a tendency to think of leadership as a character trait, it is more like a practice: something one does rather than something one is. All great leaders have the ability not only to lead loudly from the front but also to push gently from behind, to guide quietly from the side, and, yes, also to follow, when that is what the situation requires. Moses's silence in verse 3 communicates louder than any words his total commitment to fulfilling God's commandments and establishing His kingdom on earth. Indeed, it is perhaps the most eloquent statement he ever made about his vision and values.

A second instance of silence and leadership In Numbers 31 occurs when the army returns from its battle with the Midianites. Moses sees that, although they have killed all the Midianite males, they have taken captive the women and children. Moses's reaction (Numbers 31:14) is to become enraged at the officers:

And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, with the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, which came from the battle.

Rashi interpreted Moses's anger as follows: "And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host - Those appointed over the army; to teach you that the transgression of an entire generation hangs on the great among them, who have the power to protest.”

In other words, according to Rashi, Moses's anger is directed at the officers in particular because they remained silent when they should have spoken out. This reminds me of John Stewart Mill's (1867) statement that: "Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends than that good men should look on and do nothing."

Leaders spend much of their time leading through words and actions. But some of the most crucial moments of leadership are - for better or worse - moments of silence or inaction. Indeed it is on such moments that one's entire mission as a leader sometimes hangs.

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