Boring Leadership, Moses’ Humility and the ‘Action Fallacy’

Written by Rabbi Elliott Karstadt — 25 June 2024

It is very much a symptom of our national condition that England are most of the way towards progression out of the group stages of the Euros, and yet everyone seems very downbeat about their chances. Now, I haven’t watched any of the team’s efforts over the last week – all I have seen are the results, which appear to have been pretty reasonable, and England are doing what they need to do to qualify. But as a nation we seem to be already mourning our failure. I wonder whether it has something to do with an assumption that a good story is one that is entertaining and full of drama, even if it is not ultimately successful.

This week, I have been reading a book by historian Martin Gutmann about leadership. Gutmann spends his time thinking about how the example of leaders from the past can teach us about what it means to succeed as a leader today. He argues that we often revere the wrong leaders. He says that all too often we get distracted by the ‘Action Fallacy’ – the idea that someone is a good leader because they act, not necessarily because they succeed. He begins with the example of Ernest Shackleton and his failed expedition to Antarctica in 1914.

Many, many books have been written on Shackleton and the lessons he can teach contemporary leaders on how to lead – despite the fact that Shackleton was not successful in what he set out to achieve, which was crossing the continent of Antarctica. Well before even reaching land, Shackleton’s ship became trapped – frozen in place in a huge sheet of ice.

Gutmann explains: ‘Shackleton disregarded indications that the pack ice was particularly hazardous in 1914, neglected to adequately train his team, and overlooked significant shortcomings in his selection of equipment. Once in trouble … he worked admirably to get his men back to safety. But it was he above all who got them stuck in the ice in the first place.’

By way of comparison, Gutmann invites us to consider another explorer – one of whom we have probably never heard: a man called Roald Amunsen. Amunsen was not the natural self-promoter that Shackleton was, and he was a working-class Norwegian rather than an aristocratic Brit – which goes some way towards explaining why we have not heard as much about him.

There is also the fact that his successful expeditions to the North Pole and the South Pole, as well as his successful navigations of both the Northeast and Northwest Passages, none of which are widely known, courted very little drama.

Gutmann tells us in his book The Unseen Leader, that Amundsen’s crew spend the majority of the time on their way to the South Pole asleep. He figured that, when they were not needed to overcome the events that would inevitably assail them on their way to the Pole, that their time was much better spent resting and conserving their energy rather than continually engaging in military drills. Amundsen’s approach when confronted with ice was not to try to smash through it at full-steam as Shackleton was forced to. Rather, he sought to avoid being compressed in the ice in the first place. For example, through the design of his ship, which allowed the ship to be pushed upwards when compressed by the ice, rather than getting stuck in it.

He also ensured that all of his crew had the ability to ski – which might seem obvious when you are attempting an expedition through ice, meaning that you might need to ski your way out. But Shackleton had not cared so much to ensure that his crew could ski.

Gutmann puts Amundsen’s relative obscurity down to what he calls the ‘Action Fallacy’ – the idea that great leaders are the ones who act, who are bold, who come back with a dramatic story to tell of daring and adventure. He focused on success rather than drama. He made it look easy – which is why many have attributed his successes to luck, rather than to prodigious skill and meticulous forward-planning.

Amundsen himself understood this. He said: ‘Victory awaits him who has everything in order – luck people call it. Defeat is certain for those who have neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.’ In other words, there those whose skill, forward-planning, and meticulous preparation for the paths they set themselves upon, mean that when they succeed, those who watch them do so simply dismiss that success as luck; or that what they faced was easy.

Gutmann argues that this causes us to venerate the wrong leaders.

The Book of Numbers is full of moments in which the Israelites challenge Moses’ leadership. Dino’s reading included two such moments: one in which the Israelites complain about the blandness of the food they receive in the wilderness and ask for meat; another in which Moses’ own brother and sister accuse him of hoarding power for himself, at the same time as criticising him about his wife (and, as Dino taught us, there a number of interpretations as to what exactly he is being criticised for). In each case, Moses’ ability to lead is being called into question. And there will be a number of other incidents to come in this book in which Moses’ leadership ability is challenged.

The fact that the Hebrew name for the Book of Numbers – it’s first significant word – is b’midbar ‘in the wilderness’ – the book begins with this indication that the journey the Israelites are on is beset with peril.

The Israelites find themselves in a position in which the quality of their leadership is paramount. The wilderness is an incredibly dangerous place, and the ability to coordinate the people – to bring them together to act collectively for their overall good – to be their leader, is going to define whether their journey will ultimately be a success.

And this is important. Because as Gutmann says right at the beginning of his book, ‘the world has ever more uncertain and complex in the last two decades’ and ‘the search for leaders and leadership secrets to help navigate this complexity has grown correspondingly’. In other words, the human need for leadership has expanded, and this is reflected in the amount of money organisations and communities spend on improving leadership. And this need has not gone unnoticed. In 2018, in the US alone, companies spent in excess of $50 billion on developing their leaders. So, we know that good leadership is important and we value it.

And this is also really important – because like the rest of the world, we as a community and a Jewish people need leadership, and not just from rabbis. We need to have lay leaders who are prepared for the challenges that face our people in the twenty-first century.

Next week, Rabbi Golan will be taking a group of young leaders from Alyth to Tbilisi in Georgia to meet up with leaders from Israeli Reform communities, to consider what it means to be progressive Jewish leaders today – to consider the opportunities and the pitfalls that are presenting themselves to us.

So, what should we learn from Moses in the wilderness?

Moses is said to be the most humble of leaders, and it is in this portion that we find this stated very strongly. After Miriam and Aaron criticise him, we are told:

וְהָאִ֥ישׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה עָנָ֣ו מְאֹ֑ד מִכֹּל֙ הָֽאָדָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הָאֲדָמָֽה׃

Not only was Moses the most humble of leaders – he was the most humble person – who lived upon the face the earth. (Not that the Torah is ever guilty of exaggeration.)

Moses’ humility is the thing that makes him successful in the wilderness – he knows God’s plan and sticks to it – it is when others think they know better that things start going wrong.

But – if we think that humility is therefore the only quality of a good leader, we are missing something. Because the lesson of Shackleton and Amundsen is that in, order to be good leaders, we need to be flexible and we need to know when to act. When to be humble, and when to be bold. When to crank up the engines and when to let them lie. We need to be able to put aside ego for the sake of the good of the mission.

There is another example of this later in the Book of Numbers, when the twelve spies return from Israel and the majority of them declare that the mission is doomed. And God punishes the people for their insolence at not having faith in the plan (having faith in God’s power and ability to carry them through).

What happens next is 38 years of inactivity. What we might call boring leadership. There is no drama.

The medieval Spanish commentator Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed, states that the reason nothing really happens for 38 years is that Moses takes time out to deal with the aftermath of the incident of the spies – that he is no mentally anguished by it that prophecy fails him. And so we could argue that he makes the very sensible (but perhaps boring) decision to pause everything while his mental health returns to what it was. So that he is then able to calmly lead the people to the end of the journey.

So, good leadership can often be boring, but we so often overlook boring and successful leaders in favour of ones with a good story.

We have witnessed in our national life, a veneration of leaders whose stories are dramatic, tempestuous and entertaining. And we forget the competent, relatively boring leadership that gets things done and makes people’s lives better.

With the general election in just a few weeks, let us dwell in this question of leadership – do we need bold leaders who excite us – or boring ones who succeed?