How to step back from leadership

Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 21 January 2020

On Monday a statement was issued by the Royal Family surrounding the future involvement of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle as working members of the Royal Family. The couple announced their departure over Instagram and on their personal website, without warning to the other members of the Royal Family. They spoke of wanting to attain a geographic balance, splitting their time between the UK and North America, to enable them to raise their son with an appreciation for the royal tradition, whilst also providing their family with space to focus on their next chapter.

In stepping back from their roles as senior royals, Harry and Meghan will no longer receive funding from the Sovereign Grant, public money which pays for the cost of official royal duties. They will continue to be members of the royal family but will gain financial independence and the ability to take on paid employment.

The statement issued by Her Majesty the Queen relayed the complexity of the discussions and showed support of Harry and Meghan’s desire to create a new independent life. Whilst they acknowledged there was still work to do to come to a resolution, all parties agreed to transition to a new way of life collaboratively.

To many their statement was no shock, there had been evidence of their unhappiness and struggle with their lives and positions. They had previously spoken out about their mental health, which they voiced has suffered under the scrutiny of the press.

However, it is undeniable that their statement has caused both sadness and anger, both within the Royal family and to the public. In their roles, Harry and Meghan have reached people that other royals don’t. They have been in part responsible for the reinvention and refreshment of the institution.

Harry and Meghan are not the first leaders to turn away from their public responsibilities. We have seen it countless times in politics, with party leaders stepping back before a task is fulfilled. Sometimes knowing when to step back is the mark of a great leader. It shows a reflective practitioner and needs a level of self-awareness to realise when they are not pushing forward with the same excitement and joy as before.

Yet sometimes stepping back is not the sign of a good leader, but rather a leader that is selfish, and leads from a place of ego and pride. Often when people refuse to lead, they make themselves more important than the people they are being called to serve. They leave those around them feeling rejected, like their investment in them as a leader has been squandered.

This week we begin the story of our most well-known leader, Moses, the first of our biblical prophets who attempts to step back from a leadership role. This week he turns down his call to power not just once, but five times. He begins with modesty, for who is he to go to Pharaoh. He points out his lesser status amongst the Israelites, focuses on his speech impediment, asks for another agent to take his place.

We are led to assume that Moses did not take the role eagerly because of his humility, for we are told in in Numbers (12:3) that Moses is ‘a very humble man, more so than any other human being on earth.’ However, the complexity of our layered tradition also sees the sages offering us an alternative view, suggesting that his refusal to lead may not be a sign of humility but rather a sign of ego.

The rabbis use a parable to relay the story of his refusal from God’s perspective. They write:

It is like a king who had a servant he loved the most. The king wanted to make him administrator of the palace. What did the king do? He took the servant and showed him all the silver vessels, golden vessels, fine stones and gems. After this, he brought him outside and showed him the trees, gardens, parks, and all his fields.

Afterward, the servant said, ‘I am unable to be the administrator’.

The king said to him, ‘Since you knew that you could not be the administrator, why did you put me through all this trouble?!’

And the king was angry and decreed the servant should never enter his palace.” (Mekhilta De-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 1:4)

Like the King, God had invested time in the prospective leader, asking for his leadership for six days. When Moses finally said on the seventh day, ‘make someone else your agent’ God was rightly angry, for if Moses had known he would not assume the responsibility from the beginning, then perhaps God would have invested the time differently, looking for someone else.

In this midrash, the sages deem that it was this action that led to the punishment that Moses would not enter the Land of Israel with the rest of the people. Worse still, at Moses’ wish of finding another agent, God decreed Joshua, his disciple whom he taught himself, should bring Israel into the land. Moses’ refusal here placed himself in a position of more importance than Israel, the people he was being called to serve. He acted not from a place of humility, but from a place of ego.

And it is not only the refusal itself that causes an issue with the sages but also the reasoning behind it. Moses states ‘what if they do not believe me and do not listen to me?’  Here Moses does not reflect humility, but instead a fear of failing and a want to protect himself. Again we see a moment of ego, where he places his needs at the centre.  By not having faith in the people, and not having faith in God who had already assured Moses he would be believed, he deems himself more important than both parties.

So, is it possible for a leader to step back with humility? Or when we step back from positions of power are we always placing our own needs first?

There is a concept in Kabbalistic thought that things need to contract in order to make space for other things to grow. This idea is known as tzimtzum and was first articulated by Rabbi Isaac Luria. It is used to explain how an infinite God made room for finite forms and beings in the world, through a process of divine self-contraction. Luria teaches that before tzimtzum there was light, that filled all existence and there was no space in the universe. The act of tzimtzum was contracting this light, leaving an empty space where creations could be formed and made.

This abstract concept can be related to our lives on an inter-personal level. If we take away the complexities of light, of infinite space and of God, we see that the concept of tzimtzum is the creation of a two-way relationship.

In application to our lives, tzimtzum is when an individual takes a step back to allow another person to shine. Whilst the person does not vanish, they create space for somebody new to learn and grow. It requires us to pass on responsibilities and cooperate with others. In teams where this truly works, people enter a mutual contraction, so that people have the chance both to shine and take the back seat. Tzimtzum it is a dynamic movement, allowing for conversation and not for a singular dominant force that has constant control.

Author, activist and lecturer Marianne Williamson wrote, ‘There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine…And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

May we learn to perfect the art of tzimtzum, to find a balance of humility and ego in our lives, to think carefully about the times when we need to step up and the times when we need to step back. May we enact self-care, listening to our needs and wants, whilst also caring about others and helping them to grow. Ultimately, may we be balanced leaders, willing to contract and create space, but also to shine and lead by example.