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Leadership in the wilderness

Moses’ crisis in the desert arose from an awareness that he did not have the means to meet basic needs, at least not without pain and sacrifice. His response offers some lessons for today’s challenges in higher education, says Bill Laramee.

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August 3, 2010

Exodus 16

Exodus 16 is very familiar and has been effectively explored many times to make points about the grace of God, the liberation of peoples under slavery and more -- incredibly powerful and important interpretations.

My reading of the text, however, goes in a slightly different direction. I want to share some reflections on what we learn about servant leadership from Moses, and how we in higher education might apply his teachings to present-day challenges.

We find Moses, a guy now 80 years old, who has spent four decades herding sheep (though living in the king’s palace), and probably thinking that his life’s work was close to done.

You might say that he was living in obscurity, and we assume mostly OK with the life he lives. He’s getting ready to retire, to collect his 401(k), and eventually to live in an assisted living center with other old buddies.

Then -- surprise -- God calls upon him to lead his people. We are given some of his response, but I’m guessing that Moses must have said at some point, “You’ve got to be kidding. You must have dialed the wrong number. I’m too old for this. I’m sure you can find someone younger and more capable.” God says, “Nope, sorry, you’re it Moses -- you’re my man.” After a few other exchanges, we read that Moses accepts the challenge, and a journey begins into a wilderness.

Understand that Moses did not have a lot of time to make sense of what was happening. He did not have a leadership team, a scenario planning committee, a board of trustees, a 12-quarter rolling average to reduce the volatility, a rainy day reserve fund, an endowment or a governance structure to help determine needed direction.

He had a wife, a couple of grown sons, a bunch of woolies constantly looking down and eating, a walking stick, and, by the way, no map -- he had never left Egypt! “You want me to go where?” he may have murmured.

He is commanded to manage what we might understand to be the “crisis of wilderness”: a crisis that comes from an awareness that one does not have the means to meet basic needs, at least not without pain and sacrifice.

Leadership is most often tested and judged in times of change -- a journey to somewhere else, often unknown, when we “see through the glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

So he, like those of us in positions of leadership, understands that true servant leadership in times of significant change requires a special set of skills. Parker Palmer, a noted teacher, writes of overcoming the “tyranny of the primitive brain.” The part of our brain that is responsible for “fight or flight” can sometimes help species survive but can also diminish or even destroy human beings.

We see this with the Hebrews as they want to resolve their situation right now. I can hear them once again: “Moses, this is not the gig we planned for. If it’s OK with you, we’re turning around. And do write when you get where you are going.”

Palmer speaks to the importance of holding life’s tensions, what he calls the “tragic gap,” to nurture a responsive heart instead of the reactive brain. The tragic gap is “a gap between the way things are and the way we know they might be.” He goes on to say that all great religious traditions “at their best aim at helping us hold tension and the suffering it brings in ways that enhance spiritual creativity and build the beloved community.”

Moses, like all servant leaders, is called to help others live in -- if not even embrace -- the tragic gap and to respond appropriately. As Palmer suggests, it’s important to embrace complexity, find comfort in ambiguity and entertain contradictory ideas.

From my own experience I would offer some ways to translate that to a modern context. Leaders should model patience in order to give time for others to “come to know”; they should develop trust by maintaining a practice that some have called narrative imagination, or seeing the world through the eyes of the other; and they should avoid rushing to incomplete solutions while also recognizing the importance of short-term wins in order to maintain some sense of hope and confidence.

In the case of Moses, as it is with many institutions in the process of change, the tragic gap demands movement, a journey to some unknown place. For Moses it meant leaving the Elim oasis; for others it may mean leaving the “oasis” of large budgets or endowments and all their comforts.

Charles R. Swindoll, in his book “Moses,” suggests that “the secret of happiness in life is perspective.”

Perspective had to have pervaded Moses’ life, as it must pervade the lives of leaders in these times of rapid change. As Swindoll points out, Moses left the familiar, did the unusual, defied the critics, took no shortcuts -- all actions requiring considerable effort to maintain perspective. Again, is not our work to help others to maintain perspective?

In some ways servant leadership requires one to be passionate and dispassionate by hearing the pain and concerns of others while also reminding them that the good old days were never as good as we may think and that the future may, in fact, surpass our expectations.

Dennis Olson, professor of Old Testament at Princeton Seminary, offers what he sees as the principal lesson of leadership from the Moses account, the “manna principle of leadership.”

God responded to the Israelites’ complaining by providing enough food for each day, and on the sixth day twice as much could be gathered so that rest would occur on the seventh day (Exodus 16:4-15).

Olson explains that the manna story is not about what they were eating but rather about “God’s trustworthy generosity, the need for equity in the distribution of resources related to basic human needs such as food, and reassurance in the face of common human urges to hoard out of fear and anxiety for the future.”

The manna principle of leadership recognizes that even in times of wilderness and chaos, “the sabbath economy of manna, grace, gift, equality, and trust will have the final say over the economy of Egypt and the Pharaohs of the world,” Olson writes.

And I’m guessing many faculty and staff of today’s colleges think of others as the agents of manna leadership, especially looking to their presidents, vice presidents and trustees.

But in the broadest and most important sense -- and especially in faith-based institutions -- all are called to be manna leaders. The journey to a new place is a shared responsibility, a collective project that derives its authority from a cooperative attachment to mutually defined commitments, values, and smart visions and strategies.

One person cannot do it all when in the wilderness. There are too many moving parts when trying to find solutions to complex problems.

All must seek to listen; to willingly accept delegated responsibility; to contribute what one is able; to help hold the tension of the tragic gap; to maintain perspective and witness the Sabbath economy.

Times like that of Moses (and maybe ours as well) require constancy -- these are not the times to pull back or to allow our efforts to slide back into comfortable complacency, to say that this problem is someone else’s to solve.

But what about that seventh day? God commands us to take time out to rest, to worship, and simply to enjoy the wondrous gifts of life, love and the desert with all its wildness and challenge. Berea and many other colleges and universities clearly have some serious work to do. But as we go forward, do not miss the beauty that surrounds us or overly burden ourselves with extra baggage; let’s even enjoy the wilderness journey and its wonder; and let’s make sure that we stop occasionally under the shade of an old oak tree and sip water together, in community and in thanksgiving for all the good that has been done.

The clouds we may see at the moment will go behind us; and the path to the sea will appear. That’s our faith; that’s what servant leadership understands; and may it be so.