Introverted Leaders- An Oxymoron?

Rabbi Alexander Davis

Rabbi Alexander Davis
January 20, 2013 / 9 Shevat 5773

D’var Torah based on Shabbat Morning Discussion

1/20/13  Parashat Bo  8 Shevat 5773

A hasid had a dream and he approached his rebbe for help him decipher it. “Rebbe, I dreamed that 300 hasidim dreamed that I was their leader. What does it mean? How should I understand it?

 After careful consideration, the rebbe responded: “When 300 hasidim dream that you are their leader, come see me!”

With a leadership initiative underway at Beth El, discussions about leadership at the Federation where I serve on the board, upcoming elections in Israel, etc., I have been thinking about leadership. I wonder, do you have to be gregarious to be a leader? Do you have to have charisma? Can a leader and be an introvert? Susan Cain, a lawyer and business executive explores this topic in her latest book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts:

Introversion- along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness- is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.

Culturally, we tend to associate leadership with extroversion. We prize leaders who are eager talkers over those who have something to say. But introverted leaders often possess an innate caution that may be more valuable than we realize. The charisma of ideas matters more than a leader’s gregarious charms.

We see both introverts and extroverts in our Torah and in Jewish tradition. Abraham who seeks out strangers to welcome into his tent is clearly an extrovert. Jacob, who sits alone studying in his tent is more of an introvert. Jewish tradition focuses heavily on community. We enjoy time in our “social” hall. But there are also elements that speak to the introvert such as the hasidic practice of meditation/seclusion called “hitbodedut.”

The most famous introvert in the Torah is Moshe. Moshe never looked for the spot light. He was not a self-promoter nor comfortable speaking in public. Moshe stands in contrast to his older brother, Aaron, the Israelites’ spokesman. While Aaron was talking with the people at the base of the mountain, Moshe was up alone on the mountain. Why would God choose an introvert for a leader? Cain writes:

The book of Exodus is short on explication, but its stories suggest that introversion plays yin to the yang of extroversion; that the medium is not always the message; and that people followed Moses because his words were thoughtful, not because he spoke them well.

The best lens through which to examine is topic is Musar- Jewish teachings that focus on character development. These teachings challenge us to find the right middot or “measure” of positive and negative traits such as being out-going or being reserved.

Orchot Tzadikim, a classic work of musar literature, begins its chapter on silence contrasting Aaron and Miriam with Moshe. We read in the Torah (Numbers 12): “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moshe. And they said, ‘did God only speak to Moshe. Didn’t God speak through us as well?’” The emphasis of these “talkers” is on speaking. Moshe’s response is silence. The Torah says simply that Moshe was the “most humble of all men.”

Humility is an essential middah (character trait) on which musar focuses. Some may feel that humility is a form of meekness. But the opposite is true. Popular musar writer, Alan Morinis, explains, “Humility is associated with healthy self-esteem. Being humble doesn’t mean being nobody, it just means being no more of a somebody than you ought to be.”

We learn a lesson about humility from an unusual source. Talmud (Berachot 6b) teaches that anyone who sets a fixed place to pray in shul, when he dies, people will say he was a humble person:

אמר רבי חלבו אמר רב הונא: כל הקובע מקום … וכשמת – אומרים לו: אי עניו

What is the relation of the seat we regularly choose and humility? By sticking to your spot, you free up all other space for others to use. Humility is thus limiting oneself to an appropriate amount of space you take up in the world- physical, emotional, verbal or even metaphorical. It is about knowing your space and leaving space for others. Morinis writes:

We are not all meant to occupy the same amount of space. Some people occupy lots, like a leader like Moses. But if that leader laid claim to even more space than was appropriate, then we’d have a Pharoah. At the other end, it may be appropriate for a solitary person to occupy less space than the average volume. Were a person of this nature to force themselves to speak up more, be more outgoing, to fill more space, the consequences could be negative at the level of the soul.

This takes us back to the Torah. Sometimes the Torah mentions Moshe then Aaron. Other times the order is reversed, Aaron then Moshe. A hasidic commentator explains: Moshe was greater in prophecy which we associate with introversion. Aaron was a good speaker, a strength of the extrovert. The fact that they appear in different orders teaches that Moshe appreciated the strengths of Aaron and Aaron appreciated the strengths of Moshe.

Each one knew what he was lacking and valued that trait in his brother,

הנה כל אחד

העריך את חסרונו כנגד מעלת חברו.

Over the decades, Moshe grew as a leader so much so that the entire fifth book of the Torah is a lengthy soliloquy of a former stutterer. Still, it was Moshe the introvert, in partnership with Aaron, who led the Israelites out of Egypt and through the desert. Like our biblical ancestors, let us understand our individual strengths and weaknesses as each of us determines the amount of space we need for ourselves while leaving room for others.