Dispelling the Myth of Top-Down Leadership

October 15, 2019Adam Goodman

But Moses’ hands grew heavy; so they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur, one on each side, supported his hands; thus his hands remained steady until the sun set.
– Exodus 17:12

Adam Goodman - Biennial badgeIn Exodus 17, the Israelites defeat the Amalekites in battle. It is a remarkable story about effective leadership – in biblical times and today. The story begins with Moses telling Joshua to select fighters for Joshua to lead in combat. We expect that, in handing Joshua leadership, Moses has empowered him with a mission and the resources to succeed.

As it turns out, though, Joshua and Moses need each other more than we might expect.


Because with God’s direction, the Israelites win only as long as Moses’ hands are raised, holding a holy rod; they lose when Moses lowers his hands. Working together, the army needs to be on the field, Joshua needs to lead them, and Moses needs to keep his hands raised.

In one more turn of this story, even these efforts prove insufficient.

As you might imagine, Moses’ arms tire. He can lift his arms on his own for only so long. He needs support, too. To me, this is the point in the story at which the most interesting people appear: Aaron and Hur. They hold up Moses’ arms because all leaders – even Moses – need help from others. In this story, as in so many others, leadership appears to be top down. A closer look reveals a set of essential, interdependent relationships at play. The myth is top down. The reality is that we need each other to be successful.

In contemporary leadership, we think about leaders as charismatic, visionary, and filled with purpose. We think about Moses and Joshua. Yet research has broadened who we should see as leaders: people who enable and support others. Do we need charismatic leaders? Yes.

But we need other types of leaders even more – people who quietly support the success of small groups; people who enable dialogue to explore and encourage the differences among us; and, people who willingly set aside their own egos to ensure a community's success. We need Aarons and Hurs.

We have also long known that we need more – and far more diverse - leaders who are skilled at enabling the excellence of others. Demand outstrips supply, and quality leaders appear to be in short supply. As you think about your own congregation and community, what would be possible if you doubled or tripled the number of people who see themselves as engaged and effective leaders? What would happen if this community of leaders trusted each other and had shared expectations for success while also allowing each person to contribute their talents and strengths? These questions reflect a deeper reading of Exodus 17, one that helps dispel a myth and introduces an expanding reality that includes trust, humility, dialogue and interdependence.

I hope you and a small team from your congregation will join us at the special double session, “Leadership Development: Best Principles, Strategies, and Myths,” at the upcoming URJ Biennial to consider this vital question: How can people best work with and lead each other? Done well, your team will have a deeper and shared understanding of what effective leadership looks like for your congregation and how you can best invest in people’s learning. Put more simply: How do we grow more of the leaders we most want? 

To learn more about this leadership development myth and others, join us at the URJ Biennial 2019, December 11-15, 2019, in Chicago, IL. We'll explore these ideas and many others in the special double session, “Leadership Development: Best Principles, Strategies, and Myths,” on Wednesday, December 11, from 1:15 to 4:15 p.m., which will kick-off the Leadership Development intensive. Register now

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