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March 11, 2016 4:24 am

Moses and the True ‘Power of Humility’

avatar by Pini Dunner

Email a copy of "Moses and the True ‘Power of Humility’" to a friend
Moses pleading with the Israelites. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Moses pleading with the Israelites. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Data is the mortal enemy of assumption. We often assume we know things, or go along with accepted wisdom, but when we examine the cold hard facts, we discover that reality is quite a different thing altogether. I had that feeling when reading an article published this week, titled “The Power of Humility,” by Professor Amy Ou of the National University of Singapore Business School.

We all expect successful people in the corporate world to be arrogant and full of themselves. It is the inevitable cloud attached to the silver lining of great accomplishment. People who are hardwired to push their weight around, and who constantly wear their successes on their sleeves, are the ones who will be the most successful of all.

We make a similar assumption about all successful leaders, not just about those in the business world. Self-promoters and those with the pushiest personalities are the ones who get things done, and who get them done best.

Professor Ou’s article dispels this myth with irrefutable data. It turns out there is a “significant and positive relationship between a company’s bottom-line performance and CEO humility.” CEOs and their top managers from 105 small-to-medium-sized American firms were interviewed and evaluated with a focus on the following criteria: CEO personality, top management team dynamics, executive incentive structures, firm strategy and performance. One hundred and five companies is a significant sample in research terms, and guess what — the researchers discovered that companies led by humble CEOs earn up to 5 percent more return on their company assets.

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The details are all there in the study. Humble CEOs are willing to admit their weaknesses, and therefore “appreciate the strengths and contributions of others.” They will also be open to self-improvement, and get the fact that they don’t need to dominate the limelight — which means they will be willing to embark on lucrative projects, even if the projects don’t result in self-glory. They are less likely to demand excessively high salaries or suppress the pay of their management colleagues. And by behaving in this way, humble CEOs empower their management team, which leads to better performance and greater profits.

So why is it that we think the opposite to be true? Surely the most successful companies in the world are run by self-obsessed egomaniacs, right? Actually, that’s not the case at all. Professor Ou gives two examples of humble CEOs of major corporations, and there are plenty more. Most likely the reason we have got it wrong is because egomaniacs tend to be the ones who dominate headlines, and all they do is tell us how successful they are. More often than not, they are not half as successful as they make out, while their quieter, more humble counterparts are far more successful — whether in business affairs or in their personal lives.

In this week’s Torah portion, after Moshe completed each of the various tasks necessary for the construction of the Mishkan and the tailoring of the priestly vestments, we are told: “He did just as God had instructed him — that is what he did.” The statement is puzzling, and the incessant repetition is even more puzzling. What exactly is the Torah trying to tell us? Would Moshe have done anything differently to the way God had instructed him? Of course not! So why mention it at all? And even supposing it needs to be mentioned, surely once would have sufficed.

It is an axiom of Jewish history that Moshe was our greatest leader. He brought a slave nation out of Egypt and single-handedly turned it into God’s Chosen People. This was no easy task. Time and again, Moshe dealt with discontent, disobedience and even rebellion. And yet, not only was he successful in using each challenge as an opportunity to improve the durability of the nation in his charge, but he also acted as a relentless advocate for the Jews to God, making sure that none of the bumps in the road would lead to an abandonment of the project.

One might have expected Moshe to be an arrogant, egotistical man. After all, he was even ready to remonstrate with God. On that basis we can allow ourselves to admire him in the pages of the Bible, but up close we could easily imagine him to have been tiresome and objectionable. In fact, though, the opposite was true. It was Moshe’s humility that underpinned his success, and which resulted in a nation that has endured for thousands of years. It was Moshe’s humility that allowed others to share the limelight — Ahron and his family as priests, Betzalel and his team as the artists who built the Mishkan. The net result was a broader group of talented people all committed to the same goals as he. And even when it came to carrying out the tasks given to him by God, instead of saying, “Moshe did this, Moshe did that,” Moshe took himself out of the equation, making sure that what was recorded for posterity was only that he had acted purely as an instrument of God.

Ironically, without this humility, the Jewish nation project might have ended before it began. There would never have been an Exodus. There would never have been the revelation at Mount Sinai. There would never have been a Mishkan. And the Jews would never made it to the Promised Land. Forty years later, in an ultimate act of self-sacrifice, Moshe would hand over the reins of leadership to Yehoshua. For Moshe the handover was a no-brainer. Despite his sadness at not being the one who would lead the Jews into Canaan, he knew it had never been about him; he had simply been the facilitator. So “he did just as God had instructed him.” That is the true “Power of Humility.”

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  • Amy Ou

    Thank you for citing my paper! I am so happy that you link the paper with Bible stories. I am particularly impressed that you used Moses as an example, showing that humility is about “He did just as God had instructed him — that is what he did.”
    Humility is often described in terms such as appreciating others, knowing one’s limits, being open to self-improvement. Yet I see that the foundation of humility in the heart of a great leader is the submission to something greater than the self, for example, God. Thanks for your insightful elaboration of the findings, Pini!

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