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Moses and the 10 Commandments of great leadership

Bruce Feiler
Bruce Feiler is the author, most recently, of America's Prophet:Moses and the American Story. Previously he authored Where God was Born, Walking the Bible, and Abraham.


George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King would all make the list of great American leaders. But these men, along with more recent presidents from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, were all influenced by an even more iconic leader.

His name is Moses.

From the Pilgrims to the founding fathers, the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement, Americans have turned to one biblical prophet because his narrative offers a roadmap of promise and peril.

As we once more face trying times, Americans would once be well-served to consider the leadership lessons of the world's greatest leader.

I. Heed the burning bush

An Israelite slave raised in the pharaoh's palace in the thirteenth century B.C.E., Moses murders an overseer, then flees to the desert, where a voice in a burning bush recruits him to free his ancestors. This moment represents his first leadership test: Will he heed the mysterious voice?

Moses's decision secures his reputation: He becomes the champion of freedom.

The Pilgrims described their flight for freedom as being like that of Moses. George Washington attributed the success of the Revolution to the same deity who freed the Israelites. American slaves made "Go Down, Moses" their national anthem.

II. Invoke the milk and honey

As intolerable as slavery was, Moses was asking the Israelites to leave the most civilized place on earth for the most barren. The only way to do that was to articulate a clear vision.

American leaders have long defined the country as a new promised land. John Winthrop quoted Moses four times in his "City upon a Hill" sermon. Daniel Boone described the West as "a land flowing with milk and honey."

Moses' ongoing influence stems from his role in promoting a ministry of imagination. "Not America," as W.E.B. DuBois put it, "but what America will be."

III. Pharaohs don't go down without a fight

Immediately after passing the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress asked Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams to propose a seal for the United States. Their recommendation: Moses, leading the Israelites across the Red Sea, while the pharaoh drowns.

The pharaoh has long represented the intransigence of power. The Pilgrims called King James the pharaoh; Thomas Paine called King George the same; Civil Rights marchers branded Jim Crow the pharaoh.

And as these change-makers discovered, pharaohs don't go down without a fight.

IV. You don't have to split the Red Sea alone

In 1938, two bookish Jews from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, modeled their superhero on the superhero of the Torah. Just as baby Moses is floated down the Nile to escape annihilation, baby Superman is launched into space to face extinction. Superman's original name was Kal-El, Hebrew for Swift God.

Part of Superman's appeal was his vulnerability. Kryptonite rendered him weak-kneed. Moses, too, is a man of vulnerabilities. He stutters; he's reluctant to lead; he's plagued by self doubt. From Washington to Lincoln to FDR, America's greatest leaders have understood their weakness and surrounded themselves with strong allies.

V. Remember the Nile

When the Pennsylvania Assembly ordered a bell in 1751, it chose an inscription from the Five Books of Moses: "Proclaim Liberty thro' all the Land to all the Inhabitants Thereof." It comes from a passage that urges the Israelites to tend the suffering and uplift the poor.

The entire moral focus of the Five Books of Moses is to build a society that nurtures all its people. The moral leader remembers the years of suffering and commits to building a society that cares for all.

VI. The desert is full of detours

When the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, they entered a period of lawlessness, which prompts the Ten Commandments. Freedom depends on law.

After the Revolution, the United States entered a similar period of lawlessness, which resulted in the Constitution. Just as Moses led the Israelites to freedom, then handed down the Ten Commandments, George Washington led the colonists to victory, then presided over the Constitution. The parallel was not lost. Two-thirds of the eulogies at Washington's death compared Washington to Moses.

VII. The one on Sinai takes the heat

The Bible outlines a dozen different rebellions in the wilderness, from water to food to leadership. In a parallel to the birther controversy, the Israelites even question Moses's legitimacy. "Who made you prince and judge over us?"

George Washington faced a similar backlash during the Revolution, Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. From Lincoln to FDR to Eisenhower, the strongest leaders face the harshest criticism and hold fast against their naysayers.

VIII. Anticipate the Golden Calf

When Moses climbs down Sinai with the Commandments, the people grow weary and build a golden calf. Moses breaks the tablets, God threatens to wipe out the Israelites. But in Moses's greatest act of leadership, he placates God, reprimands the people, and brokers a new covenant among the feuding sides.

Leadership means preparing your followers - and yourself - for compromise.

IX. You may not enter the Promised Land

After putting up with the Israelites complaining for forty years, Moses is denied entry into the Promised Land. On its surface, the tragedy is unimaginable.

Yet Moses's setback guaranteed his ongoing influence. Moses's setback was the most commonly cited reference on the death of Lincoln in 1865. And on April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King invoked Moses's death on the night before he was assassinated. "I've been to the mountaintop," he declared. "I've seen the promised land. And I may not get there with you, but I want you to know that we as a people will get to the promised land."

X. Make way for another Moses

Denied entry to the Promised Land, Moses faces his final choice: Will he fight for his reward or prepare the Israelites for their future? In the end, the leader chooses his followers. Moses understands that the highest stage of leadership is to make yourself unnecessary. It's not about you.

You may fall short, but your chief legacy is to prepare your followers to succeed without you.


By Bruce Feiler

 |  December 22, 2009; 5:36 AM ET |  Category:  Leadership advice Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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follow the guy wearing a necklace of poosey scalps.

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Posted by: huangzhixian175 | December 22, 2009 10:04 PM

I really have a problem with all these leaders being influenced by Moses. Even Dr. King, learned more from the tactics and life of Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau, the former a Hindu, the latter a Unitarian. George Washington could not tell a lie after he chopped down his father's cherry tree, there's room for this in Lies My Teacher Told Me,but its a stretch to say each great US leader was influenced strongly by Moses.

Also,while I'm more of a Batman guy, couldn't Superman be a mix of Old Testament and the Charles Atlas syndrome, Clark Kent changes from mild mannered scrawny weakling, to Superman, indestructible, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and go the distance with the ladies? This to say I read the book, I've also read the philosophers, like Thomas Hobbes-that was grueling, Edmund Burke, John Locke, and I just don't buy the whole Moses story of him being the first political scientist-that would be Aristotle, known as the "Philosopher." That said Lincoln could quote the Bible,but its a lot more complicated than cherry picked information,provided.

Posted by: bflaherty5 | December 22, 2009 9:47 PM

Even more imporatnat than leaders, America needs some good followers. While I agree that everyone has the right to be heard, it is also necessary for people to put aside their small concerns, and follow the leader with the vision.

Today, we have a population with a great deal of independence, but little feeling of togetherness or team work. We tend to assasinate any leader who sticks his or her head up from the crowd. We will follow anyone anywhere, as long as there is no sacrifice asked of us all. Leaders bring us together, but the followers are always willing to tear us apart.

Just as important as it is to have leaders, we must also learn to hand the baton to the leader, and learn to just march in the band.

Posted by: LeeH1 | December 22, 2009 3:49 PM

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