Some biblical wisdom for US presidential candidates

The Torah outlines a long list of leadership traits related to Moses, including humility, empathy and heroism.

April 9, 2016 22:53
4 minute read.
US elections

Clinton, Trump, Sanders and Cruz. (photo credit: REUTERS)

When it comes to assessing the strengths of potential political leaders, regardless of personal ideological preferences, people tend to relate to some character traits and be repelled by others. It makes one question what we like to see in our leaders. Listening to the candidates who are seeking to lead the Republican and Democratic parties and ultimately the nation, one desirable leadership behavior appears to stand out either for its presence or its absence. It happens to be a trait strongly associated with Moses in the Bible. That trait is humility.

The Torah outlines a long list of leadership traits related to Moses, including humility, empathy and heroism, but also self-reflection, patience, charisma and wisdom, among others. This is an ambitious list of attributes that few can emulate in their entirety, but humility is one that is particularly important when it came to Moses. After all, the Torah asserts that “Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth” (Numbers 12:3). Hence, this appears to have been an important trait and one that ought to be emulated by candidates for political office. After all, what is humility but the opposite of arrogance? As the two main political parties, Republican and Democrat, have been searching for their leaders, 2016’s highly contested US primaries have revealed the personalities, talents and faults of many prospects. As expected, candidates have quit as delegate votes are counted, yet a few remain who provide the electorate with some intriguing comparisons regardless of what side of the political coin Americans intend to vote come Election Day.

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What has proven to be a noticeable aspect of this noisy political process is that many who dislike or even fear Donald Trump’s rise to the head of the Republican Party and possibly the Oval Office – including many who are members of the Republican Party – dislike his arrogant manner. Policies are also imperative but people tend to initially respond to character. While Trump is appealing to a considerable number of people, this could always change over time when political rhetoric starts to wear thin. Aside from important questions related to ideology and policy, his manner is something that tends to receive a lot of media attention. And it should.

Regarding humility, Moses’ example has much to teach contemporary leaders. One might even suggest that the skills most desired today are personified by Moses. After all, Moses was a powerful influence on the founders of the United States. As Bruce Feiler notes in his book America’s Prophet: How the Story of Moses Shaped America, “The persistence of Mosaic rhetoric in the first decade of the United States testifies to the enduring elasticity of the Exodus as a trope in American identity.”

According to Feiler, there was true reverence for the Exodus story in which Moses proved his significance.

“The fact that so many who invoked the story were members of the elite shows that reverence for Hebrew scripture ran through even the highest segments of society and was not merely for rallying illiterate masses.”

Indeed, notes Feiler, “Moses maintained his status as the bible’s chief ambassador to the United States.”

Who will become the “chief ambassador” for the United States in 2016 will be decided on Election Day in November; however, while Moses’ vast qualifications might seem impossible for a single individual human being to possess, Moses showed that human beings can attain many desirable leadership traits, including humility.

The Bible shows innumerable ways in which Moses succeeds as a leader. Of course, Moses also had human imperfections, including anger, less than impressive public speaking skills, even fear and self-doubt. Moses revealed human flaws that, rather than prove to be weaknesses, contributed to his great ability to lead.

Yet through his humility, Moses showed compassion for those he led and shared power with those who served him. As a result, the dangers of the charismatic leader, to which so many people have been susceptible in the modern world, are not found in Moses’ example.

Should a president be dignified and respectful of others? Many would favor rational speech over bullying to make or defend a point. Bragging about one’s personal attributes or about accomplishments – whether in business or politics – and negotiation outcomes that possibly others helped achieve, are not signs of humility.

Donald Trump has been accused of this but so has Hillary Clinton. Naturally, this is nothing new. Richard Nixon was regarded by many as an arrogant leader, but he ended up resigning in disgrace over what some regard as a need for power and control as epitomized in the Watergate Scandal.

The current US primaries are far from Watergate, yet there appears to be a problem with humility that has become conspicuous. Among Republican candidates, Trump has not proven to be humble. Sanders arguably retains humility while Clinton publicly stated at a New Hampshire town hall meeting in February that she finds it a struggle to be less humble when running for high office when she naturally favors humility. In her comments, she appeared to genuinely recognize its importance.

While humility transcends politics and party affiliation it plays a role in many people’s perception of an effective leader.

What remains clear from Moses’ example is that such crucial leadership concepts as humility are actually part of ancient biblical culture that remains relevant for prospective contemporary leaders. Whomever one decides to vote for in the primaries or the general election, one ought to think deeply about the nature of humility, its importance, and what could happen if a political candidate lacks this quality.

The writer is the author of the book Religion and Contemporary Management: Moses as a Model of Effective Leadership which will be published this summer by Anthem Press.

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