Moses and Mentoring

Zvi Grumet

What does it take to be a mentee? First and foremost, the individual must feel a need for growth. It is that internalized sense which creates the other necessary conditions.

Yet, in the collective memory of our people, we recall Moses as one of our leaders par excellence. The Torah identifies him as an unparalleled prophet, and his stature as lawgiver and Rebbeinu is unequalled. How are we to resolve this dissonance?

I would suggest that Moses did not start as a great leader, but early on displayed some characteristics that, with proper guidance, could be developed into leadership qualities. Those characteristics are familiar even to casual readers of the Bible: his compassion for the unprotected, his preparedness to challenge the status quo, his curiosity and readiness to take risks, perhaps even his re-evaluation of his own identity.

On their own, these might not be automatically identified as leadership qualities. They could just as easily breed the quiet ba’al chesed, the anarchist or the recluse. Even as a composite, they are no guarantee for success, as they could yield a confused individual with a disdain for an organized social life—perhaps even the Moses herding sheep in the desert for his father-in-law, far from the civilizations of Egypt or even Midian. What made Moses a leader was not his native qualities, but a mentor who pushed him, and pushed him hard, to use those qualities, focus them, and learn new skills.

The mentorship of Moses was no simple task. He was stubborn and often saw only one side of the coin. There was an angry streak, which needed to be restrained. And, as a reluctant leader, Moses was quick to give up. He offered, even pleaded, to be relieved of duty, fired, or even killed so as not to have to continue. Yet the Mentor refused to give up on His protégé. Moses’ leadership developed and emerged, and his impact was so profound that he, G-d, and even the fringe elements of his people knew that they would be challenged to continue their path without his direction.

The role and value of mentoring in fostering leadership cannot be overstated. A survey of dozens of leadership development programs around the country reveals that almost all use mentoring extensively. A recent study conducted by The Lookstein Center of its own Principals’ Program revealed that effective mentoring was one of the most critical factors in successful leadership learning; without an effective mentor, the most motivated and talented leaders miss essential opportunities for growth. Indeed, for many of our participants, the mentoring they received was no less than transformational in their leadership.

What does it take to be a mentee? First and foremost, the individual must feel a need for growth. It is that internalized sense which creates the other necessary conditions. Those include openness to criticism, preparedness to take risks, and the resiliency necessary to cope with failure. None of these are to be taken for granted. As Rabbi Tarfon said, “I would be surprised if in this generation there was anyone capable of hearing rebuke” (T.B. Erkhin 16b). It is that very capacity to hear criticism without defensiveness, what is sometimes included in the language of being a “reflective practitioner,” which opens the doors to professional growth.

What makes an effective mentor? An effective mentor does not tell the mentee what to do. Rather, she probes decisions, challenges assumptions, forces re-evaluation, helps to generate alternatives, directs to resources, opens possibilities, confronts hidden understandings, is demanding and guides exploration. Mentors need to encourage risk-taking, help to assess what risks are worth taking, and be prepared to help the mentee learn from risks that did not turn out as anticipated. All this, of course, while being supportive of the mentee, and understanding of the mentee’s professional, psychological and emotional needs.

Mentoring is not easy work for the mentor either. It can be frustrating and demands patience. It requires what the kabbalists called tzimtzum—holding one’s tongue while the protégé insists on doing things his way, much the way a mother needs to hold back while her child insists on doing things his own way, even repeating mistakes the mother made. It requires having a long-term vision of what the mentee can achieve, and applauding the baby steps necessary to get there, not all of which are necessarily experienced as progress by the mentee.

Beyond that, mentoring requires the mentor to be self-critical, to be prepared to reflect upon his or her own successes and failures, perhaps even acknowledge them. Mentors need not only to be good leaders, but to understand what makes them good leaders. They need to be able to look at others, who may have talents far different from their own, celebrate and cultivate those talents, and be confident enough not to be threatened by someone who might be younger, more energetic, and more talented than themselves.

The need for leadership in day schools is well known. A number of significant programs, especially designed for day school leaders, have made a considerable contribution. Yet every day the school leader needs to look internally as well, asking him or herself what role s/he can play in fostering another generation of leadership. Are there teachers in my school who can be cultivated to take on greater positions of leadership? Are there individuals whom I, or someone else, can mentor, whether formally or informally, so that they can be counted on years down the line? What do I need to learn in order to become a mentor for my teachers? Am I prepared to lose my most talented classroom teachers if I am successful in “growing” their leadership? Am I prepared to share some of my leadership with them, if necessary?

Lay leaders in schools must ask themselves similar questions. Are they prepared to help develop leadership for day schools, even if it means that one of their stars may leave the school? Will they take pride in the number of leaders they have cultivated, or bemoan their loss of staff? Will they back up their staff, and the professional leadership, when they take the kinds of risks that will lead to growth?

When G-d played the role of prime Mentor to Moses there was no guarantee of success, and quite a number of setbacks. Even though it would have been easier for God to do much of the work Himself, and there would likely have been fewer mishaps in the short term, the long-term strategic planning indicated the necessity to train a new leader, even a new kind of leader, for the people. Are we prepared to pick up the gauntlet? ♦

Zvi Grumet is Associate Educational Director of The Lookstein Center for Jewish Education. He can be reached at [email protected].
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HaYidion Nurturing Leadership
Nurturing Leadership
Summer 2009