Every profession has its tools. Leaders are no different, although their tools are at times metaphoric. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, once said: “I don’t know what the people want, but I know what is good for them” (in Hebrew he used a play on words to illustrate this idea). Ben-Gurion has been described as a leader who used a compass as opposed to a weather vane. A compass points you to true north; a weather vane shows you what direction the wind is blowing. Ben-Gurion knew where his true north was, and was determined to get there regardless of what direction the people’s “wind” (i.e. their interest) was blowing. He intended to lead his people in what he thought was the right direction despite their failure to understand his vision and strategy.
Ben-Gurion was always firm in his views whether he was dealing with fellow politicians, generals, or regular people. That is why in 1948 he ordered his generals to focus on rescuing the besieged city of Yerushalayim, something they thought was a long shot and would pull troops away from other battles. This debate played itself out with great emotion in the lead-up to the battles of Latrun. The generals wanted to wait a week to attack; they felt Yerushalayim could hold out for the extra week. Ben-Gurion did not believe that was true.
Historians debate who was right. But the real issue that separated the generals from Ben-Gurion was that Ben-Gurion understood both the strategic and symbolic value of Yerushalayim. He realized that the new state of Israel could not survive the loss of Yerushalayim. He followed his compass despite the weather vane telling him differently. Although Israel lost the battles in Latrun, they discovered the Burma Road and used it to save Yerushalayim.
Although the weather vane is often portrayed as a negative leadership tool, I would like to argue that it has a constructive role as well. Whereas a leader should never develop his vision simply based on what the people think they want, he should use the weather vane in two ways. First, he should use it to determine where the people are holding. Even if he thinks they are wrong, knowing how they feel and why they feel that way will help him communicate his vision and achieve buy-in from them. Second, he should use it as a self-test. Maybe in his enthusiasm he missed something. Maybe the people see something that he doesn’t. In other words while he shouldn’t change his vision because the people aren’t there yet, he should be open enough to test his own thought process.
The Torah in this week’s parsha alludes to the necessity of a leader using both these tools in the appropriate way. After the query of Tzelofchad’s daughters is resolved, Moshe requests that Hashem appoint a person to replace him as leader. In the pasuk (27:16) Moshe refers to Hashem as the G-d of spirits. Two pesukim later Hashem instructs Moshe to appoint Yehoshua, since he is a man imbued with spirit. Rashi notes that Moshe understood that Bnei Yisrael consisted of many different personalities. As such he asked Hashem to appoint a person who would be able to deal with a variety of thoughts and opinions.
Other commentators suggest that Yehoshua’s spirit enabled him to deal with all types of people without being swayed and influenced by them. In essence, Yehoshua had the spirit to be guided by his own compass namely, the Torah, while at the same time being able to accurately read the national weather vane to understand how to lead and inspire his people. Yehoshua also had a third trait that is referred to in pasuk 17. Moshe asked that Hashem appoint a leader who would go out in front of the people – to be a role model. Yehoshua certainly was such a person.
There is another advantage of leading from the front. All too often a compass is not enough. In Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln, President Lincoln explains that a compass only shows you the way to move forward. It does not however help you avoid swamps, bypass mountains, or ford rivers. For that you need a topographical map. By always leading from the front Yehoshua would have a bird’s eye view of the terrain. He operated with an intuitive topographical map.
Leaders should always improve and fine-tune their own leadership tools. This will allow them to make informed decisions while keeping an eye on their organizational weather vane.