Parshat Yitro: Leaders as Mentors
Daniel R. Weiss
Middle School Judaic Studies Principal
This past week I gave my Middle School students a challenge. Each of them needed to find a way in which they could each act as a leader. The challenge began as part of a conversation on the characteristics of a leader. Together, we brainstormed about a number of influential leaders throughout history, both Jewish and non-Jewish, famous, infamous and not well known at all.
Among the characteristics we listed were: a good listener; someone who commands/demands attention; someone who inspires those around them; someone with conviction; one who possesses a level of expertise/knowledge; a coordinator of ideas; someone with a loud voice; someone who speaks up when the time is right; someone who is encouraging; someone who is not complacent with where they are and always tries to improve; someone with morals, ethics, values; and someone who leads by example.
As we listed the characteristics, it was evident to each of us in the room that leadership can take on a variety of faces and that even the best leaders need someone to lead them.
In this week’s Parsha, Yitro, we read the story of two leaders, Moshe and Yitro. Moshe, who is quite familiar to us, has led the Jewish people out of the land of Egypt, out of slavery and into the wilderness. He is the “go to guy”. He is the one person that everyone goes to when they need advice, help with a problem, or an ear to listen to a complaint. Moshe’s role as leader is a 24/7 job (even on Shabbat he was looked to as the leader). It was a no-frills job. The pay was non-existent and, while he did have the benefit of talking to God, he did not have the opportunity to finish leading the people (he was not permitted to enter Israel).
Yitro on the other hand, was a former advisor to the Pharoah, he was a priest, a dignitary among his people. While he did not lead a nation, he serves as the first organizational consultant, a mentor to Moshe.
In his book, Organization Change: Theory and Practice, W. Warner Burke cites Yitro as a mentor; a consultant to the client, Moshe. Yitro identifies that Moshe’s leadership is taking a physical and mental toll on Moshe. He, therefore, suggests a reorganization of structure.
What makes Yitro’s suggestion powerful is not merely that he made it, but that Moshe listened to him. Moshe took Yitro’s suggestion of creating smaller courts led by a few. Each of these smaller courts would then have smaller courts under them. As cases made their way through the lower courts, only the larger cases came to Moshe, thus lessening the strain on his leadership.
What makes Moshe’s leadership impactful is that he knew when to listen to those around him. He knew when he needed help.
When new teachers enter into the profession they are usually given a mentor, a coach. Lois Zachary, a leading scholar on the mentoring process suggests that there are eight hallmarks that make for a positive culture when mentoring. Among these are accountability and communication.
In the Accountability phase, mutual goals are set, expectations are clarified, responsibilities are determined, measurement is monitored and feedback is gathered. Both the mentor and mentee must agree to the conditions that they set together. Both need to see a benefit in the mentoring process.
Communication is the next most important piece of fostering a positive mentoring culture. As a mentor it is very important to listen. A mentor, while not a therapist, is also not put in a position to be a problem solver. They do have the opportunity and job of helping the mentee determine and assess the problem. They are then responsible to help the mentee create a plan of action to solve the problem. While the mentor can share their own experience, give some ideas, share some data, only the mentee can solve the problem. Mentees need to be empowered to solve the problem.
A coach is a mentor. So too is a consultant. Their job is to listen, to give suggestions, but ultimately only those on the playing field, those doing the job, can put the plan into action.
Yitro was Moshe’s mentor. Yitro had the experience as a leader and as an advisor.
Yitro was successful because, though he gave the idea, he knew that only Moshe could put the plan into place. Yitro led by example. He needed to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. It is for this reason that many scholars believe that Yitro’s arrival constituted his conversion to Judaism.
As educators at Schechter, we are mentors to your children. Our job is to listen when it is time to listen, to inform when it is time to inform, and to guide at all times. We model the behavior that we wish to see in our students, that you as parents want to see in your children. As mentors, we know that our mentees may or may not listen to our advice. But we know that our goal is to help them move forward. Together with you and your children we set goals. We have benchmarks and standards that we wish to reach. We organize and reorganize our structure to best meet the needs of our students.
Yet even as we serve as mentors to your children, we also seek out mentors to help us move forward, to help us do our jobs better. We do this through conferences, professional growth opportunities, and by seeking out scholars and leaders in the local community, Jewish community and world community.
What makes Moshe’s leadership a shining example is that he was never satisfied with where he was. He was always looking for a way to move forward and to strengthen his Kehilla, community. He modeled the behavior, now we take over the reins.