Last week I wrote about the importance and also the difficulty of letting go. There comes a time when the founder or entrepreneur must turn loose of the tight grip on the venture or it will not survive. It will have the life choked out. But what happens when the time comes to step aside for good many years later? I’ve thought far more in the last several years about succession and the transition of leadership than I ever thought about starting organizations. In so many ways starting was easy. The ideas and the opportunities came and it was just a matter of acting on them. Knowing how to release while the organization grows is one challenge but how to step aside for good is different. Just as I looked to the early story of Moses last week I look now at the final part of his life for how he handled leaving.
Joshua had the advantage in that Moses was removed from office and then died. There was no shrine or body to be carried with them. No cult following grew up around him. There is no Graceland for his followers. In fact, his place of rest is still a mystery. He simply went up on the mountain and did not return. Joshua did not have to deal with a founder who stayed too long. Of course, Moses left a lasting impression on the people as any founder does but there was no struggle for leadership as the people reached the border of Canaan. There was no second-guessing or leaders meeting with Moses in his tent questioning Joshua’s decisions. There was only the voice of God telling Joshua to “fear not” and move ahead. While Joshua did not fear the Canaanites as God was with him, I believe there was something else God was telling him not to fear. He did not have to fear the last words of Moses.
Last words are important. Some leaders leave words of encouragement in the drawer of their desk for those who follow. Some, like David many years later, use them to settle scores with staff and difficult people. Others, like General MacArthur’s final address at West Point, leave words that are immortal. What we say to those who follow as we are leaving matters. What were the last words of Moses to Joshua?
From his first experience with the enslaved Hebrews there was contention. What right did he have to judge between them? From the beginning of the Exodus the people resented Moses’ seeming desire to “lord it over” them. Maybe it was his personality, his upbringing as royalty or their insecurity but there was always conflict between his leadership style and their “followership” style. He was from their perspective autocratic and elitist. They were from his perspective stiff-necked, rebellious and corrupt. So when the time came for him to give counsel to Joshua about the tribes he was about to lead, Moses described them this way in his final address to the people: “If you have been rebellious against the Lord while I am still alive and with you how much more will you rebel after I die! For I know that after my death you are sure to become utterly corrupt and to turn from the way I have commanded you. In days to come disaster will fall on you…” In other words, Joshua will be taking them into the land but they will be the same people with the same complaints, paranoia, cowardice, mistrust and corrupt hearts they have always been. It’s a heavier burden on Joshua than the opposition of the Canaanites. Joshua is a soldier. He understands the surrounding enemies of the people he is leading but Moses leaves him thinking the people are perhaps more to be feared than the Canaanites.
I looked all through the book of Joshua for proof of this and found none. The relationship Moses had with Israel was completely different than theirs with Joshua. There was one incident of disobedience early on with a single family but consensus in solving it. I looked for fear, rebellion and corruption but found none. There was no anger on Joshua’s part and no resentment on the part of the people. No one accused Joshua of lording it over them. None wanted to return to Egypt. There were no rebellions and or outbreaks of idolatry. There is nothing really but success.
So if you think your successor will struggle with your leadership issues – you are probably mistaken. If we pick and encourage the right successors there is a good chance they will be even better leaders than we have been and will have success we could not have imagined. Don’t describe your experience with people and expect that to be theirs. They may accomplish things we, like Moses, could only see from a distance.