Follow the Leader – the Legacy of Nachshon ben Aminadav (Ideas #89)

When addressing the Academy's leadership training fellows last year, I pointed out that there are two ways to lead: by instruction and by example. Much energy is devoted to the former, while people rarely truly concentrate on the latter in a meaningful way – even though there is more than a little truth to the adage that actions speak louder than words.


Some might ask why leading by example requires our attention altogether. Yet we know from experience that, even when it comes to trivial matters, people seem to have a natural inclination to follow rather than to lead. To take an example as mundane as it is common - why is it that so many party buffets remain untouched because no one wants to be the first to serve themselves.


Exactly what happened when the Jews left Egypt and crossed the Reed Sea (Yam Suf)  is not clear: The Talmud presents a disagreement between R. Meir and R. Yehudah.(1) R. Meir believes that each tribe wanted to be the first to jump in, whereas R. Yehudah is of the opinion that none of the tribes wanted to be first. According to the latter opinion, it was Nachshon ben Aminadav, the leader of Yehudah, who was the first to go in and show the rest of the Jewish people what needed to be done.


If we read R. Yehudah's opinion carefully, we see that it was not that the Jews did not want to go into the water and risk getting drowned, but rather that they did not want to be the first to do so. It is an interesting facet of human nature that creates a fear of being the first to do something, because we take a certain chance of being the only one as well, even if everyone else knows that we are doing the right thing. We risk being the butt of ridicule, and even scorn, if our example is not accepted. As a result, there are many things that everyone knows to be right that simply do not get done.


Of course, if we want to lead by example, and not simply engage in unusual behavior, we need to look more carefully at Nachshon's leadership. What is most significant about Nachshon  is his willingness to be the only one, out  of hundreds of thousands of people all standing at the same location and in the same situation, to pursue his course of action. The social pressure against doing his act must have been tremendous. While it may have been logistically impossible to find a secluded spot to try out his adventure, it would certainly have made it a great deal easier. Had he failed in seclusion, no one else would have been the wiser. It is the very public nature of his act, however, that made it so courageous – and, even more important, so effective.


Thus, leading by example must be calculatedly visible, not only regarding where it is done, but, even more important, when and how. Doing something privately is not an act of leadership; since it is not known, it cannot be repeated by others.


The Torah tells us little about Nachshon. However, it does inform us that he was the leader of his tribe and the brother-in-law of Aharon, which gives us more than enough grounds to assume that he was someone of outstanding moral character. A second critical component of leading by example is cultivating a character that will inspire imitation. If we wear a clown’s suit, no matter how impressive a feat we perform, our appearance will have undermined the example that we are trying to set.


If we are trying to accomplish change, it must be done by putting ourselves on the line by attaching our good reputation – which we have worked so hard to develop – to the change that we are trying to promote. Of what purpose is a good reputation if it is not used for the general good? Likewise, if we write a letter or article meant to change the status quo, we completely undermine our own efforts by signing it “Anonymous.” A person's example will only be followed if it can be stated that “If so-and-so is doing it, it may be worth emulating.”


As Nachshon led the way through the ReedSea, he can also lead us in our efforts to provide leadership for the Jewish people. Those who really want to lead need to accept a difficult road – one that calls for publicly doing what is right precisely when no one else is doing it. At the same time, such courage will be pitifully wasted if these future leaders do not spend the needed time and energy to refine themselves into the impeccable men and women that will inspire imitation. 


 (1) Sota 37a