As former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, as recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Medal of Liberty, and not a little bit of controversy – at ninety-nine years old, keinahora – Henry Kissinger, I would venture to say, knows more about leadership, its promises, and perils than anyone else alive today. So, when I recently had the opportunity to hear Kissinger give a talk about his latest book – on the subject of leadership – it was too good an opportunity to pass up. If you have seen the book or read the reviews, then you know that the book is not so much about Kissinger’s own leadership, but rather six studies by Kissinger of other world leaders: Konrad Adenauer, Charles De Gaulle, Richard Nixon, Anwar Sadat, Lee Kuan Yew, and Margaret Thatcher. I had a marvelous time at the event and the book is terrific. I am thoroughly enjoying learning not just about the leaders themselves, but about Kissinger’s thoughts on the particular qualities that make leaders great leaders. Kissinger explained that he chose these six and not others because he had substantial contact with each of them. So, while I might quibble that Kissinger did not profile the greatest of all leaders – Moses – I do concede that no matter how old he is, Kissinger probably did not know Moses personally.
Which leaves me with the following question – always good to ask, but especially this week as we read Moses’s valedictory song towards the end of the Torah. Had Kissinger included Moses in his book, how would he have measured up to Kissinger’s leadership principles? “Never again,” the Bible teaches, “did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses.” (Deuteronomy 34:10) Moses’s career is the bar by which we as a people measure all other leaders. This morning I want to put the two in dialogue – Kissinger and Moses – synthesizing the two and identifying five leadership lessons for us all to consider as we enter the new year.
Number one: The relationship between leadership and meritocracy. Of the six leaders Kissinger profiles, none came from an aristocratic or noble background. Adenauer’s father was a clerk and officer in the Prussian Army; de Gaulle’s father was a schoolteacher. Nixon was the product of a lower-middle-class upbringing; Sadat, the son of a clerk; Lee, a scholarship student; and Thatcher, the daughter of a grocer. Each one had to hardscrabble their way up the meritocracy to arrive at the roles they would eventually play; nothing was given to them with a silver spoon. Kissinger reasons that it was the very humble backgrounds of these leaders that enabled them to negotiate the insider/outsider status of their future political lives. Their humble origins granted them perspective, a sort of ballast as they ascended to power, an ability to challenge the establishment even as they became part of it, and, when politically useful, leverage the narrative of their lives to rally the people they sought to lead. Even in power, they could lay claim to their “everyman” (or woman) status.
Turning to Moses, any study of our greatest leader begins with his peculiar and somewhat blended origins. On the one hand, he was born into the lowliest of low – an enslaved and undistinguished household; on the other hand, he was raised in the house of Pharaoh. An Israelite slave and royalty – the double helix of Moses’s DNA. It is only when Moses sees the Hebrew slave being beaten by the Egyptian taskmaster, and Moses identifies the Hebrew as his kinsman and strikes down the Egyptian, that the two elements of his identity snap into place and Moses becomes Moses. Had Moses been just another slave, his leadership would not have taken. Had he been an outsider, he would not have been accepted by the people. Moses was able to be Moses because, like Kissinger’s leaders, he was able to be both – as Kipling described, to walk with kings but never lose the common touch.
Number two – not unrelated to number one: The power of vision. Each leader Kissinger profiles possessed “a penetrating sense of reality and a powerful vision.” Sadat and Nixon both understood the cost of the painful wars they had inherited from their predecessors, and both offered alternative visions for the future. So too, Thatcher and Adenauer well understood the difference between their circumstances and the situations of those that preceded them. They all had a vision for the future different than their present. It wasn’t just that they did not accept the status quo or were willing to shake things up; it was that they were able to articulate a hitherto unrealized vision for their people. Kissinger mentions leaders who have prophetic vision – the “unreasonable men” like Gandhi, Robespierre, and Joan of Arc – to whom George Bernard Shaw credits all progress. They, and those profiled by Kissinger, all possessed this vision.
And so did Moses. Moses was not blessed with the gift of speech. (Having gone through years of speech therapy as a child, I have always loved the fact that Moses had a speech impediment.) Moses was not really a people person – hitting Egyptians, hitting rocks, and breaking tablets. Moses was not a guy with whom you wanted to have a beer. Moses was also not a statesman. He may have been the right person to lead Israel out of Egypt, but he was not the person to govern Israel once they set up shop in the Promised Land. What Moses did have was a vision and the ability to share it. Moses was the one who convinced a people enslaved for hundreds of years that there could be a reality different than their present one. This is, according to our people, the mark of a prophet. Not just to warn people of impending doom or to urge them to change their ways, but to inspire people to imagine the world as it ought to be and then, of course, lead them toward making that vision a reality.
Which brings us to number three: Taking bold action or, more specifically, taking bold action in the face of naysayers. Thatcher dispatched the Royal Navy to recover the Falklands in the midst of an economic crisis and in the face of doubters. Nixon opened up to China and negotiated with the Soviet Union despite a host of voices telling him otherwise. De Gaulle, according to his biographer, acted “as if France was larger, more unified and more confident than it really was.” Each leader in Kissinger’s profiles acted boldly and decisively even if it came with risk, even if it was unpopular, even if it was divisive. Each one was willing, in Kissinger’s estimation to offend entrenched interests and alienate important constituencies – with some, like Sadat, paying the ultimate price. “Such,” writes Kissinger, “is the price of making history.”
Moses, if nothing else, was bold. Sure, Moses began his career with self-doubt, we know that from the scene at the burning bush. And yet as he hit his leadership stride – standing before Pharaoh, producing plague after plague, demanding “Let my people go,” crossing the sea – time and again Moses stepped up to bold leadership. He did so when he had the will of the people behind him; he did so when he had to come down hard on the people themselves. He responded to the Golden Calf, the rebellion of Korach, the sin of the spies, and any number of challenges. Kissinger explains that the mark of a great leader is the ability to communicate hard truths. Moses was willing to tell it like it is. I can’t imagine him caring about poll data. For all the courage it must have taken him to assert a bold vision to the slaves, I can only imagine the toll it took on Moses when he had to tell the desert generation that it would be their children but not they themselves who would enter the Promised Land. Leadership is about a lot of things; being liked is not necessarily one of them.
The fourth principle from Kissinger is as interesting as it is unexpected: Solitude. Great leaders make space for solitude. Sadat developed his reflective habits in prison. Adenauer spent time in a monastery. Thatcher made her most consequential decisions in the early morning hours. Nixon withdrew to Camp David, and de Gaulle frequented his country home whenever he could. It is beyond the scope of today’s sermon, but a fascinating element of Kissinger’s book is his reflections on the deleterious effects of living in a world where human attention is sliced thin by the constant news cycle, the internet, and social media – a world where the average teen scrolls daily through their social media accounts that are as long as the Chrysler Building is high. Our attention spans have been diminished to the point that we have lost the ability to think historically, analytically, strategically, and long-term. Decisive as each of Kissinger’s leaders was, each understood the value of taking time to themselves to process, to plan, to separate the significant from the insignificant, perhaps to recharge their minds and souls in the face of the wear and tear of their leadership obligations.
All of which is no doubt why Moses not only went up the mountain but stayed there for so long. Why should we be surprised that Moses, having just led the people out of Egypt and through the sea, with the march through the desert ahead of him, chose to take a bit of time on his own. To refresh, to revisit first principles, for himself and so that he could lead the people whom he was called on to serve. Sometimes we all need to press pause, recalibrate, get realigned and think long-term. Kissinger points out that of his six leaders, five of them came from devout religious upbringings. Best I know, Kissinger is not a religious man. His point is not a plea for faith. Rather it is to point out the habits instilled in these leaders by way of their faith – self-control, self-reflection, self-mastery, taking the long view – that are also the attributes by which great statecraft is founded, something the greatest leader of our faith no doubt well understood.
Number five, finally and perhaps most importantly: Crafting shared narrative. Each leader Kissinger profiles was able to craft a shared narrative with which to draw together a culturally diffuse people. Sadat did so after Nasser in Egypt, as did de Gaulle throughout his career. The example about which Kissinger spoke the other night about whom I know the least was Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, who took an island composed of three different societies and ethnicities – Chinese, Malay, and Indian – and brought them together as the Singapore nation, linguistically, economically, educationally, and otherwise. Here leadership is defined not so much as the act of doing bold deeds or delivering hard truths, but about crafting a shared history, giving voice to collective identity, and shaping a shared destiny. It was with regard to this leadership quality, more than any other, that I felt Kissinger was speaking not just about historical leaders, but about a leadership crisis in the present: the paucity of leaders today able and willing to construct a narrative capable of bonding together people of diverse backgrounds.
And nobody did this better than Moses. Taking a ragtag group of Hebrews with nothing in common other than their enslaved status and bringing them together as a people. Moses demanded that Israel know their history, that they “remember the days of old.” He brought them together at Mount Sinai to establish a shared covenant. He set out before them a common destiny to be shared by the generations to follow. Not for nothing is Moses referred to as Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our teacher. For all of his leadership attributes, perhaps Moses’s most impactful and enduring role was as national pedagogue – his ability to bring Israel together under one story.
From Moses to Kissinger. Five aspects of leadership – meritocracy, vision, bold action, solitude, and shared narrative. They are all interrelated and I am sure there are others. Perhaps the most interesting insight is the realization that the measure of these leaders, or any leader for that matter, is never whether they actually achieve their intended goal. Sadat was assassinated. Thatcher’s fall, in Kissinger’s words, had a Shakespearean air; and Nixon, well, we know what happened to Nixon. Each of these leaders, among so many others, would take comfort in the knowledge that not even Moses reached the Promised Land – no leader does. As Kafka wrote: “Moses fails to enter Canaan, not because his life is too short, but because it is a human life.”
We take solace in that image, as described in the final words of the Torah reading, when Moses is taken up to the top of mount Nebo and permitted to view the Land, the Land he will not enter. The rabbis comment that God permitted Moses to view not just the land before him, but the generations that would follow, right up to our very own. Moses may never have crossed the Jordan, but he was comforted – as are we – knowing that his leadership legacy would extend beyond his lifetime and into the distant future.
It is a powerful image, but also the most important and counterintuitive leadership lesson of all. The measure of a leader is never about that leader; it is about whether the values of that leader extend beyond their lifetime. Moses achieved it and it remains the bar to which should all aspire. A lesson not just for people whom we read about in books, but about the books of our own lives that remain yet to be written.
Kafka, Franz. The Diaries of Franz Kafka: 1910-1923. The Schocken Kafka Library. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1988.
Kipling, Rudyard. “If: A Father’s Advice to His Son.” First published in Rewards and Fairies. London: Macmillan, 1910.
Kissinger, Henry. Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy. New York: Penguin Press, 2022.