Leadership Lessons From Torah: Moshe on Delegation

There are many lessons to be gleaned from Moshe’s leadership of the Jewish people.  He embodies key characteristics of a successful leader.  Moshe was a humble man, never distracted from service by his own image of himself. Even as a humble man, he was willing face great challenges.  Moses was loyal to the Jewish people even when his boss was willing to give up on the rest of them and build a whole new team around him.  He had integrity, he always stayed true to the mission they were on and always kept his focus on what mattered.  A key element of leadership is preserving the state of “enrollment”.  The people who follow must stay committed to the intended result, no matter what comes up in the process.  Moshe dealt with many moments when the people doubted, when the thought of quitting or more specifically rebelling, seemed wise.   They even acted in a way that was contrary to the objective, making it to the promised land with G-d’s blessing.  As such, it is clear that Moshe faced the same type of challenges that other leaders face.  

In Exodus 18, we learn of a situation that exemplified Moshe’s his persistent commitment to service of the people.  Exodus 18:13-21 says, “The next day Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people, and they stood around him from morning till evening.  When his father-in-law saw all that Moses was doing for the people, he said, “What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening?”

Moses answered him, “Because the people come to me to seek God’s will. Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and instructions.”

Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out… Listen now to me and I will give you some advice…You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave.  But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.”

Upon the advice of his father-in-law, Jethro, Moses delegated authority to men selected to be judges.  By doing this, Moses was freed up for more important leadership tasks.  Moses heeded the warning of his father-in-law and appointed men to help him run the administrative side of leading the people.

There are several points here worthy of note:

  • Moshe was humble enough to take the feedback of his father in law. Humility is often a key personality trait of brilliant leaders.  They absolutely know that their success depends on their people.  They cannot do it alone.  A Leader who will not take the input or even correction of his team members is limited in her/his capabilities
  • Moshe put in place an organized system of accountability. His people knew what was expected of them.  Each had a clear area of responsibility and was aware of the overall system so that they had recourse if they needed support.
  • Moshe stayed responsible ultimately for the results. Before delegation, he was 100% responsible for the results and all of the work.  As Jethro pointed out, he was inevitably going to become exhausted.  After delegation, he was 100% responsible as were his people in their domains, and the work got done by many rather than one.
  • Moshe checked in with his boss to make sure that this new approach met the needs of the larger plan. It was only with approval from H” that Moshe proceeded.


One does not need to be the leader of an entire people for facility in delegation to be important. For all leaders, in all environments a critical skill is delegation.

Delegation is defined for our purposes as the handing to another full responsibility for a particular area of an overall mission.

According to BusinessDictionary.com:


  1. General: Grant of authority by one party (the delegator) to another (the delegatee) for agreed purpose(s). Under the legal concept of vicarious liability, the delegator remains responsible for the delegatee’s acts or omissions in carrying out the purpose of the delegation.
  2. Agency: Transfer of an agent’s right to act for the principal (such as from a contractor to a sub-contractor) that can take place only (1) with the permission of the principal, (2) where it is customary, or (3) where it is necessary for the performance of the entrusted duty.
  3. Management: Sharing or transfer of authority and the associated responsibility, from an employer or superior (who has the right to delegate) to an employee or subordinate.

Read more: http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/delegation.html

There are other key aspects of delegation.   First, it is not abdication.  To hand off a responsibility to another completely, and in doing so, remove oneself from all responsibility for that thing is abdication.  We are not speaking of that.  When someone moves out of one accountability entirely and moves laterally to a completely different accountability and retains no connection to the old position, they abdicate.  I know of few situations in which abdication is effective long term.  Further, when someone directs a subordinate to complete a task, they have not delegated.  They have assigned.  To assign a task is an aspect of command.  It gives someone work to do, it does not give them responsibility for the result.

Example 1: 

If Shimon tells Bobby, “mop that floor”, and Bob mops the floor, he has done what has been assigned, completely.  Were it later to be discovered that there were several areas where mopping was insufficient to get the floor clean, (perhaps there was paint on a section of the floor), Bobby still would have done his job completely and Shimon, if his intention were a clean floor, would have failed to accomplish his objective.

Example 2:

If, however, Shimon had directed Bobby to get the floor clean, Bobby would have been in a position to identify the need, figure out what needed to be done and to do it.  Perhaps he would have immediately noticed that the paint would not come up from mopping and come up with another solution, perhaps he would have needed to ask for help, but Bobby would have been in a completely different position; he would have been responsible for producing the intended result, a clean floor.

Example 2, is delegation.  In this case, Shimon, if he really wants the floor clean is still responsible to make it happen.  He is just doing it through the efforts of Bobby.  Shimon has extended his responsibility to Bob.  Bobby is both acting on behalf of Shimon and acting as himself.  Responsibility has been extended to include Bobby, not transferred completely.  In this situation, Bobby has the opportunity to use his own mind, and figure out what needs to be done.  Perhaps he will need some training in how others have done the job in the past, but he is responsible that the floor is clean.  Responsibility is self-perpetuating.  People who are made responsible for results tend to feel trusted, respected and are likely to do a good job.  They will also look for other ways to contribute.  People who are given only tasks to complete, (as in version 1) will generally attempt to complete their tasks with as little effort as possible.

Delegation happens when a responsible party, gives to another responsibility for all aspects of achieving the intended result while preserving her/his own responsibility as well.

In the case of Moshe, in order to delegate effectively, the people he appointed needed to be the right people and needed to be trained in the specific knowledge necessary for the job and they needed to be people of integrity, “men of truth, people who despise money…”[shemos 18: 21].  Note: “people who despise money” should be understood as people who cannot be bribed or swayed by personal benefit.  Moshe had to make sure that these people he appointed had all of the basic personal character traits and the specific knowledge needed.  Then he could let them do what was asked.  Moshe, once the right people were in place was liberated by this approach.  The same is true in any leadership environment.  If one hears from a leader, “it’s easier if I just do it myself”, we know that this person is having issues with delegation.  These issues can be addressed if being effective is important to the person involved.  Some people do not wish to give up control to the extent that is necessary in order to lead effectively.  These people will never be effective in delegation.  These people will never lead anything bigger than what they personally can handle.

Leadership as a phenomenon should be measured by two measures only; the production of intended results and the development of leaders.  If both are not present, leadership fails.  Without the ability to delegate the magnitude of results that are possible is drastically limited and the development of strong teams and their leaders, simply will not happen.  Moshe accomplished both, brilliantly.

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