Say you needed to undergo a medical procedure, which surgeon would you want operating on you? The one with decades of experience under his or her belt but was a mediocre student, or the one who graduated first in their medical school class, last year?
For most people the choice would be easy, go with the doctor who has done this hundreds of times and has seen everything before. Being a good student is definitely an advantage, and the new doctor certainly has the potential to be a great surgeon one day, but if you want to be assured that your life is in good hands, experience trumps smarts.
This is of course not limited to the medical profession. Everything in life has these two basic sides to it, knowing how to do something and actually doing it. You can read a dozen books on a subject and have them all memorized, but the only way to become good at something is by actually doing it. And the more you do it, the better you get at it.
While the above is not exactly an earth-shattering revelation—most of us are aware of this in our own lives—there are times we either forget this or perhaps overlook its significance. One such area can be the art of leadership.
A leader is typically a person who has gotten really good at something and they are now able to help others accomplish the same task. Their responsibilities shift from hands-on work to administration and behind-the-scenes support. Every successful team has a good and charismatic leader, encouraging those who answer to them to succeed in what they do.
But there’s more to being a leader than just being behind the scenes. In battle, officers that lead from the front rather than behind will be most victorious. A good leader doesn’t talk about leading, a good leader actually leads. When something needs to be done, they don’t merely start delegating and giving out jobs, they need to be prepared to get their hands dirty themselves too.
When the Jews in the desert were commanded by G-d to donate towards the construction of the Tabernacle, the Torah says that the leaders of the tribes did not donate immediately. They figured that they’d wait to see what their followers would donate, and they assumed that the Jews would fall short of filling the need. That’s when they would come through and contribute whatever was missing.
Their first mistake was underestimating the generosity of the Jewish people. Their second mistake was misunderstanding the function of a leader. Instead of leading by example and being the first to donate as soon as they were commanded to, they sat back and waited. And as it turns out, there was almost nothing left for them to donate, save for a few precious stones that all twelve of them donated together.
They read all the books there were on leadership and they knew all the right words to use in order to encourage their tribes, but when it came to actual leadership, they failed. So much so that some of the Torah commentators refer to them as being lazy, not having been the first to donate. They missed a valuable opportunity to demonstrate their own commitment to G-d, which would have no doubt rubbed off on their fellow Jews.
But after that happened, they quickly regrouped and corrected their error. As soon as they realized that there was nothing left for them to donate towards the construction of the Tabernacle, they owned their mistake and requested to be the first to bring a dedication offering when the Tabernacle and the altar were open for business. They learned from their mistake and took steps to ensure that it would not happen again.
And that is a true display of true leadership.