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Listen to “Unfinished” by Fred Smith


Transitions from the founder to the next leader are notoriously difficult. Everyone is at risk in one way or another. Founders are often reluctant to leave as their whole identity is wrapped up in the organization. Successors are unsure of themselves. The people feel caught between loyalty to and affection for the founder and it takes time for them to adjust. Sometimes they don’t and there is a simmering rejection. All of these work against the success of the transition.

Of course, some work better than anyone expects. For example, the transition from Moses to Joshua was remarkable. While Joshua was doubtful about himself Moses was doubtful about the people being able to follow him. In his last words to Joshua and the people he says, “For I know how rebellious and stiff-necked you are. 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.” Following Moses looked like a fool’s errand.

For Moses it was a description of the complicated relationship he had with the people his entire life. There had been conflict and misunderstanding from the very beginning. The people thought he wanted to lord it over them and he saw them as rebellious and unfaithful. Left to themselves they were not able to manage his absence. At times he despaired of them and at other times he would beg the Lord to save them. How else could it be when he was no longer there? Why would they be any different with Joshua?

It turns out they were. Joshua was no carbon copy of Moses. His actual leadership was far different. Moses had brought them out of Egypt and through the wilderness but he could not have done what Joshua did. Not only is there no conflict with the people, no anger, no wavering but no complaining to God about his burden. There is – with only one exception – nothing but success in a very difficult situation: conquering entrenched and powerful enemies and then dividing the land between the competitive tribes.  

However, if we read to the end of the story there is something unfinished. While Joshua did what Moses could not have done there is still something left undone. The people are incapable of governing themselves. For whatever reasons, Moses and Joshua left the people dependent on their personal leadership with no adequate system in place for them to govern themselves. The people served the Lord until Joshua and his peers died and because there were none left to remember what the Lord had done they “forsook the Lord God of their fathers and followed other gods.” In time, they forgot.

Why didn’t Joshua leave a successor in place? We don’t know. In his defense, he had only nine years from the time they entered the land to his death. Yes, he completed his mission as he saw it – to bring the people into Canaan and then divide the land among the twelve tribes. Yet after that, there was no system of governing leaving each tribe on its own. Yes, there was a central place of worship but that was not enough. They had been led but not taught to lead and govern themselves. Thomas Jefferson said, “The qualifications for self-government in society are not innate. They are the result of habit and long training.” The Lord raised up judges to save them from their enemies as long as the judge lived but when the judge died they returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their fathers. It is like this for generations until finally they demand a king and that, as they were warned, is the beginning of the end. 

I wonder what the story might have been were they taught or learned to self-govern and not follow after other gods into corruption and prostituting themselves. What if instead of a succession of unique judges as champions there had been, in Jefferson’s words, an established habit of self-government? What if there had been no attraction for a king because they were able to govern themselves? How might such a nation have provided us an example – and not just a warning?

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “…our children must learn…to face full responsibility for their actions, to make their own choices and cope with the results…the whole democratic system…depends upon it. For our system is founded on self-government, which is untenable if the individuals who make up the system are unable to govern themselves.”

The next challenge for those who follow the founder is always how to do that: To establish self-government instead of the desire for more champions or, even worse, a king.

Don’t forget to purchase “Where The Light Divides” here.

Unfinished portrait by Lucien Freud



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