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Lesson 2: Chukat – Between a Rock and a Hard Place – Managing Generational Diversity
“Now Korah, son of Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, and On, son of Peleth—descendants of Reuben—to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. “They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why, then, do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” Numbers 16:1–3.
Moses had wearied hearing the Israelites’ continued grievances. This was not the kind of job he signed up for. More grumblings were voiced, with people lamenting why they were taken out of Egypt only to die in the desert. You brought us to a place with “no grain or figs or vines or pomegranate; there is not even water to drink”. Aside from hitting Moses where it hurt, alluding to the specific vegetation (grain, figs, vines, and pomegranates) that was to be abundant in the Promised Land, the demand for water needed to be resolved. God instructed: “You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes, speak to the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.” Indeed, out came copious water, but note, Moses did not “speak to the rock,” as God instructed; instead, he took his mythological rod and used it to strike the rock, hitting it twice. God was displeased: “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore, you shall not lead this congregation into the Land that I have given them.”
Copious biblical commentary has grappled with this confusing event. Was hitting the rock and not speaking to it deserving of the severe punishment of Moses’s being barred from entering the Promised Land? Didn’t a similar event in the Book of Exodus call for Moses to strike a rock to produce water? Since God’s miracle of providing water through Moses was unequivocal, why would such a minor modification of instructions warrant this severe Divine response?
Among the numerous efforts to understand the anomalies evoked in this story, one interpretation may provide some insight into leadership demands for today’s workforce . The last time a miracle was needed to produce water was shortly after the Exodus and the splitting of the Red Sea. At that time, God instructed Moses to extract the water by hitting a rock with his staff. The Israelites in that generation were just released from slavery and had witnessed ten cataclysmic plagues that turned the tide of Pharaoh’s obstinacy. In that context, hitting the rock may have been one more manifestation of using physical means to resolve adverse situations.
However, almost forty years have passed. The new generation that would soon enter the Promised Land will need to learn to acquire and apply more sophisticated tools, such as verbal skills, to resolve problems rather than waiting for dramatic miracles and familiar physical devices. Perhaps Moses was expected to have his rod with him––and not use it––to signal demonstrably that it was no longer the instrument of choice. Perhaps the contemporary leader’s mission was to impress on the new generation that speech and verbal powers of persuasion (even in the context of a miracle) would be the vehicle through which the water crisis and subsequent crises would be resolved. In managing the crisis, Moses defaulted to the leadership techniques that proved successful for the previous generation’s challenges. Perhaps we can imagine Moses saying, “But this is how we did it the last time!” Moses’s loss of patience with the people and his being bound to the “old ways of doing things” may have provided God the evidence that Moses was no longer the right leader for the new Promised Land generation. Thus the “punishment” of excluding him from entering the Land was, in effect, a natural consequence of Moses’s actions and God’s realization of the need for new leadership.
CEOs, managers, and team leaders are having to step up to deal with the features of the new workforce. The critical elements of this workforce transformation begin with increased longevity, but they don’t end there. Baby Boomers are finding that retiring in their mid-60s may be a bit early, perhaps anticipating two full decades of unstructured discretionary activity, with many preferring to remain active members of the workforce. This increase in longevity means that the modern workforce will have a broader range of age diversity. As more women join the workforce and men opt to stay home with their infants and toddlers, gender diversity grows. Gender diversity is further augmented by the greater awareness of multiple sexual orientations and a commitment to integrate them into the workforce. As Gen X, Millennials (or Gen Y), and Gen Z populate the workforce, personal values such as family/work issues will vary, further amplifying diversity. All this will add to the challenge of establishing a consensual organizational culture.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) statistical targets may require a certain percentage of women in technical positions and people of color in leadership positions. Additional challenges include a partially remote workforce, managing global partnerships, adjusting to a flatter organizational structure, and acquiring proficiency in human capital management (HCM) technologies to accommodate changing trends in talent demands and realities.
These changes may require managers of a different stripe than those fulfilling the previous generation’s needs. The new leader should thus be equipped, among other attributes, with adaptability skills, multicultural sensitivities, technological literacy, and the creativity to design more flexible career paths for an increasingly diverse employee pool. Tellingly, current workforce leadership is not there yet. The KellyOCG 2021 Global Workforce Agility survey of more than 1,000 senior executives across 13 countries revealed that more than half (59%) of executives say they will be adopting a hybrid working model, and one in four believed their current leaders lack the skills to manage the workforce they want to build. Furthermore, fewer than half of the executives (49%) reported having a clear view of the optimal mix of talent required across all business areas, and 27% were unsure about what kind of post-COVID work environment their employees want. So, it may be some time before these executives can enter the ‘Promised Land.’
- Managers, it’s time to freshen up your management toolbox! Finding quality (and quantity) time with your HR staff and attending industry-focused conferences should advance your knowledge of what changes to expect and how they can be managed. Spend more time with coworkers that can expose you to broader and more diversified perspectives––such as age-wise and gender-wise––but especially attune yourself to the younger players, whom you may have neglected in recent years.
- Employees need to reevaluate their adaptability to remain active players in the new workforce. Adaptability is a trait that may not come easily to everyone, managers and employees alike. Flexibility and versatility are even more valuable now than ever. You may be challenged by developments that move faster than you would like and feel nudged out of your comfort zone. You will be expected to adjust to frequent organizational restructuring and embrace opportunities to learn new skills and collaborate with new colleagues. Since you may need to adopt the role of job seeker more often than you find comfortable, making yourself current with the job market and appropriate self-marketing skills will be worth your effort.
- Try this: Managing Generation Z can be a rewarding challenge. Keep in mind that Gen-Zs feel free to challenge the status quo and seek to influence how things should be done. As a leader, you should understand that, contrary to popular belief, Gen-Zers are not extraterrestrials, but rather a group that can be used as a catalyst for both strategic and cultural transformation. Leaders failing to utilize Gen-Z’s capabilities are at a disadvantage.
Numbers 20:8 Numbers 20:12  Ex. 17:5–6.  Simmons, S. (n.d.). Moses hits the rock: Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1). Aish. ] Hyacinth, B. T. (2020). Leading the workforce of the future: Inspiring a mindset of passion, innovation and growth. MBA Caribbean Organisation. ] Agencia EFE (2021). Business leaders say they are unprepared to manage today’s changing workforce.