The Room Where it Happens
Giving Good Advice to Leaders
“No one really knows how the game is played
The art of the trade
How the sausage gets made
We just assume that it happens
But no one else is in the room where it happens”
These lyrics are likely familiar to you if you’ve seen Lin Manuel Miranda’s iconic play Hamilton. This song, The Room where it Happens, is from the second act of the play in which we get Aaron Burr’s perspective on the Compromise of 1790. Quick recap in case you missed that day in 8th grade, the compromise of 1790 is when Alexander Hamilton secured the ability to execute on his financial vision for the nascent country in exchange for giving Jefferson and Madison a southern capital in Washington DC. Hence the line from the song… “What did they say to you to get you to sell New York City down the river.”
It is easy to empathize with Burr in this song. We often think, how do decisions get made at work or within organizations that we care about? Who are these decision makers and where is this room in which they make these decisions?
I’d like to suggest that there is something more interesting about how big decisions can be made by leaders, and perhaps the role that Burr could’ve played even though he wasn’t invited to dinner with Hamilton, Madison and Jefferson.
In Exodus chapter 18, Jethro or Yitro, Moses’s father in law, give’s Moses very specific and sagely advice on how to govern his courts- see the scene below:
But when Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act. alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?”
Moses replied to his father-in-law, “It is because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one party and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.”
But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes before God, and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow.
You shall also seek out, from among all the people, capable individuals who fear God — trustworthy ones who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you.
If you do this — and God so commands you — you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied.” — Exodus 18:14–23
Moses quickly heeds this wise advice and sets up his courts accordingly.
The most remarkable part of this scene is that it happens directly before Moses encounters God at Sinai.
Otherwise put, Moses heeds the guidance of an individual …who up until that date had not given his any advice in the past… right before Moses walks into the ultimate version of the Room Where it Happens in biblical/literary/world history.
Think about that…Think about what it says about Moses’s capacity to take feedback. After all the Bible does refer to him as the humblest of all men.
Also, think about the feedback that Yitro gives to Moses and how he frames it — “this will be good for you, you need to be unwearied..I know you , and you need this” ALSO, if you are looking for how to do this, I have an idea….set up your courts with XYZ parameters.
As an aside, the Talmud in Tractate Sotah picks up on Yitro’s ability to give great guidance:
Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba says that Rabbi Simai says: Three noteworthy people were consulted by Pharaoh in that counsel where Pharaoh questioned what should be done with the Jewish people. They were Balaam, and Job, and Yitro.
The Talmud concludes that Yitro refused to give guidance because he saw where things were headed.
Not everyone is a Moses, but Moses can use everyone’s perspective…especially if it is packaged properly.
Don’t be afraid to give good advice when you know what you are talking about. You might not always be in the room where it happens, but you can certainly influence what happens inside.