Beha'alotecha: Take Your Leader to Me!

Which leadership characteristic is most important?   

Perhaps surprisingly, “it” doesn’t appear among the typical list of leadership qualities.  "It" isn’t organizational talent, “big ideas,” creativity, charisma, experience, management style, or communication skill, to name just a few. In fact, I doubt that executive search firms look for “it” – or that congregations evaluating prospective new clergy do so.

This is strange, but perhaps it’s because there are so few truly outstanding leaders.  When this “it” is present in abundance, everyone knows it – or rather, feels it.    

The most important leadership characteristic is consistent demonstration that the leader’s highest priority is the welfare of those being led.  When followers truly believe that their leader places their interests first, they will ignore or forgive all kinds of other weaknesses and lapses.  Conversely, when followers conclude that their leader has other priorities, including self-interest and conflicts of interest, effective leadership may become impossible, even if the leader is “excellent” in almost every other respect.  

I have experienced three very different examples of this recently.

First, in my California community, hundreds of people participated in various ceremonies mourning and commemorating the life of Rabbi Haim Asa, z”l.  I heard dozens of people speak about their personal experiences in which he had done things (not just said things) that demonstrated his deep personal concern for them, their families, and their welfare.  Although he was also a scholar, linguist, skilled Jewish organizer, fund raiser, “etc. etc.” (as he often punctuated his remarks), what mattered most to people – by far – was Rabbi Asa’s visceral interest and support for them, personally.  It was an object lesson in leadership for all who experienced it and, after his passing, who heard his followers, friends, and even long-ago acquaintances speak of it.

Second, yesterday’s Los Angeles Times sports section contained a profile of the local NHL ice hockey team's Head Coach, Daryl Sutter.  Sutter’s Kings are in the Stanley Cup Finals (Championships) for the second time in three years.  Sutter is from Canada, and has decades of experience in the sport as a NHL player and coach.  Yet, his players quoted in the article said nothing about his experience, coaching record, innovative strategies, motivational techniques, etc.  Rather, they praised him for protecting them from outside disruptions and criticisms. He commented that he keeps personnel and other team matters in the locker room and out of the media.  In other words, his players know that they matter most to him.  

Third, I have reread this week’s parashah, Beha’alotecha.  It’s very clear from this portion, among others, that Moses was far from an ideal (or idealized) leader.  He was a poor speaker. He was old. He didn’t believe in himself as a leader.  He was a terrible delegator.  He had a bad temper.  He appears to have abandoned his wife and children.  In this week’s portion, he wanted G-d to kill him rather than continue to burden him with the ungovernable (incorrigible) Israelites. (11:4-15) 

Yet, most of the people (except Korach and his followers, and on one occasion, Moses’s own siblings) knew that they and their welfare were Moses’ top, and even only, priority.  He was exceedingly humble (12:3) and yet was willing to stand up to the greatest powers “on Earth” -- Pharaoh and even G-d – in defense of his people.  Most dramatically, in Exodus, when G-d was so angry at the people that He told Moses to stand aside so that G-d could destroy them and make a new people out of Moses’ descendants, Moses refused and “calmed G-d down.” In this week’s Torah portion, G-d is incensed at the people’s pining for Egypt and causes a fire.  Moses prays on their behalf and the fire is reduced. (11:1-2).  When G-d later strikes Miriam with a skin affliction for criticizing Moses, he prays that she be healed (12:1-16).  

We thus learn that:

1.    The most important “secret of effective leadership” is to demonstrate to would-be followers – through sincere and consistent actions -- that their interests come first.    

2.    Weaknesses in many, perhaps even in all other leadership respects (assuming basic competencies to accomplish expected tasks) can and often are discounted and/or forgiven.  

3.    When we seek to choose effective leaders, especially our (hopefully) long-term religious leaders, our top priority must be their demonstrated dedication to their (previous and/or current) community and its members. Experience, scholarship, eloquence, knowledge, passion, technical skills, fund raising, “connection” with youth, etc. – these are all highly desirable in a religious leader.  And, certainly, each individual congregation has particular needs that will dictate the order of other priorities.  But, in the long run, nothing will ultimately attract or repel followers like a leader’s demonstrable dedication to them (or lack thereof) as individuals.    

In spiritual, community, political, and often even economic matters, people ultimately follow or reject a leader whom they feel cares about them.  

"Take Me to Your Leader!" is the familiar science fiction movie phrase.  But in real life, rather than reel life, our deserving leader will come to us.   

Shabbat shalom! 

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3