The Leading Edge


Jewish leadership expert Dr. Hal M. Lewis, President and CEO of Spertus Institute, on Judaism, leaders, and leadership.

The Leading Edge

Where eulogy virtues are resume virtues

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This season of recently completed commencement ceremonies and valedictories featured a seemingly unending spate of references to the writings of NY Times columnist and television pundit, David Brooks. Wherever one turns of late, one encounters Brooks’ popular construct in which he suggests that there are two different types of virtues in life: resume and eulogy. As the names imply, resume virtues are the things we put on our resumes and CVs that describe the skills we bring to the marketplace. Eulogy virtues, are the things that get talked about at our funerals, the deeper attributes about who we are, our relationships and passions, the things we stand for. An irony of the human condition, as those who invoke Brooks’ paradigm point out, is that despite insisting “eulogy” virtues are more important than “resume” virtues, most of us spend our time and energies building up the latter, at the expense of the former.  The predictable message to graduates, from those who cite Brooks, is that they should avoid these pitfalls, devoting themselves to the pursuit of loftier attributes instead of being consumed with more quotidian matters.

As the CEO of an institution of higher learning, constantly on the lookout for meaningful commencement messages, I desperately wanted to embrace this ‘resume-eulogy’ paradigm. After all, anything that reminds us that work constitutes just a single piece of who we are and what we treasure is a message I want to endorse. But as a lifelong Jewish communal professional, and as the President of an Institute dedicated to the training and development of Jewish leaders, I am forced to reject such an oversimplified bifurcation.

Those who work in the Jewish community – whether for just a few years or over the course of several decades – have come to understand that separating between “resume” virtues and “eulogy” virtues is a fabrication, a straw man that deliberately ignores the value system that lies at the core of our work.

Mr. Brooks has chosen to overlook something about leadership that the best Jewish communal professionals have known for a long time. Leadership is always about character. When we come to work – whether we work in a venerable Jewish agency or a start up [N.B. Sorry, I just cannot bring myself to use the more popular term “legacy organization,” which inexcusably has become a moniker of derision] - we do not leave our moral compass at home in the bucket marked “eulogy virtues.” No, for those dedicated to advancing Jewish life and who do so for a living, our eulogy virtues are our resume virtues. Great leadership is always about character.

Integrity, humility, compassion, a commitment to serving and growing others – these are what make us great in the office, and in our personal lives as well. No bifurcation, no separation between virtues. The great teacher of leadership, Warren Bennis noted, “The process of becoming a leader is much the same as the process of becoming an integrated human being. Life itself,” said Bennis, “is the career.” And to succeed in our careers as Jewish communal leaders, we must embrace and embody the very virtues that Brooks would reserve only for our funerals.

In suggesting that the deeper values of character, ethics, and integrity are the seminal values of the Jewish organizational workplace, I do not suggest that “resume virtues” have no place in our offices and our careers.  On the contrary; competence and character are never substitutes for one another. We who toil in the vineyards of Jewish life must be every bit as proficient, effective, productive, innovative, tenacious, accomplished, and credentialed as our for-profit counterparts. It is not enough that we be women and men of great character. There can be no place in our field for morally impressive but otherwise, inadequate and ineffectual leaders.

At the same time, by insisting on a separation between “resume” and “eulogy” virtues, Brooks falls victim to what his fellow journalist, George Will, likes to call the fallacy of the false alternative. It may be true that the American workplace has rejected the very virtues we hope will be recalled at our funerals. But in our business – the business of building a twenty-first century Jewish world – those values are precisely what it takes to succeed at work. We should not be misled into believing that “eulogy” values are ‘soft’ or ‘squishy’ or somehow un-businesslike. The truth is, collaboration, empowerment, power sharing … are not only good values; they are good business. And we, Jewish communal professionals, if we rise to the standard, can become shining examples of what good business, good politics, and good entrepreneurship should be. Relegating things like ethics and mentschlikhkeit to “eulogy” virtues suggests they are not necessary or essential in the marketplace. The stakes are too high in our highly volatile, rapidly changing world to buy-in to such a distortion.  

A version of this article was originally published on 

Four questions for the new year about the way we do business

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If 2014 is any indication we should anticipate that the new year will see these pages (and those of other Jewish publications) filled with editorials proclaiming the virtues of entrepreneurship in Jewish life. In this post-Pew epoch entrepreneurship has become the new continuity. As calls for the latter followed 1990's National Jewish Population Survey, the former seems the prevailing response to 2013's A Portrait of Jewish Americans.

Who among us has not caught the bug? In Israel and across North America, Jews are at the forefront of an entrepreneurial groundswell in technology and publishing, medicine and real estate. And as more and more baby boomers exit the Jewish organizational stage, it is natural that younger leaders, reflecting the Zeitgeist of a new generation, will insist that entrepreneurship and innovation inform the way our community does its work. 

To be sure, these demands are not without authentic historical roots. Indeed, millennia of Jewish life provide inspiring examples of innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit. Bold Jewish leaders like Abraham, the quintessential iconoclast who saw what others could not, like Moses who was willing to withstand critique and risk everything despite the odds, and like Yochanan ben Zakkai, who embodied a capacity to reinvent and recalibrate in the face of failure and destruction, enabled Judaism to survive over the centuries. From King David to Theodor Herzl, from the rabbinic sages to the feminists of our day, Jewish leaders have understood that, as Peter Drucker, author of the classic Innovation and Entrepreneurship taught, "The enterprise that does not innovate inevitably ages and declines." Far from being the end of Jewish life, innovation lies at the heart of our people's vibrant and vital self-renewal.

Because inventiveness is our spiritual inheritance, and because increased calls for innovation and entrepreneurship have become de rigueur, I believe that we who care deeply about the Jewish future must be willing to ask ourselves some difficult questions about our institutions and the way we do business. We must, as Moses Maimonides taught, be willing to "consider the truth, regardless of the source." And, where appropriate, we must challenge ourselves with the question Martin Linsky of Harvard's Kennedy School likes to pose, "What is our piece of the mess?" To this end, now that Hanukkah is over, I would like to suggest (as an homage to a Jewish holiday we have yet to celebrate this year) four questions for our collective consideration.

First, is there something endemic in the nature of our community organizations that impedes effective innovation? I refer here to the system of philanthropy that undergirds the lifeblood of our communities. If challenging times demand boldness, risk tolerance, and a willingness to ignore the naysayers, and the world of Jewish institutions requires that we worship at the altar of consensus, ever fearful of offending community standards and donor sensibilities, then have we set ourselves up, however unwittingly, for a Kulturkampf, what Samuel Huntington refers to as a clash of civilizations?

Second, painful as this might be to contemplate, are we failing in Jewish life to attract the right players because of the way we do business? Beyond our often non-competitive salary scales, our misplaced obsession with low overhead, and our general reticence to experiment and tolerate failure, is there something about our style, our governance, our approach to metrics, and our definition of what constitutes real innovation that discourages dreamers and stands in sharp contrast to the entrepreneurial mindset?

Third, does our desire to please the widest number of constituents by endeavoring to be all things to all people, work against us? Sacred to the innovation process is what Peter Drucker famously called, "organized abandonment." Drucker challenged his clients to ask themselves, "If you weren't already in this business, would you go into it?" For many of us in the Jewish community it is not easy to walk away from established programs, particularly if some good is being done, and if they happen to be beloved by board members or funders. But our ability to innovate in response to current challenges is directly related to our willingness to be honest with ourselves about the long-term value of our programming.

And finally, are we simply too conservative, and perhaps too cocksure to be able to respond to what our community wants? One hears a great deal about the culture of a not-for-profit entity these days. But the truth is, organizational culture is often the antithesis of change. Past practice becomes an excuse for failing to try new things, and a justification for why the "incumbents" always know best. Too frequently, big dreams come to die, not incubate, in the culture of our community's organizations. 

I raise these four questions not because there is a single right answer to any of them, and certainly not to deprecate or cast aspersions on the work of my beloved Jewish communal sector. But if the past is prologue then the likelihood is great that calls for innovation and entrepreneurship will persist. Funders will continue to seek out entrepreneurial startups, boards will demand innovative solutions to that which ails them, and younger donors will pursue their desire to be part of something new and groundbreaking.

Before any of this can happen, however, we must be willing to consider whether the eleemosynary system as we know it, and the world of Jewish organizations as presently constituted are ready for real entrepreneurship. Are we poised to think like innovators? Are we prepared to act like entrepreneurs? Do we offer a serious and credible option for investors and venture capitalists?

It is not enough that we are the heirs to an entrepreneurial tradition or that there are great Jewish innovators in the corporate arena. Something is very wrong if we are unable to translate those same principles to our synagogues, our community centers, our schools, federations, cultural institutions, and beyond. We who have inherited the world's greatest insights into effective leadership, and who are the heirs to a more than 5000 year-old legacy of entrepreneurship, we - whether we are employees or philanthropists, board members or professionals - we must be prepared to craft the changes necessary to make entrepreneurship and innovation a reality in the Jewish world that is now ours to lead. 

This article was originally published on

Trusting our leaders

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The closer we get to another round in the seemingly never-ending American election cycle, the more we begin to hear stepped up discussions about trust (or the lack of same) in our political leadership. Sadly, distrust in our elected officials is commonplace. But it is not just our politicians. A preponderance of high profile scandals has resulted in a dramatic loss of trust in our corporate heads and even in our religious leaders as well.

From the perspective of classical Jewish value teachings, nothing could be more untenable. The Talmud (Bava Batra 8b) makes it clear that no one can be appointed a communal leader unless he or she is completely trustworthy. Individuals "were not to exercise authority over the community, but that they were to be trusted." 

Where does trust come from? What are the factors that make for a trusting relationship between followers and leaders? What do you look for when it comes to trusting your own leaders - bosses, politicians, team captains, rabbis? Not surprisingly, many of the attributes we cherish in our own interpersonal relationships are the same traits we value in relationships with our leaders - honesty, reliability, constancy, and fairness, among others. 

An analysis of Jewish texts on the subject makes it clear that in our tradition trust is the aggregate sum of a delicate combination of both competence and character. Whereas the general leadership literature is fond of distinguishing between leadership skills, those technical competencies a leader requires, and leadership attributes, those personal characteristics often thought to constitute the essence of good leadership, no such bifurcation exists in Judaism. In a formula made popular by Moses' father-in-law, Jethro (Exodus 18:21), "You shall … seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God…," effective leadership requires both competence and character. Only when both conditions obtain will followers trust their leaders. "It is not enough, taught Warren Bennis, Distinguished Professor of Business Administration at USC, "for a leader to do things right; he must do the right thing."

While proficiencies, even those that can be globalized, may vary from position to position - and by the way, it is often a mistake to assume that competency in one area will necessarily translate into another arena - there are certain commonalities associated with character and integrity in leadership that are timeless. They are not unique to a particular leadership paradigm, and are, therefore, worthy of consideration by any who aspire to lead.   

Of all of these, Judaism is particularly concerned with the connection between fiscal propriety and effective leadership. Traditional authorities, recognizing the opportunities and temptations often associated with high office, were especially vigilant about avoiding even the appearance of impropriety. Fastidiousness of the highest order was expected of communal leaders, even if their jobs went far beyond accounting and finance. The kohanim - Temple priests - for example, were proscribed from wearing certain bordered cloaks that could be used to illegally sequester coins, not because the priest were thought to be common criminals, but because their ability to lead required them to be above suspicion completely (Mishnah Shekalim 3:2). So too, the king was forbidden from sitting on the High Court (Sanhedrin) lest he be placed in the position of adjudicating certain issues that might benefit his personal finances (Sanhedrin 18b). 

The medieval legalist, Moses Maimonides, set the bar particularly high for those involved in communal fundraising. 

One should not contribute to a charity fund unless he knows that the one in charge of the collections is trustworthy and intelligent and knows how to manage properly, as in the case of Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradyon [who administered the communal charity funds so scrupulously that once when money of his own chanced to get mixed with the charity funds, he distributed the whole amount among the poor](Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Matanot Ani'im 9-10).

For Maimonides, involvement in the philanthropic sector, either as a professional or volunteer, demands impeccable fiscal ethics. Only when a community trusts its fundraisers, organizational executives, and lay leaders can it be expected to give generously.  We can extrapolate from Maimonides' teaching to the realm of business and politics as well. Investors and the general electorate need to know that those who seek their support - fiscal or otherwise - come not only with the necessary competencies to lead, but with the highest moral standards as well. Character is established not merely by mouthing the right words about financial accountability, but by a level of personal conduct, evinced in the actions of Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradyon that reflects a commitment to the highest level of integrity above all else. 

Consider how different things might be if these were standards used to assess our contemporary leaders.

Playing in the big leagues

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A recent 60 Minutes segment focused on the Giving Pledge, the commitment made by some of the world's richest individuals to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy. In an extensive discussion that touched on issues ranging from strategic initiatives to measuring philanthropic impact, Charlie Rose asked whether this select group of billionaires ever discussed failure in the context of their charitable work. Warren Buffett seemed surprised by the question. With the avuncular candor his fans have come to appreciate, the Berkshire Hathaway chair gently chided his interviewer, "If you bat a thousand you're playing in the little leagues."

To state the obvious, effective leadership comes with the expectation of success. The leaders we admire most are those who accomplish their goals and who complete their missions. And yet one of the great ironies of leadership is that a willingness to experiment, to journey far beyond our comfort zones, and even to risk failure, are hallmarks of bold leadership. Buffett, of course, is completely right. If we play it safe all the time, remaining deeply ensconced in the 'known,' we can certainly appear to increase our success rates. But as every successful leader knows, there is no comfort in the growth zone, and certainly no growth in the comfort zone.

There are, of course, perfectly understandable reasons why many, particularly among those who lead charitable organizations, are excessively prudent when it comes to risk taking and bold decision-making. Leading institutions in today's philanthropic environment often forces us to live in fear of alienating our funders. Wary that we will say or do the wrong thing, we opt for an abundance of caution. We prefer safe to courageous. We worship at the altar of consensus precisely because we are risk-averse. We cannot take the chance of trying and failing when donors want the assurance that their investments are guaranteed. Failure in this context is simply not an option. And so, to echo Buffett, we play in the little leagues.

But playing in the little leagues is for kids. In the history of the Jewish people nothing great ever happened without a willingness to step out on a limb, to take a chance and risk failure. 'Safe' for Abraham would have meant continuing in the pagan tradition of his father's household. For the daughters of Zelophehad, not rocking the boat would have allowed prevailing practice to militate against their right of inheritance. For the prophets of Israel, consensus meant capitulating to the polytheistic practices of their day. And for the rabbinic sages, the path of least resistance was to surrender in the face of the Temple's destruction. Playing in the "majors" involves risk, disruptive leadership, and more than a few mistakes. This was as true for the Maccabees as it is for today's Women of the Wall.

The midrash (Numbers Rabbah) relates a well known story that when the Jewish people left Egypt they found themselves at the shores of the Red Sea paralyzed by argument as to which tribe would have the honor of crossing into the sea first. With the Egyptians in hot pursuit, only one man, Nahshon ben Aminadav, took it upon himself to risk both the wrath of his coreligionists and death by drowning (the ultimate failure). Undaunted, Nahshon waded into the waters all the way up to his neck. Then, and only then, according to the rabbinic sages, the waters of the sea split open allowing the Israelites to cross over and escape to safety.

The example of Nahshon makes it abundantly clear that bold decision-making - the kind of decision-making that has transformative powers - is incongruous with reticence and a fear of failure. If playing in the little leagues is good enough, then, perhaps, there is no need to worry about failing. But if the big leagues are the goal then taking risks and making mistakes come with the territory.

The Torah underscores the fact that notwithstanding the desire, even the expectation, of success, all leaders fail on occasion. Indeed, missions are often not accomplished. Consider Moses, the quintessential Jewish leader, who, despite myriad accomplishments, did not fulfill his life's dream of leading the people into the Land of Israel. Who among us, however, would write off his exemplary career or dismiss his transformative leadership on that basis?  The willingness to risk failure is a necessary precondition for great leadership.

Just a normal regular person?

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At the height of the absurdist antics surrounding Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's descent into infamy, a reporter inquired as to whether he considered his behavior appropriate for the mayor of a major North American city. Tellingly Ford responded, "I don't look at myself as the mayor. I look at myself as a normal, regular person." Reasonable people can certainly disagree as to whether Ford's activities meet the standard of a "normal regular" person, but something much more significant lies beneath this attempted defense of the mayor's actions.

To Ford being the leader of his city imposed upon him no particular obligations or behavioral standards. The idea, resonant in Jewish sources, that a leader is a dugma, a role model, was apparently anathema to him.  One can certainly understand why. Even relative paragons of ethical virtue often resent the unwelcome scrutiny that accompanies leadership. Being a leader already involves a great deal of stress and responsibility. Superimposing an expectation of moral virtue seems unfair and onerous.

Yet without apology, in Judaism, leadership brings with it an expectation of heightened scrutiny and the expectation of an exemplary ethical standard. However unfairly, communal leaders must understand that their actions are placed under a microscope, precisely because they are leaders. The story is told of Aryeh Leib Sarahs (1730-1791), a hasid (disciple) of the great master, the Maggid of Mezhirech. Said Aryeh Leib famously, "I did not go to the maggid to learn Torah from him, but to watch him tie his boot laces." In other words, justly or not, followers analyze even the most mundane and seemingly innocuous acts of a leader in order to extrapolate every possible nuance and lesson.

Burdensome as it surely is, to be a leader is to stand naked and vulnerable before one's followers, a lesson the Toronto mayor never seemed to learn. The fact that leaders are held to a higher ethical standard than Rob Ford's "normal regular" persons may seem unreasonable, but savvy leaders never forget they are always being observed. "Your employees are talking about you at the dinner table, listening to what you say, measuring how closely your words square with your deeds," cautioned Craig Wasserman and Doug Katz in their 2011 book, The Invisible Spotlight.  

When you are a leader others pay careful attention to even your smallest actions. This lesson was driven home to Anne Mulcahy when she became CEO of Xerox. Reflecting on her experiences in a 2010 interview with the Harvard Business Review, Mulcahy noted, "Everybody is looking at you. You can destroy someone by showing your emotions, particularly negative ones … If you come into the office looking like you're having a very bad day, everyone reacts to your mood. As chief executive, you have to consciously set the right tone … CEOs have to manage those unintended displays, because of how much impact they have on other people."

Mulcahy understood what so many great leaders have come to know.  Notwithstanding Mayor Ford's assertion to the contrary, leaders can never be "normal regular" people. By virtue of being leaders they carry additional responsibilities in all that they do. This message is powerfully illuminated in Moses Maimonides' commentary on one of the Torah's most controversial episodes. The Book of Numbers (27:12-18) describes God's harsh decision to deny Moses entry into the Land of Israel. The text explains that this stems from an earlier episode in which Moses lost his temper in frustration and failed to follow divine instructions to the letter. It is difficult to read this account without feeling that Moses was punished unjustly. However mistaken his actions might have been, the severity of his fate seems excessive.

Yet, in his explication of the incident, Maimonides argues that, "God was strict with him … because they [the people] all modeled their actions upon his and studied his every word … Everything Moses said and did was scrutinized by them" (Shemoneh Perakim). Whether one finds Maimonides' explanation satisfying or not, he understood something essential about effective leadership: no leader can expect to be just a regular person. This is true whether one is the mayor of a major city or the president of a synagogue, a communal professional or a corporate executive. If the expectation of excellence and the attendant scrutiny that accompanies leadership is unwelcome, one should give serious consideration to another endeavor. 

Too powerful to feel your pain?

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Recent evidence from the field of neuroscience sheds new light on the Torah's teachings about power and empathy. A story featured on National Public Radio entitled, "When Power Goes To Your Head, It May Shut Out Your Heart," describes research conducted by experts at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada on the ability of people to be empathic. Though the science is far more complicated than I am able to comprehend fully or evaluate critically, there appears to be evidence to suggest that empathy, that is the ability to put oneself in the place of another, is inversely related to the holding of power. To quote directly from the report, "Power fundamentally changes how the brain operates … feeling powerless boosted" people's ability to empathize. And conversely "when people felt power, they … have more trouble getting inside another person's head … power diminishes all varieties of empathy." (

The connection between powerlessness and empathy represents an underlying premise for much of the Torah's ethical worldview. On four separate occasions, the Torah commands kindness to the stranger and each time the rationale for doing so is linked to the Israelite enslavement in Egypt. Consider but two examples:

  • You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt (Ex. 23:9).
  • You must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deut. 10:19).

It is significant that these injunctions appear in the narrative after the Israelites are freed from slavery; at precisely the time they might begin to exercise power of their own. According to the Torah's calculus, powerlessness sensitizes us to the plights of others; it heightens our ability to feel compassion. The lack of power (i.e. slavery) is a humbling experience. And with humility comes a greater willingness to feel for those who also lack power (in this case, the stranger).

But as the scientific research has now established, the acquisition of power changes us. Powerful people have a difficult time relating to the needs and experiences of others. Sometimes the disconnection is based on economic factors. As power is frequently linked to affluence, individuals with money are often unable to put themselves in the position of those who struggle to make ends meet. This matter, however, is not limited to economics. Supervisors cannot relate to their direct reports. The famous and accomplished forget the challenges faced by ones just starting out. Individuals accustomed to getting their way find it difficult to understand the needs of others who strive to be taken seriously. The point is not that powerful people are evil, or that they lack a moral compass. But the acquisition and retention of power diminishes our ability to be empathic.

At its worst this means that people with power, as I suggested in a prior posting, are predisposed to abuse the perks that accompany their position. We who lead, therefore, are duty bound to reflect seriously upon ways in which we may be more susceptible to abusing our office than if we held a different post.

Reflection, however, while necessary, is hardly sufficient. The task at hand is to create systemic protections designed to assure that such abuses are mitigated. If empathy is a natural casualty of power, then those in power must be taught to compensate for their own proclivities. According to a social psychologist at UC Berkeley, Dacher Keltner, who studied the findings from Wilfrid Laurier, this can, in fact, be done. An emerging field of research, he says, suggests that, "powerful people who begin to forget their subordinates can be coached back to their compassionate selves."

The Torah's approach to this issue is instructive. The book of Deuteronomy imposes a series of restrictions on the king, including the number of wives he may have and the amount of gold and silver he is eligible to amass. This section of the Torah concludes with the following, "When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this teaching (Torah) written for him … Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life … Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows… (Deut. 17:18-20)." The text recognizes that at the apogee of power the king is least likely to be empathic. For this reason, it requires him to self-correct and to engage in behavior ("read in it daily") designed specifically to facilitate an increased sense of compassion and understanding.  

The importance of this new neuroscience research is that it affirms what ethicists have long believed to be true. Now that this link between power and low levels of empathy has been documented, each of us who holds power, whether in the office, in our communal organizations, or elsewhere must work hard to pursue appropriate counterbalances.

Understanding the perks of power

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Despite the ebbs and flows of the news cycle, Americans can be reasonably certain that scandals involving the inappropriate behavior of high-profile individuals are here to stay. The reality is that despite their often sexually charged salacious nature, these episodes have less to do with lasciviousness and more do to with abuse of power. Prurient as they appear on the surface, starring as they do an assortment of politicos, corporate executives, sports heroes, and religious officiants, they should not be dismissed as the work of sexually deviant outliers, but need to be understood instead as the result of unchecked leadership, something much closer to home for many of us. Indeed, I would suggest that lubricity aside, defining them solely as shameful sex scandals, misses the point.

Jewish sources have long understood a basic truth; positions of leadership bring with them an increased risk of abusing power. This does not mean that those who aspire to leadership are evil by nature, or that every leader is necessarily an Anthony Weiner, Lynndie England, or Brett Favre, in waiting. But the holding of power - whether as a department head or governor, a soldier or performance icon, a classroom teacher or a clergyperson - increases the likelihood of abusing that power. And clearly, as Lord Acton famously pointed out, the more power, the greater the chances for abuse.

According to the Bible, when the Israelites asked Samuel about establishing a Jewish monarchy, he pulled no punches in detailing the consequences: "This will be the practice of the king … He will take your sons … for his chariots. He will take your daughters as perfumers, cooks, and bakers. He will seize your choice fields, vineyards, and olive groves … He will take a tenth part of your grain and vintage … He will take your male and female slaves … He will take a tenth part of your flocks, and you shall become his slaves …" (I Samuel 8). In a nutshell, leadership brings with it the increased likelihood of mistreating others.

Perhaps the classic case in point is the tale of David and Bathsheba, history's most arrant example of abuse of power. (If it's been a while, spend a few minutes rereading the story - II Samuel 11:1-12:7.) As an individual David was a man of considerable accomplishment. He was bold and courageous, and a deeply sensitive human being as well; a poet, who purportedly authored 150 psalms. But, as a leader, David thought nothing of taking advantage of his power. He misused his privileged position to pursue personal ends, convinced that he could manipulate circumstances and control resources and outcomes in order to get away with the most deplorable behavior. Like many leaders, David believed that society's rules simply did not apply to him.

David, however, was neither amoral nor antisocial. His actions, while despicable, must be understood as a function of his leadership, not of psychopathy or sexual deviance. Indeed, when the prophet Nathan confronted him with a parable about a rich man's unjust treatment of an impoverished neighbor, David was appropriately appalled. He lacked neither a moral compass nor a conscience. As a leader, however, he was unable to get out of his own way; his proclivity for abuse stemmed from the very power he wielded.

Many will recall a more contemporary example of this link between leadership and abuse of power drawn from the case of President Bill Clinton. In his 2004 interview with Dan Rather on 60 Minutes, Clinton was asked how he might explain his behavior during the infamous Lewinsky scandal. The former President responded with the now infamous words, "… just because I could." Like scores of powerful leaders before and since, Clinton was not unaware of his transgression, nor did he aver that his behavior was somehow ethically acceptable. Indeed, he characterized his actions as "morally indefensible." Mr. Clinton's problem was not about sexuality, but about the abuse of power that accompanies leadership.

Exploitations that manifest in inappropriate sexual activity often grab headlines and titillate the curious. But they are far from the only examples of leadership dysfunction. Anyone who has ever signed a paycheck, written a reference, approved a vacation, diagnosed a patient or counseled a parishioner runs the risk of abusing power. Representatives of the military and the police, professors, youth leaders, parents, even celebrities, anyone who holds power or who is perceived as holding power has an increased likelihood of misusing the very leadership that defines them. As Jeffrey Pfeffer, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford University wrote in the Harvard Business Review (July-August 2010), "Whenever you have control over resources important to others - things like money and information…" you have power. And with power comes the increased likelihood of abuse.

To contravene such proclivities classical Jewish teachings call for systemic controls designed to counterbalance the risks of abuse inherent in leadership. The Torah's restraints on the monarch, for example, stand out as an unapologetic attempt to circumscribe the power often associated with executive privilege. "He shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses … And he shall not have many wives … nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess. When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching (torah) … Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life … Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows …" (Deut. 17:16-20).

The Torah's pragmatism in this regard is significant. Rather than impose an unrealistic standard on leadership, an idyllic paradigm of perfection, the text begins with an assumption that the risk of abuse is endemic to the holding of power. The goal then is to contain its nefarious impact not to alter human nature.

The Deuteronomic limitations on leaders assume an enhanced resonance in light of an unprecedented study conducted by former University of Kentucky psychiatry professor Arnold Ludwig. Over a period of eighteen years Ludwig studied more than 1900 twentieth-century political leaders. He uncovered a number of striking links between human rulers and alpha male primates. Common to both is what he calls the "Perks of Power," tangible benefits that accrue to the ruler (simian and human), simply by virtue of being the leader. These include: increased sexual access (which in humans results in more extramarital affairs and polygamous relationships), more offspring, greater access to resources, and increased deference and respect from followers (Arnold Ludwig, King of the Mountain: The Nature of Political Leadership). Ludwig's analysis is focused on political leaders but the evidence clearly suggests that similar conditions obtain in the corporate arena, the military, as well as sports and entertainment, among several other sectors.

When the Torah's strictures are refracted through the lens of Ludwig's research, the conclusions are striking. Leadership has its privileges and those privileges often include wealth and access. Left unchecked they lead to exploitation, abuse, and misconduct. Precisely because leadership is a condition precedent to abuse, protective measures are required. In proscribing sexual and economic excesses (the very same areas that Ludwig found to be most prone to abuse by leaders), and by insisting that the leader avoid haughtiness, specifically the flaunting of privilege over those (s)he is expected to serve, the Torah both acknowledges that abuse is inherent in the leadership process and affirms that such abuse can be palliated, that is, relieved without ever being fully cured.

Yet, as the case of King David makes clear, even divinely mandated restrictions on leadership often prove ineffective at curbing the abuse that comes with human power.  For this reason, Jewish communities have historically organized in ways designed to forestall such excesses. Referred to in the Talmud and subsequent Jewish sources as the system of ketarim (crowns), power is divided across a tripartite framework of religious, educational and political leaders. By circumscribing authority and insisting that no single leadership type (keter) can amass too much power, the "ketaric" system seeks to attenuate abuses associated with leadership and its perquisites.

It would be naïve to suppose that either legislation or systemic stricture can eliminate the risk of abuse. And, as recent high profile examples have made painfully clear, Judaism's insights into these matters have not prevented Jews from being among the most egregious offenders. But there is much to be learned from classical Jewish teachings on leadership ethics that might contribute, however modestly, to the tikkun (repair) so desperately needed. The most effective place to begin is so obvious it is often overlooked - the training organizational leaders receive throughout their careers.

The highly regarded statistician, Nate Silver is fond of pointing out that when it comes to prognostication, the very awareness of a particular proclivity is an important first step in overcoming associated biases. The same might be said of leaders, from politicos to clergy, from CEOs to first responders. To avoid the untoward excesses frequently found among leaders one must first be sensitized to the fact that exercising power brings with it an increased likelihood of abuse. This is not just true for some, it is true for all. Abuse is not the province of a deviant few. It is a risk that must be recognized by everyone who holds power. No long-term solution is possible absent such an acknowledgment ab initio.

The training and development of leaders is a multi-billion dollar industry today. It includes everything from graduate degree programs to industrially-based leadership institutes, from executive MBA's to highly exclusive, by invitation only think tanks. Organizations, public and private, large and small, provide training for their leaders. Google estimates more than 397,000 separate entries under the heading of "leadership training" alone. It will hardly be surprising to know that only a fraction of these give serious treatment to leadership ethics in general, and to the issues associated with the use and abuse of power in particular. Sadly this is true not only in the corporate and for-profit arenas, but in the social sector, including the Jewish community, as well. Rarely, if ever do programs purporting to be about leadership training ever discuss the risks of power abuse in leadership. Rarer still are programs of Jewish leadership that help those who hold power to recognize that even when they are unaware of doing so they may be taking advantage of their positions.  

Rabbi Tarfon in the mishna of Avot (2:16) cautions that while ours is not to finish the job, we are not free to desist from trying either. While the abuse of power is bigger than any single member of the Jewish community, many of us are in positions to insist that leadership-training programs deal with this issue head on. Doing so would be an important first step.

(Portions of this posting were published previously in eJewishPhilanthropy.)


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