The Leading Edge

Hal Lewis

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

The Leading Edge

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." (npr.org)

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.)

Learning leadership at Wimbledon

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Within moments of his 2013 Wimbledon victory, making him the first British man to win that fabled competition in 77 years, Andy Murray gave a media interview that seemed almost as grueling as the match itself. When asked what had changed in the time since his heart-wrenching and emotional defeat on that same court the year before, Murray responded without hesitation. Out of breath and clearly exhausted, the new champion answered by saying that over the past twelve months he had: a) learned from his mistakes, b) worked extremely hard, and c) surrounded himself by a top-notch team.

I suspect that the very last thing on Andy Murray’s mind that July day was teaching the world about effective leadership, but that is exactly what he did. His tripartite prescription: learn from your mistakes, work hard, and surround yourself with a first-rate team is, in fact, a formula for all who strive to be successful leaders.

Learn From Your Mistakes

The best leaders are thoughtful leaders; they understand the benefit of quiet reflection as part of their work. The essential Jewish teaching of teshuva (repentance) suggests that each of us has the capacity for heshbon hanefesh (self-evaluation) and can learn from our errors. Judaism has never insisted that we are imprisoned by our past actions. Rather, our sources suggest that if we acknowledge our mistakes, we can move beyond them. Individuals who are too quick to overlook their failures, insisting that they are anomalous and have nothing of value to teach, or those who seek to blame others for their shortcomings, are incapable of effective leadership. Absent a willingness to deal head on with yesterday’s mistakes, to learn from them, and to improve, one cannot expect a different tomorrow.

Work Hard

The Talmud (Megillah 6b) says it best: “If a man says to you, I have labored and not found, do not believe him. If he says I have not labored but still have found, do not believe him. Only if he says, I have labored and I have found may you believe him.” What Andy Murray knew, and what effective leaders understand, is that there is no substitute for hard work. The privilege that often comes with power can be alluring. But no leader can succeed by sitting back and coasting or by phoning it in. No one is that good to be able to get by on natural talent or past performance alone. Leadership is difficult and painstaking. Defeat and setback come with the territory. No experienced leader hopes for instant results. Patience, tenacity and steadfastness are the necessary ingredients. Success will come but there are no magic bullets or quick fixes.

Surround Yourself with A Great Team

As Ram Charan and Larry Bossidy make clear in their work Execution, great leaders get things done through other people. The very idea of a stand-alone leader, without followers, is an absurdity. In the twenty first century, no single individual, however talented or brilliant, can know enough or do enough to succeed solo. Murray, on what was arguably ‘his’ day, was quick to acknowledge what the best leaders have always known: his success was not his alone. In the wonderful book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that even the most accomplished individuals are the products of elaborate nexuses:

“… In order to understand the outlier I think you have to look around them—at their culture and community and family and generation. We've been looking at tall trees, and I think we should have been looking at the forest.”

In a Midrash (Tanhuma, Beshalach), God reminds the greatest Jewish leader, Moses, of the same thing. His success as a leader, God tells Moses, can only be explained in the context of his team – the Israelites who left Egypt. ”… In their merit I have elevated you, and because of them you will find … honor before Me.”  

It is unlikely that any of us will play tennis like Andy Murray. But we who aspire to lead have much to learn from that 26-year-old Scotsman who in the aftermath of the biggest victory of his life offered a simple yet eloquent paean to the value of learning from our mistakes, working hard, and surrounding ourselves by a great team.  

Leading diverse teams: worth the struggle

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During a recent Chicago visit that included breakfast with students and alumni at Spertus Institute, newly elected University of Haifa President, Amos Shapira, was asked to reflect on a leadership lesson he learned in business that is pertinent for his new post in academe. Shapira, who formerly served as the Managing Director of El Al Airlines and of Cellcom Israel, Ltd., wasted no time in focusing on the value of building multicultural teams, which, he says, almost always outperform traditional ones. Among other things, this conviction has led Shapira and the university to emphasize coexistence between various sectors and strata of Israeli society.

Shapira is not alone in this assertion. Lori Brewer Collins of Artemis Leadership Group notes that multicultural teams trump their more conventional analogues "in the areas of innovating, understanding diverse markets, meeting customer needs, and aligning multiple organizational interests."

The idea that teams are more effective when they are diverse has enormous resonance even for those who work in organizations lacking the conventional trappings of "multiculturalism." Diversity exists in every enterprise and thoughtful leaders will seek to create teams that reflect those differences. Thus, one need not work in a global corporation with colleagues from around the world to reap the benefits of "multicultural" teams. What is needed above all else is a commitment to maximize the diversity that does exist within your organization. Gender balance, generational representation, and an array of skillsets, backgrounds, and perspectives will, if managed properly, enhance the likelihood of better decision-making and a richer, more creative work environment for all. 

For much of our history, Jewish communities have embraced this message. The mishnah of Avot, for example, speaks of three crowns (ketarim in Hebrew) - a metaphor for a tripartite approach to communal leadership, in which power is shared among a diverse group of individuals and interests. The three crowns: Torah, Priesthood, and Sovereignty (often understood as metaphors for educational, religious, and political leadership paradigms) reflect differing perspectives that function best when they function in concert. In the aggregate such diversity enriches the depth and creativity of Jewish life. In healthy Jewish communities, from the biblical period to our own day, individuals from each "crown" come together to create a multi-faceted and richly textured Jewish experience.

As those who lead diverse teams will attest, however, the system of ketarim is not without its own challenges. By definition diversity is often difficult to manage. As Brewer Collins notes, such teams "can become expensive, unproductive hotbeds of frustration, low morale, and finger-pointing." The very things that make diverse teams advantageous also make them high-risk. To be sure, divergent perspectives, differing sensibilities, and varying worldviews often result in the high levels of creativity and resourcefulness required to solve complex problems. But disparate points of view can also mean impassioned argumentation, protracted negotiations, and difficult conversations.  

Those who lead diverse teams effectively do not minimize the significance of members' differing perspectives. Nor would they deny that conflict is inevitable. To maximize the potential for creative solutions and innovative problem solving those differences must be celebrated and then harnessed. Successful leaders do not try to avoid friction rather they seek to manage it. With diversity come varied points of view, multiple approaches and even conflicting agendas. The job of the leader is to explore and exploit those differences while striving to find the best solution under the circumstances.

Too often we impose a binary approach to decision making - we force ourselves to choose between one of two options. We prefer quick decisions with a minimum of debate to a thoughtful exploration of multiple options. The effective leader avoids oversimplification and knows that making decisions too quickly is every bit as problematic as indecisiveness. Challenge yourself to reject facile choices and an "either-or" approach to difficult decision-making. Use the diversity that exists within your team to multiply options before making tough choices.

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